Jamie Ford on Chinatowns as "The Home of Their Heart"

Read about how Jamie Ford's stories embody the spirit and cultural connections in Seattle's Chinatown-International District.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working to support the preservation of America's Chinatowns. Sign our petition today to commit to the cultural preservation of America’s Chinatowns for future generations.

Jamie Ford is an author of four published novels, most of which have some connection to Seattle Chinatown-International District. Listen as Ford describes his love for this community, the challenges it is facing, and how his books remind us of how important Chinatowns are to building connections, preserving history, and for the continuation of culture.

Jamie Ford Headshot (2024) by Simon and SchusterNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Jamie Ford: Introductory Clip
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Introducing Jamie Ford

"I'm an author and I'm a writer, published four novels and a bunch of short stories, and most of my books have some connection to Seattle, and specifically Seattle's international districts, Seattle's historical Chinatown."

"I found that writers sometimes write about what they lament, so they move away, and then you sort of write about a place that they miss, and my first book really is kind of a love letter to this neighborhood that was so important to me growing up, important to my family, and I don't want to see it turn into a giant Starbucks here."

Jamie Ford Book Covers (2009/2024) by Penguin Random House and Simon and SchusterNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Jamie Ford: On Writing
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Becoming A Writer

"My dad wanted me to be a fine artist. My mom wanted me to be a writer. I really feel often as a writer, you have to have your heart broken a few times before you have something to write about."

"And it wasn't until my dad passed away that suddenly I had this well of emotion to draw from. I didn't intend to write a book of historical fiction. I just intended to write a book processing my own grief with the loss of my dad and the loss of my cultural identity, if you will, with his passing. I really wrote my first book for myself. I didn't know if anyone would want it, would like it, and that book was a huge sleeper hit. It made me realize there were communities that they haven't had their stories made widely available to the greater audience."

Panama Hotel by National Trust for Historic PreservationNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Jamie Ford: Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

"My first novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, it's set in Seattle's International District, and I had always looked at this neighborhood through my own personal lens as a Chinese American."

"And I would see restaurants, there's a Cambodian restaurant, there's a Vietnamese restaurant, there's a sushi restaurant, but I never fully understood that there was a vibrant community behind each of these places. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, it's really the story of the Japanese internment, but it's seen through the eyes of a little Chinese boy in a city where everyone thinks they all look alike anyway.

And so it dives into the subtle differences of these communities, and it's a love story bridging those communities. A nonfiction history book tells you what happened, but historical fiction can tell you how it felt, and when people feel things when they connect emotionally, it's an empathy enlarging experience.   

As a writer, I try to think of myself as someone in the compassion creation business. So I'm trying to educate and entertain, but I also want to exercise people's empathy muscles."

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Cover, Kathleen DiGrado, Debra Lill, Ballentine Books, Jamie Ford, 2009, From the collection of: National Trust for Historic Preservation
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“Henry woke to the sound of a police cruiser, its siren wailing in the distance. He’d dozed off a bit, day dreaming, on the long bus ride from Lake View cemetery all the way back down to the International District—the I.D., as Marty called it.…To him the area northeast of the Kingdome was simply Chinatown. That’s what he’d called it growing up, and he wasn’t likely to change now—despite the influx of Vietnamese Karaoke clubs, Korean video stores, and the occasional sushi bar…” Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Excerpt: Page 61.

Songs of Willow Frost Historical Map (2013) by Map Copyright © David Lindroth Inc.National Trust for Historic Preservation

Jamie Ford: Songs of Willow Frost
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Songs of Willow Frost

"But the [book] that is the most Chinese of all my books is my second book Songs of Willow Frost, and it is predominantly set in very specific neighborhoods within Seattle's International District."

"And you can go there today, and you can walk down this alley or that alley, and you're like, okay, that's where that was said, that's where this happened. All my books I write for myself first, and I don't mean that to sound so indulgent, but if it's not the kind of book I want to read, it's not a book I would want to write. And it's a book that I can actually celebrate that neighborhood, even though it's a bit of a dark book for sure. But that's the reality of people who lived in those neighborhoods at that time."

Songs of Willow Frost Cover, 2014-03, From the collection of: National Trust for Historic Preservation
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"After work Liu Song walked home to save money, and besides, the weather was nice. She strolled by bakeries, inhaling their sweet aromas, and walked past the frying, clinking sounds of greasy spoon diners. She trudged up the broken sidewalks of King Street, passing noodle factories, sausage carts, and the well-stocked window displays of the Yick Fung Mercantile, filled with simple pleasures she could never afford. When she reached Canton Alley, she looked up and down the street, mindful of peeping neighbors and passersby, then slipped into her apartment."   Songs of Willow Frost Excerpt,  Page 152.

View of 705 King Street, which is where the Yick Fung Company operated from 1910-2008. Next door on the right is the Wing Luke Museum, one of the anchors of the Seattle Chinatown-International District. 

Jamie Ford: Family History
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Family history

"My dad grew up in Seattle. My grandparents lived and passed away in Seattle. Most of my Chinese family is in Seattle, some's in San Francisco, some's in Nevada, but primarily in Seattle."

"The Chong Wah Cultural Center in the International District, that's where my dad went to Chinese school after public school. So, on a personal level, this is the community that I'm most familiar with, most comfortable with.   There are these places where my grandparents had their 50th wedding anniversary banquet, or my grandmother had her 80th birthday celebration, and so I just have these iconic moments in my childhood where I really realized like, oh, I'm Chinese American. 

My life is vastly different than my Caucasian friends. We're doing these different things, and I don't know, I just, to see all of that turned into a parking lot or high-rise condos, it's just heartbreaking for me."

Jamie Ford: Seattle and Gentrification
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Gentrification in Seattle

"Seattle is a city dealing with its inner demons of gentrification, and there are real estate developers that look at these communities of color and communities of history, and they see dollar signs."

"They don't see legacies of people's families and these anchor communities where people, whether they've been in this country two weeks or five generations, it gives them this home of their heart in a way, they can feel connected to who they are and where they come from, even though they're in part of the greater tapestry of the United States."

Jamie Ford: Wah Mee Club Background
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Wah Mee Club murders and its aftermath

"In 1983, at the Wah Mee Club, a backroom gambling parlor, 13 people were murdered, and when that happened, they murdered Chinatown. In the news, that neighborhood was just seen as this den of iniquity, and it crushed them economically."

"And Seattle just bloomed and flourished as this very rich, affluent, vibrant tech community, and the neighborhood was almost left in a time warp.

And it really bothered me because if Laurelhurst is a very wealthy neighborhood, if there was a murder there, if 20 people were killed there, people wouldn't say, Laurelhurst is a dangerous place to go, but because it's a community of color, it is weighted with that baggage, and I've always felt like by writing about this neighborhood, I can remind people that this is where people's lives are lived, and all these people that you see have really interesting and rich stories. And so, it was my way of honoring the neighborhood, if you will."

Jamie Ford: Grandparents by Courtesy Jamie FordNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Jamie Ford: A Resurgence
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A resurgence

"And now I think there's been a resurgence, there are some anchors in the community. But it was really satisfying for so many different reasons to see that my first book, tours were created, classes of students would come to the neighborhood and tour these locations."

"And it was nice to see the city come back eventually to that neighborhood and to see it to have its own piece of greater prosperity. And also places like the Wah Mee Club, which people, I mean, people are, there's bad memories because people have friends and relatives who are directly affected by that, but also there's just cultural ideas of it just being a place of bad luck.

Yes, this is a place where this horrible thing happened, but it was also a center of the community. There were generations of how this club was used going back to prohibition, and my grandparents, my Yin Yin, and Yay Yay met at that club in 1929. And so, I don't think anyone should be judged solely on the best and worst moment of their lives, and I don't think any location should be judged solely on that worst moment.

Jamie Ford: Grandmother's Photo by Courtesy Jamie FordNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Jamie Ford: Memories of Seattle's International District
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Memories

"The benchmark memories for me are the big family gathering. It's by grandparents, golden anniversary, their golden birthdays, even the lunches after their memorials where we would go, those places, they loom large for me."

And now that they're gone, that's where I feel most connected to them, to their spirit, to their memory. I have photos of my grandmother and grandfather on the street posing back when. Now we have camera phones. We take, a million photos, but it was a big deal, and it had these portraits outside on the street in the '30s, and those buildings are still there. And I love being able to stand in that exact same spot where my grandfather was.

Jamie Ford: Grandfather by Courtesy Jamie FordNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Jamie Ford: Why Preserve America's Chinatowns?
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Preserving America's Chinatowns

"I think it's important to preserve America’s Chinatowns to remember that there are immigrants who have come to this country who have transformed this country, and these communities were where they lived and where they went to school, and where they created lives..."

"...and where they died, and where we still honor them. And I think these neighborhoods, it's like, I can't imagine a historical neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where we would just think, "Oh, we know enough about that.  Let's just flatten that and build a shopping mall.

But we do that often to these communities. We've always seen them as the lesser, when really so much of the functionality of this country was built by these people, and to wipe out these neighborhoods is really to wipe out their legacy and to take the people who are descendant of these neighborhoods and say, your history is not as important as our history. If we get rid of these places one generation later, no one's going to remember, and I don't want that to happen."

For more about Jamie Ford and his books at www.jamieford.com. Follow him on Instagram @jamieford.

PastForward Online 2021 Keynote: Jamie Ford in Conversation with Cassie Chinn, Storytelling: Preservation at its Best.

Learn more about the National Trust for Historic Preservation's America's Chinatowns initiative.

5 Chinatowns and the Communities Working to Preserve Them (Google Arts & Culture)

In 2023 the Seattle Chinatown-International District was listed on the National Trust's annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places

About the author: Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Credits: Story

Excerpts from The Songs of Willow Frost and Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet used with permission from Penguin Random House. 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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