20 years after Wah Mee massacre, Chinatown longs to forget

A lock and chain stubbornly secure the double doors of an old gaming club in Seattle's Chinatown International District that 20 years ago today was the site of the city's worst mass murder. The serpentine of rusted steel seals the past. It has been that way for most of two decades.

No one in the district seems interested in reopening the topic of Wah Mee.

"After you print this, there are no more stories, right?" asked Jeannie Robertson, sister of Jean Mar, the only woman among the 13 people killed. "There are none left to be told."

Robertson may be right.

A final specter of Wah Mee faded last spring when the exhaustive appeals process for one of the three assailants, Kwan Fai "Willie" Mak, concluded. With a decisive sentence imposed, Wah Mee no longer engenders news, which suits those who claim to have long since moved on. Pain from the brutal crime still exists, and the lives of those killed continue to be remembered, but the city's Chinese community has always resisted the urges of others to analyze and recount what happened.

"It's a dismal subject, and it's very sad," Robertson said. "What's the point in talking about it?"

For those who don't know, and those numbers grow with each passing anniversary, Feb. 18, 1983, is a notorious date in Seattle's history.

Just before midnight, as Chinatown celebrated the Chinese New Year, three Hong Kong immigrants barely into adulthood entered Wah Mee, an exclusive social club that orbited around high-stakes gambling and attracted the upper crust of Seattle's Chinese community, including restaurant and other business owners. The three young men hog-tied the 14 occupants with nylon cord, robbed them, shot them in the head and left them for dead. Thirteen died, but a dealer at the club miraculously survived, broke free and sought aid. He eventually identified the perpetrators and testified against them.

Mak's high-school classmate, Benjamin Ng, was convicted of 13 counts of aggravated murder and received a life sentence. Tony Ng (no relation to Benjamin) was acquitted of murder but convicted of robbery and assault. He also is serving life.

Mak received the death penalty in 1984, but his sentence was overturned in 1991 by U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer, who ruled Mak's public defenders inadequately represented him. It took 11 more years to resolve his case. In May, King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen imposed a life sentence, ruling too much time had passed to determine whether Mak was the mastermind of the crime, a key element for a death sentence.

Mak's appeal was over, but it brought little consolation.

"Wah Mee is a painful lesion that has kind of been covered over with the passage of time but is still very close to the surface," said Ron Chew, director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. "It remains a subject nobody really wants to broach. Thirteen people left this world before their time."

Let them rest by letting it rest.

Wah Mee brought sensational news coverage that's neither forgotten nor forgiven in the Asian community.

Some news outlets speculated wrongly that the crime was related to a rivalry between Chinese gangs. It misinterpreted a cloak of silence within the community, failing to recognize a prevailing fear (Tony Ng was still at large), a cultural tendency toward privacy, the language barrier and an intense respect for the victims' families.

"The way the media coverage played out left people in the community feeling unsettled in terms of the effects on the victims' families and on the community itself," said Chew, who critiqued the coverage while serving as editor of the International Examiner, an English-language newspaper for Seattle's Asian community. "That has left some lasting wounds."

Chew said the media's rush to gather information was intrusive.

"People at funerals were hounded, and reporters visited residences of people who were grieving," he said. "When people refused to talk, the media interpreted that as hiding something."

Since many of the Wah Mee victims were prominent in the Chinese community, it was as if everyone in Chinatown either knew someone who died or knew someone who knew one of the victims. Twenty years later, some community leaders still decline to discuss anything related to Wah Mee out of deference to the victims' families.

"The crime touched everyone," said Maxine Chan, president of the Seattle chapter of the Organization of Chinese-Americans.

Chinatown's reputation as an inviting place to eat and shop had been stained. The entrance to the Wah Mee club was unmarked and in an alley, which further fed into the portrayal of the district as a dangerous maze populated by young hoodlums and mysterious gamblers. Chan, who in the wake of Wah Mee became the Police Department's first liaison to the Asian community, still looks poorly upon the media's use of the term "gambling den" to describe Wah Mee, which further evoked seedy images.

Saving Chinatown's name

Chinatown businesses paid a heavy price, and those memories also have not faded. Each time the subject of Wah Mee is dredged up, some in the community perceive it as an attack on the district's economy.

"I just want to stress that our neighborhood is really safe," said Vi Mar, who in 1996 was the first woman elected president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Mar's emphasis and assertion has not changed in 20 years. She, like others in the community, considers Wah Mee an isolated crime that could have happened in any Chinatown or any neighborhood.

In 1983, Mar ran a travel agency in Chinatown and remembers after Wah Mee looking out her window toward abandoned streets.

"If the average Asian was apprehensive about coming down to Chinatown, imagine how apprehensive the average Caucasian was," she said.

Mar, who grew up within walking distance of Chinatown, decided after Wah Mee to start a side business, Chinatown Discovery, which would offer tours of the district. Her goal was to portray and promote Chinatown in a positive way. "When something terrible happens, a community bands together," Mar said. "I became extremely protective of Chinatown."

Her tours emphasize history, the hardships of Asian immigrants and their contributions to Seattle. She does not include Wah Mee.

"In adult groups, if anyone asks why I started Chinatown Discovery tours, I will tell them," Mar said. She will discuss Wah Mee as an impetus, but only in that context.

Different, yet same

Today's Chinatown International District is different from the one Mak, Benjamin Ng and Tony Ng desecrated 20 years ago. New immigrants have moved in, and some no doubt have no idea about the murders. The grandchildren of Chinese immigrants who socialize in the growing number of teahouses may have only an inkling.

Gambling is now legal at Native American casinos and nontribal card rooms. Casino charter buses arrive daily in Chinatown to pick up patrons; people now leave the district to gamble.

While the doors of Wah Mee remain chained, the ground floor of the three-story building that takes up a quarter block remains full of life. Tenants include a bakery, a restaurant, a tropical-fish store, a Gospel center and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce office.

"Much has changed, and in some ways, almost nothing has changed," Chew said. "When you look at that building, you still remember it as a site of something very tragic that split open the heart of a community. This community is not fully recovered. I think it needs more time, which may sound strange after so many years. But some things require more patience."

Chan wonders whether the space that housed the Wah Mee club one day will gain an ignominious landmark status, perhaps like where Al Capone slept.

"There may be some colorfulness attached to it at some point," she said. "But it's not that yet. And it may never be."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com