Links To History -- A Family Grocery That Still Means Business

Hugh Chin was just 19 in 1909, when he left his pregnant wife behind in their southern China village to seek a better life in Seattle.

All he knew of America was that his father had gone there as a merchant in the 1890s, dying on his way home to China.

In 1923, after 12 years working in lumber camps and restaurants, he had saved enough to send for his wife and the daughter he'd never seen, Florence.

Five more years of work saved them enough to open their grocery store, Wa Sang Co. in Chinatown.

Son Ray, 68, one of five children, remembers that the then-open-air store, warmed by a coal stove in winter, was one of the first to sell fresh vegetables, along with fish, dry goods and barbecued pork. In those days, most Seattle stores didn't sell certain foods popular with the Chinese, such as long-grain rice (Wah Sang imported it by the bales), sturgeon, and bean sprouts (they grew their own).

Bustling Chinatown

While Chinatown was small then, primarily King Street, part of Seventh and Maynard, it was alive and bustling. "Then, all the buildings were occupied with family people. At midnight, people were still up," recalls Chinn. (Ray Chinn added the second "n" to his surname because he was tired of other kids' taunts of "chinny-chin-chin.")

About 10 different lottery companies were in operation; winning numbers were pulled many times a day. Chinn remembers how cars would line up and then speed off as soon as the numbers were picked, to bring them to the different lottery outlets. While illegal, he says, gambling was tolerated, with only an occasional raid, until the 1940s, when the city began cracking down.

In addition to Wa Sang, Hugh Chin started restaurants; one downtown, two in Bremerton, one in the University District. In fact, it was on his way to sign the lease for a fifth restaurant, in Tacoma, that Chin was killed in a traffic accident in 1940.

In those days, it was daring to branch out of Chinatown, but Chin saw less competition and better opportunities there. "It was difficult to do business outside the area because people were very suspicious of Asians in those days," Ray Chinn says. "Bremerton was a Navy town; people would come in to raise a little Cain. Things could get pretty rough.

"The University District was a little more sophisticated," he remembers, and he was even asked to joined the University Rotary Club there in the 1940s. "Some resented it; I won them over in due time."

After their father's death, Florence, then a widow with four children of her own, took in her siblings, and ran the business until the boys got older. Many men resented a woman in business and resisted her authority, but she stood her ground.

Knew his place

Ray Chinn never considered going outside the family business. "In the 1940s, there weren't opportunities for Chinese. You didn't get a sales job downtown in those days - except maybe as a paper wrapper downstairs, or cleaning restrooms. I accepted it. I `knew my place,' I guess you could say. Now the young people are different."

After the war, he says, Chinatown gradually died. "The evacuation of the Japanese killed a lot of business in this area. A lot of families moved out. Buildings became vacant and many still are. Things are starting to come back. The influx of the refugees has helped the area."

Though two other brothers and two nephews mostly run the store now, he and Florence, 84, still come down every day. (The restaurants have since been sold.)

Still competitive

Wa Sang continues to compete, he says, with service and friendliness. The future? The nephews are in their 50s. Chinn's own children, for their part, aren't interested in the business. A son is a business analyst, a daughter just graduated in English and urban geology and is looking for a job, and a son aims for dentistry.

"Wa Sang has been there for 65 years," says Chinn. "I hope to be here for some more time."