Seattle’s Filipino community questions deletion of historic “Manilatown”

A sign in the Chinatown/International District highlights the contributions of Seattle’s Filipino American community. (Photo by Kamna Shastri.)

Members of Seattle’s Filipino American community are wondering how a reference to Filipinos was struck from a city resolution about the Chinatown/International District.

In a resolution regarding the rezoning of neighborhood to accommodate affordable housing and other issues, the Seattle city council deleted a reference to Manilatown.

While the city plans to revisit the issue, Filipino Americans have told the council that it disrespected the community’s long history in Seattle.

Former Seattle City Councilmember Dolores Sibonga told the council earlier this month that the action disrespected people like her family, who came to the U.S in 1926, and moved to Seattle’s CID neighborhood in the 1930s.

“You essentially denied and denigrated my existence and those of Filipino Americans who lived and worked in the ID,” she said. “I am a proud product of Filipino Town.”

Filipinos have contributed to the fabric of the CID community and Seattle for a century. Community members owned barber shops, restaurants, Alaskeros stayed in hotels on their way to canneries in Alaska, and they partnered with other ethnic communities to organize for social justice causes, such as the labor union movement.

Celebrated Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan wrote his novel “America is in the Heart” based on his life in Seattle in the 1930s as an immigrant cannery worker. Dozens of people every day take photos of Seattle’s skyline from the Jose Rizal Bridge — named after the Filipino national hero.

A seemingly minor act like scrubbing the reference to Seattle’s historic Filipino community could have consequences for the future.

“If there was development funding that came out, preference would be given to the other ethnic groups and then to not have a name in that could affect future projects, future real estate development, [and] business that had an ethnic component to It,” said Devin Israel Cabanilla, who founded a collation called The Concerned People for Filipino History to address the issue.

While the city council says they plan to revisit the Manilatown issue again on Sept. 5, Cabanilla said he and others who raised the issue were not consulted. He first heard about the council revisiting the issue through an article in Seattle Met magazine.

He said the city’s handling of the issue is another example of the lack of communication with communities in the Chinatown/Intenrational District.

“I think it’s a series of poor mistakes and just continual miscommunication,” Cabanilla said. “We just told you the afternoon before, this was not good and you need to communicate with us and you just made another decision without us again.”

During the passage of a zoning change in the Chinatown/International District — which itself was controversial — a reference to “Manilatown” was struck from the resolution.

Instead, community members said that the reference should have been replaced with the more accurate “Filipino Town.”

Filipino Americans addressed the council in a letter, and several, including former Seattle council members Sibanga and David Della, addressed the council with their concerns.

The letter read in part:

Why did the Council resolve to strikethrough Manilatown at Full Council through amendment without dialogue among the Filipino community? This should not have even occurred considering that the council members also sit on multiple commissions for equity and civil rights. The desired city practice of applying a racial equity lens to changes was not engaged…Our community is still alive and celebrating our history, and culture; it is not forgotten by us or others. It should not have been forgotten by the council either. The removal of reference to “historic Manilatown” in the C/ID should have included our voice; instead this reference should have been changed to “historic Filipino Town” within Resolution 31574.

Dorothy Wong, chair of the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition, told the council that what seems to be a small edit could affect high level decisions.

“That [ramifications of the omission] is a blatant disregard for its long history of having a pronounced presence in the CID not to mention the many contributions this community has made for the betterment of the CID, and other API communities,” she said.

Council President Bruce Harrell apologized to the community, and expressed the council’s desire to remedy the issue.

“We did make a deletion of the term Manilatown based on what we thought was some feedback from the community. We did not adequately converse with many leaders in our community… We could have done a better job,” he said.

Acknowledging Manilatown solidifies the group’s contribution to the Seattle area, as well as the CID at large, which is made up of many different ethnic groups that have intermingled and collaborated throughout Seattle’s existence as a city.

Cabanilla says that the omission of Manilatown from the resolution also is a result of underlying interethnic political tensions in the CID as well, where there are competing interests even in the face of a pan-ethnic cooperative in the neighborhood.

Making sure that the correct language of Filipino Town is used in the resolution and in other legislation would not only ensure that the Filipino community is represented in an understanding of the CID community, but would also allow for Filipino historical and heritage projects to get the backing they need.

“What we do want to do is to gain better support from the city and also from the district in general to get better historical landmarks and monuments in the area. We do have a few presently but it’s become obvious that acknowledging that there was a Filipino Town is not well known,” said Cabanilla.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misspelled Dolores Sibonga’s name. This has been corrected.

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