Historic South Downtown Oral Histories: Marie Wong Discusses Her Research on Seattle's SRO Hotels and the Men and Women Who Lived in Them

  • Posted 11/02/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11135

Marie Wong is an associate professor at Seattle University's Institute of Public Service, sits on the board of InterIm Community Development Corporation, and is public-information advisor to the Kong Yick Investment Corporation. Dr. Wong is currently (2015) working on a book about single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Chinatown International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods. She was interviewed on October 30, 2015, for a project HistoryLink did in partnership with Historic South Downtown to document the historical connections between the Chinatown International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods and the central waterfront. Dominic Black talked with her about the history of SRO hotels and the people who lived in them.

Single-Room-Occupancy Hotels

Single-room-occupancy residential hotels are mixed-use buildings. They were constructed between 1880 and 1920 -- at least the majority of them were -- and then between 1920 and 1930 you started to see kind of a slowing down or a waning of interest in building transient-hotel facilities.

They generally have a typology of the first floor being commercial -- commercial retail, so things like your drugstores, sundry shops, grocers would be located on that first level. And then if there's mezzanine you could expect to see offices, so, doctors, herbalists were on the mezzanine level. And then the successive floors were all given over to very small rooms of ... residential-hotel uses. 

They would be double-loaded on the side of a corridor and --

DB: What does "double-loaded" mean?

That there would be rooms on either side of the corridor. They typically have light-wells in the center, and they're probably most generally known for being marketplace designs, because the design of the building really did correspond with what the building owner or contractor would see as what the general public was wanting.

But a typical residential hotel … you know the room sizes varied. I think the smallest room size I ever saw was in the Publix Hotel -- it's the building that's currently under restoration and renovation -- but the rooms in that were literally no wider than you could expect to see for a single bed. And a lot of the early residential hotels from the 1880s, some of them would be given over to crib rooms that would be even smaller than that. So literally a room would just have enough space for one single bed. There was no space around it.

DB: And then so all the bathroom and stuff would be shared.

Yeah, residential hotels are very much like dormitory living, where you can expect to see these single rooms -- they're kind of double-loaded on a central corridor -- and then bathing facilities would be on every floor. And you would kind of evaluate where you wanted to stay or which building you wanted to stay in a lot of times based on the number of bathrooms and bathing facilities that would be located in a residential hotel.

If it was a little more upscale you could expect to see a sink in your room, and typically it would be cold water, and then one level above that would be a sink in the room with cold and hot water. So it was very finely tuned as to where you would want to stay.

And if a better hotel would open up across the street, because there was no leasing in residential hotels, you could literally pick up everything you own and then just move to the building across the street where you would have a sink, or maybe an extra bathtub on the floor.      

SROs and Transportation Hubs

It's probably the most typical to see these buildings constructed around major transportation hubs, and that holds true whether you're talking about Seattle or Minneapolis or Denver, that they looked at this as people were coming into the city and a lot of these people were transient laborers. That as long as you could provide the transportation hub, these were individuals that would need a place to live, so anything that had transportation, through waterfronts, docks, train stations.

You know, this was a really good opportunity to construct a building that you knew was going to be a sure money-maker. 

From Transients to Long-term Living

They really helped redefine what a home was. And so even if you were a transient laborer ... and if you think about the number of workers that were really the pipeline to canneries in northern Washington, to canneries in Alaska, that the population in Seattle would shrink and swell depending on what was happening with the cannery industry.

Over the years you start to see less with respect to just the hotels being used just for transients and more that the hotels start providing long-term living for very, very low-income individuals. And you also see that the population of those people that were part of a very active labor force, they're all getting older, and so they're not engaging in this kind of work -- not just to the canneries but also to agricultural opportunities in Walla Walla. That they're staying now in Seattle because this becomes their home.    

I talked with … actually one of the women who lived in one of the hotels, it was the West Kong Yick. She literally spent a lifetime -- her lifetime -- living in that hotel. She was married in China, her husband came over to the United States, he deserted her. And so she came to the United States, set up residency in the hotel and that is where she lived out her life. When I interviewed her she was in her mid-nineties.

So definitely the hotels, they really were home to a lot of these individuals.  

The Diversity of SRO Residents

You know one thing that I've learned about -- even the word diversity -- is that we have a tendency to kind of narrow what diversity is.

But if you look at the history of Seattle -- and I'm specifically talking about the residential hotels that were south of the line (and the line was Yesler Way) -- that if you look at those hotels, people who lived in them understood diversity in a much broader -- and I'm going to say a more holistic -- fashion than we understand the word today.

They knew that the one thing they all had in common -- they were poor, they were financially strapped ... it was the Chinese and Japanese and Filipino Americans. But the whole area was populated by pockets of Italians, Scandinavians, Germans … prostitutes lived the residential hotels.

So you could have a mix of individuals living in one building. There were very few buildings that literally had just ... were represented by one ethnic group.

The Japanese American Community: Baseball and Fishing

Actually visiting baseball teams from Japan would come into the docks and, well, one example is the NP [Northern Pacific] Hotel.

That they had a … I don't want to say it's a contract, but there was a really beautiful kind of symmetry and balance with the owners and operators of residential hotels because they knew that when the baseball players came, they would stay at the NP. So the managers of the NP Hotel would send down one of these, you know, really large old vehicles that would then go to the docks, pick up the baseball players from Waseda University, and then they would bring them in to the NP.

And it was kind of funny because the family worried that with all these baseball players, that they would wear their shoes and all of the mud would be in the lobby and this was -- the NP was considered to be an upscale residential hotel.  

And the other thing is that the Japanese American community, they would augment their meals by going to the docks and fishing. And fishing was not a … I'm going to say it was not a minor sport for adults. Kids did it, and then if they caught something then they would bring it home and then that would become part of the meal. But an adult would go down to the docks to fish and it was frequently really serious business. They would use the fish not just to feed their own families but then they would share it with other hotel operators and other Japanese American families in the district.

Kunitaro Kawaguchi, a Magical Fisherman

Mr. [Kunitaro] Kawaguchi [1882-1967], he operated a couple of hotels: the Royal Hotel and then the Standard Hotel. And for a very short period of time he actually owned one of the sports shops, one of fishing-tackle stores, in Seattle. 

So Mr. Kawaguchi gets interested in hotel management. But then in the mornings between … oh … when did he go out? He would go out at three o'clock in the morning to go fishing. And typically, this guy -- from everything that I've heard -- he was not just a skilled fisherman but he was kind of a magical fisherman. He knew where to be in Elliott Bay to catch a fish.

So when he would leave at o'clock three in the morning his wife would pack a partial lunch -- rice balls -- and then he would go out fishing and if he was with one of his friends he would say, "Well, I think it's time for us to have our lunch." And he would drop his line in, he would catch a fish -- I know this sounds incredible but -- but he would drop his line in, catch a fish, scale it, fillet it, literally put it over the rice balls and you have instant sashimi.

By nine o'clock in the morning he would come back and help his wife make the beds in the hotel.

The Mar Hotel

The Mar Hotel is located on Maynard. And a lot of people ... it's more commonly known as the Hong Kong because the Hong Kong restaurant was located there -- it actually wasn't the Hong Kong Hotel, it was the Mar Hotel. 

But that hotel kind of catered to -- it wasn't exclusive -- but it catered to an African American clientele of individuals who worked in the train stations. So every now and again you would see one of these hotels that would have maybe a higher percentage of a specific immigrant group, but by all means not exclusive. They were occupied by whoever could afford to pay for the room for the night.

DB: What would determine that the African American workers would find their way there rather than somewhere else?

You know the family would basically advertise, whether it was -- I'm going to say it was more advertisement by word of mouth. That if you were coming in on the train, you knew that if you were going to be playing at the jazz club on 12th and Jackson and you needed a place to stay for a week, you could stay in the Mar Hotel. And it's interesting because the majority of residential hotels, if you're looking at those hotels north of Yesler Way, they would specifically refuse African Americans.  


Dominic Black interview with Marie Wong, October 30, 2015.

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