Lunar New Year Celebrations ‘Struggle with Identity’ as Neighborhoods Change

Lunar New Year celebrations in Seattle's Chinatown-International District attempt to drive business to the neighborhood's shops and restaurants. Imana Gunawan / NBC News

For many, the Lunar New Year is a time for family gatherings, food, and cultural traditions. Outside the home, the holiday, which this year falls on Jan. 28, is a time for parades, lion dances, and firecrackers.

But in Seattle, events in the city's Chinatown-International District (CID) have undergone somewhat of a “struggle with identity” in recent years, according to Monisha Singh, events coordinator for the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), an organization that maintains and promotes the neighborhood.

As part of its programming, the CIDBIA plans events such as the neighborhood’s upcoming Lunar New Year celebration and annual night markets to bring the community together and drive traffic to CID businesses. It also aims to help local businesses improve their operations.

“We’re struggling with identity and how these events come in play, and I think in the past, the CIDBIA have kind of taken our events and propping it up like … it’s big and kind of outlandish,” Singh told NBC News. “So we had to step back and scale that back and think of what these events mean, who we’re doing this for.”

The struggles with identity have taken place as the Seattle's population shifts and real estate development in the city booms due to high demand from transplants.

Business and real estate developments in Seattle are growing so quickly that rents grew 45 percent more than incomes between 2000 and 2014, leading to displacement of lower-income populations as higher-income households move in, according to a report released last May by the National Coalition of Asian Pacific American Community Development.

A growth and equity analysis in the latest Seattle Comprehensive Plan update identifies the CID as an area of extremely high risk for displacement of current residents as well as an area of extremely high opportunity.

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In January 2016, a building housing Bush Garden, the one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in Washington, was bought by real estate developer Solterra. The Publix Hotel, which was historically single-room occupancy housing for low-income workers, re-opened in August as a mixed-use complex with 80 percent market-rate apartments.

Plans are also being made in nearby Little Saigon for a redevelopment that includes a hotel and market-rate apartments. Although current nonprofit tenants and residents are involved and the project will include a daycare and affordable housing, concerns remain about whether existing tenants will be able to afford the new space.

The Publix Hotel, historically single room occupancy housing for low-income workers, was re-opened in August as a mixed-use complex with 80 percent market rate apartments. It is one of the recent redevelopment projects in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. Imana Gunawan / NBC News

Several marginalized communities in Seattle have already been priced out of their longtime neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill — a historically LGBTQ neighborhood — and the historically black Central District neighborhood.

“There’s certainly a fear … how is this neighborhood going to change?” Singh said. “The issue of gentrification, we’ve seen it through Capitol Hill and through Central District and so it’s kind of like, ‘Are we next?’”

Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) and a board member of the CIDBIA, has been working in the neighborhood for more than 10 years. She told NBC News that the neighborhood's Lunar New Year celebrations have seen a slight “drift away” from its cultural roots in recent years.

“Instead, it’s like ‘Let’s make it a marketing thing’ for the district, and [amid] concerns about gentrification and displacement, I think there’s a little bit of ‘How do you make this more authentic, what should it feel like?’” she said.

Efforts have been made to keep celebrations that attract those from outside the neighbor in the character of the CID. Singh said, given that the businesses in the neighborhood are predominantly restaurants, the CIDBIA has been making an effort to drive traffic into the local culinary businesses as opposed to inviting food trucks or outside vendors.

“Oftentimes we’ve felt that people came to our events and the didn’t quite know where they were, like ‘Oh, we’re in Chinatown, but I don’t really know what’s around me, I couldn’t name a business if I had to,’” she said. “Businesses in this neighborhood take their business very personally … it’s part of their identity.”

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Organizations, including the SCIDpda and CIDBIA, work so that the history, longtime residents, and cultural roots are still present in the neighborhood, even as new residents and developments come the neighborhood.

“I feel that [outside developers] coming into the neighborhood, I don’t think they realize that this is about it for where we could live for a long time, the buildings are funky because we couldn’t live anywhere else,” Winkler-Chin said. “There’s a whole history and legacy about why we’re here in this place right here right now.”

A shopper exits the Dong Sing Market, a small Chinese market in the heart of Seattle's Chinatown-International District. The neighborhood is home to primarily lower-income and senior immigrants of Asian descent. Imana Gunawan / NBC News

Singh said community members hope that the developments planned in the area can benefit existing residents. Market-rate apartments, for example, can bring more people who have spending power to buy from local businesses, but it’s always a balancing act between preservation and progress.

As far as Lunar New Year’s celebrations go, she said the CIDBIA has found that the authentic cultural experience is key to attracting more people and promote local businesses. Whether that idea can be applied to neighborhood development is yet to be seen.

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“Keeping true to what we do and the things we present at this event actually does bring more people in, for example, having lion and dragon dancers — for this neighborhood, it’s very typical but that’s a huge draw for people to come,” she said. “It’s actually focusing on the cultural pieces which will bring people who appreciate this neighborhood and its culture.”

Winkler-Chin said she just hopes that in five to 10 years she will still see similar characters in the neighborhood.

“Some things never change, the older ladies in the park gambling … grandmas with their children, that stuff has never changed,” she said. “But I would like to see more, because I think we deserve more.”

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