Filipino Americans champion legacy in Chinatown International District

A sign highlights the contributions of Seattle’s Filipino American community. (Photo by Kamna Shastri.)

Storefronts aren’t the only measure of a community’s importance. Just ask Filipino American activist Aleksa Manila.

“Just because there aren’t Filipino restaurants in Chinatown International District right at this moment, doesn’t mean Filipinos aren’t part of the makeup of CID,” Manila said. “With a (community) center on MLK Way and with an incredible housing project for seniors, it’s clear Filipino Americans are a vital and critical community in Seattle.”

Manila is a prominent local Filipino American activist — just one of many working to remind other Seattleites of the Filipino history of the Chinatown International District.

It’s been a year since the Seattle City Council proposed to delete a reference to Filipinos from a city resolution honoring the neighborhood. Today the group is fighting what they see as an attempt at erasure.

Filipino Town Coalition founder Devin Cabanilla says he’s seen pushback against the group’s recent efforts.

“Having the city reverse legislation against Filipinos wasn’t enough to stop people who were still against Filipino culture,” he said.

For instance, the group proposed a parklet on Maynard Avenue to focus on the Filipino-American experience in Seattle, and Chinese business owners circulated a petition trying to block the proposal, on the basis of a loss of parking and bad Feng Shui.

Last month, the Filipino Town Coalition held a meeting with several people opposed to their efforts. According to The International Examiner, Betty Lau, who distributed the petition against the parklet, told the group her opposition stems from her belief that Seattle had no neighborhood dominated by Filipinos — unlike other ethnic communities such as Japantown, which was established by the early 1900s, and Little Saigon, which came to prominence in the 1980s.

But supporters of the sites like the proposed parklet that honor the contributions of Filipino Americans say their efforts celebrate the community’s roots in Seattle — and display a refusal to be erased.

The Filipino Town Coalition plans to start work next year on a Filipino American historical and cultural map of Seattle and work on an indoor installation on Filipino leadership in the Chinatown International District, community activist Maria Batayola wrote in an email to The Seattle Globalist. The group also is planning an exhibit to honor the activism of Asian Pacific Women’s Caucus.

A coalition of partners — including Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), Pinoy Words Expressed Kultara Arts, The Wing Luke Museum, InterIm CDA and SCIDpda, to name a few, are supporting are backing those efforts.

“Like a barrio street in the Philippines”

Seattle’s Chinatown International District is filled with rich historical connections between people of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It is the only Pan Asian neighborhood of its kind in the United States. Chinatown, Japantown, Filipino Town and Little Saigon coalesce in the neighborhood that makes up the Chinatown International District.

These ethnic and cultural groups share a history of place, community — and the kind of activism that comes with generations of exclusion.

Filipinos first came to Seattle at the end of the 1800s, working as cannery workers and laborers.

Chinatown was an attractive destination for those men, wrote historian and community activist Doug Chin, in his 2009 book “Seattle’s International District.”

“For the new Filipino immigrants and migrants, their destination in Seattle was the International District, where they could find some solace, familiar faces, and diversion from the laborious journey ahead.”

According to Chin, Filipino men were an attractive labor source in the United States because they were considered U.S. nationals. After the Spanish-American war, the Philippines was a territory of the United States until the country gained independence in 1946.

That meant until 1946, Filipinos could travel with U.S. passports — but they were still being treated with the same stigma as other Asian Americans.

In the 1930s, visiting Filipino journalist Willy Torin described the prevalence of his countrymen on King Street.

“By noon, King Street is like a barrio street in the Philippines, Filipino pool halls … offering diversions of pool and cards ….Labor’s latest news is read and discussed.”

Cabanilla believes that the colonial legacy of the Philippines might play a role in why Filipinos are often forgotten and excluded throughout American history.

“Filipinos are still treated as foreigners but their ability to integrate into mainstream society is a little bit easier because of their colonial history,” Cabanilla said.

That is why the removal of “Manilatown” from a City Council resolution last year caused such a fervor.

The purpose of Resolution 31754 was to ensure that residents in the neighborhood had access to affordable housing and stated a commitment to protecting “cultural identity and economic vitality, recognize history, and promote equitable development.” The resolution recognized Chinatown, Japantown, Little Saigon — and originally included Manilatown until the proposal to remove it.

After Filipino Americans spoke before City Council to urge them to include “Fiipino Town” — a more inclusive term than “Manilatown” —  councilmembers, including Council President Bruce Harrell, acknowledged the city had made a mistake in removing the reference to the city’s early Filipino residents.

The attempt to remove Filipinos from Seattle’s Chinatown International District history is part of a pattern of moves throughout American history that have aimed to undermine various ethnic groups for political gain, Aleksa Manila told The Seattle Globalist in an email.

“I am aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and as a Filipino American, I can empathize with how Filipinos have been oppressed and abused throughout time—broken promises to Filipino war veterans from World War II, anti-Filipino discrimination in California in the 1930s, and neo-colonialism to name a few,” wrote Manila in an email. “It hurts all of us.”

Cabanilla also says that too often the American story of Asian identity is distinctly East Asian. That leaves other Asian groups — including Filipinos —  invisible and unseen. He says the omission of Filipinos from the story of Chinatown mimics a larger mainstream misperception of what being Asian means.

“What happened recently is a good example, people [don’t want to] connect us to the same area, to the same district,” Cabanilla said.

Fighting the threat of a single story

In one of her most famous TED talks, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said there is danger in a single story; the stories we are told about the world shape our view of others and of ourselves. In a sense, the legacy of Filipino Town and Filipino history in Seattle is at risk of being drowned out by a single story.

Filipino Town Coalition and its efforts are a way to continue to preserve the identity of the Chinatown International District to include all Asian Pacific Islanders — a definition that has changed over time.

“As a Pan Asian CID, we struggle, elevate each other’s CID stories and expand the definition of API identity to now include South Asians and our Islamic populations, post 9-11. We are an inclusive multicultural society,” Batayola wrote in an email.

Batayola said that making sure Filipino heritage and narratives are included is more than just fighting the idea of a one-sided narrative in the CID or about fighting erasure. It is about challenging exclusionary rhetoric.

“Our reclamation of our history does not diminish anyone else’s history by any means,” she wrote. “In fact, we find that our stories and struggles have similarities. As immigrants and refugees, we cannot ignore claiming who we are. The health of our young people’s identities and our sense of community depend on it!”


  1. This is a well written article. It especially warmed my heart to read quotes from fellow friends/activists like Maria Batayola, Alexsa Manila, Devin Cabanilla and Doug Chin, representing older and a younger generation of social justice API warriors.

  2. There are some important markers in the ID of Filipino history- The Carlos Bulosan Historical Exhibit in the Eastern Hotel and the Domingo Viernes Apartments named after the Filipino labor leaders assassinated by the Marcos dictatorship

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