Chinatown’s hidden gem: the Wing Luke Museum

20 Nov
Letters from Asian immigrants carrying home messages of hope

The experience: A delight for all 5 senses

Immediately upon stepping inside the Wing Luke Museum, I was engulfed in nostalgic memories and community history. Straight up the stairs from the main entrance, my curiosity was piqued by what I later learned was the Letter Cloud – original letters from Asian immigrants with messages of hope fluttering just below the skylight with faint sounds of the ocean in the background, reminiscent of the journey across the water. Even further upstairs, I went into the original hotel where immigrants first found family, friends or familiar last names. The Mahjong tables with unfinished games, the kitchen with a sizzling wok, the sleeping quarters with sheets turned back and shoes on the floor – everything about this place made me feel like I was experiencing part of the immigrant journey.  Wall art alone won’t typically evoke these feelings. But the combination of art you can touch, sounds you can hear and stories you can feel makes the Wing Luke one of Seattle’s most powerful museum experiences.

Mahjong table in the historic hotel

 The history: Before there was Costco, there was Yick Fung Co.

Imagine you’ve just arrived on a boat from China. You have relatives somewhere in this region, but after immigration the next stop was often the Yick Fung store. An import-export store at the ground level, the store also had short stay beds for rent on higher levels. Immigrants, residents and restaurateurs would come to the Yick Fung to buy hard-to-find Asian items and chat with Uncle Jimmy. While the family run Chinatown institution closed it’s doors in 2008, it was another captivating element of the Wing Luke Museum. The smells, the toys, the beds, the running video of Uncle Jimmy – I walked into the store and felt like I had travelled back into Seattle history.

The Yick Fung store was often the first stop after immigration

The art: A community-based museum, it really does take a village

Boasting at least six special exhibits right now and other non-rotating exhibits, the Wing Luke is the only other community-based museum in the region outside of the Northwest African American Museum. There is no curator. Stories are collected from the community. Art is gathered by family and friends. The community comes together and they decide what stories they want to tell. A glimmer of the tremendous communal support, both from families and businesses, is reflected in every exhibit. I had a special appreciation for the exhibit highlighted the refugee journey during the Japanese internment. This exhibit brings the intense journey to life through photographs, art, family heirlooms, and my personal favorite: a handbag, a vintage bag belonging to a mother leaving her home in Seattle with her child in one arm and handbag underneath. If handbags don’t ignite the same excitement for you like it does for me, also imbedded in the exhibit is a looping video of Japanese-Americans discussing what internment was like for their family.

Mother and child forced to move during the Japanese internment

This is only a snapshot of what you’ll find at the Wing Luke. It is more than a museum, it’s a collection of life stories and community experiences. No wonder it was just voted #1 Best Museum of Western Washington. The website boasts that this unique museum experience is dedicated to sharing the sharing the “stories of survival, success, struggle, conflict, compassion and hope,” and it has done exactly that.

PS – if you’re wondering about the 5th sense, taste, be sure to stop by the gift shop with great teas and other Chinatown books, treats and trinkets.

Rating: Cool
Reminds me of: Mahjong of The Joy Luck Club & Traditional Chinese dance
Great for: Trying something new, rollin solo, dose of culture

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