Ah King was born in 1863 in China. He immigrated to the United States in 1877, traveling steerage (an area below deck on a ship that was the cheapest -- but also the most crowded and unpleasant -- way to take a long ocean journey) to San Francisco. Upon his arrival he was not greeted by many meaningful opportunities. Most Chinese in America in the nineteenth century were relegated to menial jobs, if they could get one at all. Ah King's first job is said to have been as a "water boy" at a railroad construction camp.
King soon came to the Northwest and worked in logging camps. Many accounts say his first job in Washington was in Spokane, though a 1915 Seattle Times article says his first "venture" in Washington was in Walla Walla. Little is known of his life as a young man and some of the available information is contradictory. But most accounts agree that Ah King settled in Seattle in 1897, presumably in its Chinatown district, which at the time was located near S Washington Street and 2nd Avenue S.
King arrived at a time when the Chinese community in Seattle was still struggling to recover from the 1886 expulsion of most of the city's Chinese residents. The 1900 U.S. Census put Seattle's Chinese population at 438, less than half of the estimated Chinese in Seattle in 1885, the year before their expulsion. At the same time, Seattle's total population had increased from a bit shy of 9,700 in the 1885 territorial census to more than 80,000 in 1900. The future of the Chinese in Seattle looked so bleak that in 1899 Chin Gee Hee (1844-1929), a prominent Chinese merchant and labor contractor in the city, predicted that in 10 to 12 years, there would be no Chinese left in Seattle.
Mayor of Chinatown
It was against this gloomy backdrop that Ah King opened a restaurant in Chinatown. Soon the nineteenth century was replaced by the twentieth, and as the new century got underway, more Chinese suddenly began moving into Seattle. This primarily was the result of fish canneries that were springing up all along Puget Sound and north to Blaine. The canneries attracted multitudes of Chinese workers, and when cannery season ended, many of these workers could not find lodging elsewhere and went to Seattle. Chinatown suddenly grew to encompass three blocks on S Washington Street, as well as two side streets.
By the early 1910s S Washington Street was becoming crowded, with 41 businesses reported in Chinatown. But Seattle's Chinese population was in luck. In 1907 the city began regrading S Jackson Street, and by the early 1910s the work was done. The regrade created new land for development immediately to the south and east of Chinatown. This prompted the Chinese population to begin moving into this area, especially S King Street between 7th and 8th avenues S. S Washington Street remained the core of Seattle's Chinatown during Ah King's day, but within a decade of his 1915 death the core had shifted to S King Street.
Ah King's restaurant was a success, so much so that, according to a 1912 Seattle Star article, he owned three such establishments -- two in Seattle and one in Tacoma. He sought larger opportunities, and by 1905 was associated with a Chinese mercantile store, the Wah Yuen Company. In 1906 he opened his own store, aptly named the Ah King Company (also known as the King Chong Lung Company). The store was located at 217 S Washington Street and offered Chinese groceries and dry goods to restaurants, general stores, and work camps. King reported to U.S. Immigration authorities in 1908 that the company had 40 employees and transacted from $40,000 to $50,000 in business annually. (In 2013, $50,000 equates to nearly $1.18 million.)
Late in 1909, he opened another store on 108 2nd Avenue S. Billed as a "Chinese art store," it offered Chinese vases, silks, hand-carved teakwood furniture, all kinds of Chinese garments, "curios from ancient Chinese temples," and more ("New Chinese Art Store").
King also recognized the opportunities presented by the need for workers in the fish canneries springing up in the Northwest. He expanded his company operations to include contracting Chinese labor to these canneries. He also bought canneries, and owned six of them in Alaska by the time he died.
By the early 1910s Ah King had become a powerful force in Seattle's Chinatown community, and was informally known as the "mayor of Chinatown." He had also become a subtle player in Seattle politics. He seemed to have a golden touch in most of his business ventures, but he had a golden touch with people as well. His generosity was seemingly endless. He gave money to dozens of Chinese boys and young men to enable them to finish school, and he was a generous gift-giver to his friends. He was known for giving lavish dinners and parties -- not only for his Chinese acquaintances, but also for many of Seattle's Caucasian movers and shakers. Some of these dinners evidently included friendly games of gambling. This came back to haunt King in his final days.
The Chinese Village
One of King's biggest ventures came in 1909 when he developed and managed the Chinese Village at Seattle's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P). Unlike many other countries who participated in the A-Y-P, the Chinese government did not sponsor an exhibit or otherwise officially participate in planning its exhibit at the fair. Instead, King took the lead. He traveled to China in December 1908 on a six-month expedition to choose Chinese goods and curios to be exhibited in the village. He also hired actors from Shanghai to appear in the Chinese theater during the four and a half months the fair was underway.
Goon Dip (ca. 1862-1933), honorary consul for the Chinese government and another influential Chinese Seattleite in the early twentieth century, raised money for the village, and obtained some of its exhibits from his Chinese contacts living in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. And as the fair approached, virtually all the Chinese living in the region (there were approximately 800 Chinese in Seattle alone in 1909) were said to have contributed $4 each toward the village's construction.
The Chinese Village was located along the southwestern edge of the northern part of the Pay Streak, sandwiched between the Ferris wheel to the north and the Arena to the south. It consisted of three buildings, which included a bazaar, a Chinese temple (said to have been brought intact from Shanghai), Ah King’s restaurant, and a tearoom. The Chinese exhibits and curios were displayed on the village grounds behind the main building.
It cost about $15,000 to build the buildings, and the cost to shuttle approximately 20 persons from China (many of them members of the theatrical troupe) to work at the A-Y-P (and back to China afterward), plus their compensation, was $5,000. Other costs pushed the grand total to build and operate the village past $25,000. The exposition furnished a ticket-taker to collect the admission to enter the Chinese Village, but Ah King and his management controlled all other sources of revenue that the village generated.
Ah King said shortly before the exposition began that he did not expect to make a profit from the Chinese Village and in fact anticipated a loss. He was right: The village brought in total revenues of $21,451, and this was before the A-Y-P got its cut ($4,863). Still, the Chinese Village didn’t do too badly, bringing in nearly as much revenue as the A-Y-P’s Japanese Village. This was big for Seattle’s Chinese community, not only because the Japanese government sponsored the Japanese Village, but also because in 1909 there were hundreds more Japanese than Chinese in Seattle.
But King's gregarious generosity also got him in trouble. In September 1910, he was arrested and charged with permitting gambling on his premises on 6th Avenue S. This may have been the tip of the iceberg. A tongue-in-cheek 1915 Seattle Times article about a foiled gambling raid planned on Ah King's home, written five months before his death, sheds a little more light on this allegation:
"Now, be it known that Ah King, Chinese merchant prince, owner of fifteen or seven salmon canneries in Alaska, and in general leading citizen of the local Chinese colony, is one good scout -- one of those fellows who are never entirely happy unless they are showing their friends a good time, making them presents and so on. And Ah King's friends are many.
"Every now and then Ah King invites a congenial crowd down to his place on Washington Street for a Chinese dinner, and when such invitations come previous engagements go by the board. That's how the party came to gather Saturday night.
"Ah King took his guests into the big front room and locked the door, because he proposed to enjoy himself and didn't want to be bothered with the cares of business or any other boresome details of everyday life.
"Along in the shank of the evening, after the viands and politics and other things had been discussed, [Seattle City Councilman] Bob Hesketh and a couple of others who had set out to fill two engagements in one evening got up to go ... .
"'How'll I get in when I come back?' asked Hesketh as the door was opened.
"'Oh, just knock three times and whistle twice,' said [State Senator Daniel] Landon in an attempt at a 'josh'" ("Hist! Deep Midnight Plot Abrewing!").
The article went on to tell how Hesketh and his companions subsequently intercepted the raid that was about to take place.
Other gambling raids took place in Seattle's Chinatown during 1915, and this concerned King. An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer written shortly after his death claimed that he'd been told that his businesses might be closed as a result of the raids. The Seattle Times added that he was under pressure from friends and business associates to use his influence and money to stop the raids. How much of this is true remains shrouded in mystery, but what's more clear is that Ah King was not a happy man as the summer of 1915 drew to a close.
Ah King's Death
On August 13, 1915, Ah King met with his attorney, Senator Daniel Landon, and prepared his will. He also left a statement of his assets and liabilities with Landon. King told Landon he was leaving Seattle for a vacation, but told others that he was going to his canneries. He left the next day. All was quiet until Monday, August 30, when friends and associates in Seattle and Tacoma received two ominous-sounding letters. "Good luck to all my friends. I wish you happiness forever," read one letter, while the second letter was even more blunt, closing with: "Goodby[e] to all my friends. I am going on" ("Ah King Suicide …").
By the time the letters arrived in Seattle, Ah King was already dead. His body had been discovered in a hotel room that morning in Sacramento, California. It appeared that he had shot himself in the head. Next to his body was a note, written in English: "Don't blame Yen Cheng," which was not in Ah King's handwriting. (King could not write in English. However, it was considered possible that he'd asked someone to write the note for him.) His body was discovered on Monday morning, August 30, but news of his death didn't reach Seattle until late the next day. The delay in notification, the mysterious notes, and his careful preparations prior to his departure from Seattle, led some to speculate that a more sinister motive was afoot. Speculation erupted that King might have been murdered, perhaps by a member of a tong, a Chinese fraternal society. At the time, many of the tongs were believed to be engaging in criminal activities.
For several days, rumors of the cause of King's demise flew thick and fast. On September 2 the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer declared "Ah King is slain by tong." The P-I essentially recanted this declaration the next day by another front page headline announcing that the Sacramento coroner had ruled King's death a suicide.
King's body was examined after its September 7 arrival in Seattle by Dr. U. C. Bates, who reported that "the indications were that Ah King had killed himself" ("Three Bands to March…"). Gradually most accepted the suicide theory, though even a century later the details of his death still raise questions.
Funeral services for Ah King took place on September 8 in a large tent erected for the purpose on 8th Avenue S near S King Street. The tent wasn't big enough to house the more than 2,000 people that were estimated to have attended. It was a remarkable funeral for 1915, attended by not only some of the more powerful forces in Seattle (Chief of Police L. M. Lang, City Councilman Hesketh, Senator Landon, among others) but also by many ordinary folk whose lives King had touched. This dichotomy was not lost on The Seattle Times:
"Seated in the crowd were business men who touched elbows with Greeks, Italians, Japanese, colored men and women, Filipinos, Spaniards and others who had known the Chinese merchant and philanthropist in life" ("Friends Do Honor …").
King's body was interred in his native China.
In his 1908 statement to immigration authorities, Ah King reported that he had a wife and three children -- two sons, ages 22 and 12, and a daughter, age 15. His family lived in China, a not-uncommon situation for married Chinese men living in America in the early twentieth century. Most couldn't afford to bring their families to the United States, but this wasn't an issue for King -- his estate in Seattle alone was appraised at more than $67,000 six weeks after his death. Why he chose to live in Seattle without his family is an unanswered question.
King's wife had died by the time of his death. What had become of his older son by then is not known, but King made no provision for him in the will he prepared shortly before his death. Instead, with the exception of a $1 bequest to his daughter, he left his entire estate to his younger son, Yock Fong. "He remarked when the will was drawn that he had made provisions for his daughter, now in China, and that she did not need any other help," reassured The Seattle Times ("Ah King Reported Dead …").
As it happened, the 19-year-old Yock Fong had been planning to come to Seattle even before Ah King's death; The Seattle Times reported that it had been one of King's fondest dreams. Yock Fong did come to Seattle, where he was known as Albert King. He continued operating the Ah King Company as a labor-contracting operation for a number of years. Today (2013), his descendants continue to reside in Seattle and its environs.