2012 Golden Circle Awardee: Raymond Chinn
“If we build it, they will come back. If property owners in the International District develop new housing, people will come back to live in the community.”
-Raymond Chinn, March 2009
Raymond Chinn’s grandfather came from Guangdong Province in 1894. His father, Hugh Chin, arrived in 1909, brought his family over in 1923 and lived in Seattle all their lives. In 1925, Raymond Chinn was born in Seattle’s Chinatown and would become a tireless leader in the community (Chinn added the second “n” to his surname because he tired of kid’s taunts of “chinny-chin-chin.”).
His father, Hugh Chin, was an early entrepreneur and started the Wa Sang Company in 1928. In addition to Wa Sang, Hugh Chin started restaurants; one downtown, two in Bremerton, one in the University District. On his way to sign the lease for a fifth restaurant in Tacoma, Hugh Chin was killed in a traffic accident in 1940. Chinn, one of five children, took over the company along with his siblings.
In 2009, Chinn noted that, “Chinatown was quite a place in those days. So many of the families were living down in this area. On a hot summer night, the people that live up in the apartment would bring all their bamboo rattan chairs and benches, and just sit it right in front of the sidewalk… There was a little field where the Four Seas Restaurant is today. That was what we called our own play field. We sued to go up there to play softball and touch football.” Even in 1938, when his father opened Lun Ting, a Chinese restaurant that also served American cuisine in University Way (now the site of the University Bookstore), Ray’s world still revolved around Chinatown so that commuting to the University District for work was too far and quite a long trip. During the late 30s, they commuted by streetcar and he recalled, “It was quite a ride, you know, actually, from Downtown to up this way, but every time I crossed the University Bridge, I feel that I’m in a different city. That’s how different it was to me anyway, as a kid.”
He played a major role in International District’s revitalization efforts. As president of the International District Economic Association, he worked to organize a Business Improvement Area to improve the quality of life for Chinatown residents, employees, and merchants. He led by example to other property owners to improve their buildings when he renovated his family’s property, the Rex Hotel. Chinn also became the first and youngest Asian American voted into the University District Rotary Club.
As a youth, he attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary School on 12th and Weller. He then went to Washington Junior High School and graduated from Broadway High School in 1943. Chinn had 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.”
Chinn added that he regretted not pursuing higher education because his thoughts of going to college were slim. He was concerned about “Who’s going to work tomorrow?” He worked seven days a week and did not take days off for a long time. The Chinn family’s success in business led to owning 7,000 square feet of commercial space in Chinatown including the International Community Health Service (ICHS) building. The Chinn family sold all their restaurants and their
store in 1979 and in 1996 they sold the Eastern Building for low-income housing.
Chinn passed away on July 22. He was often described as a kind, genuine person. His philanthropy and lifelong commitment to the empowerment of Asian Americans will be remembered in generations to come. Chinn’s legacy is an influence in Chinatown for he helped shape the value of community in his children. The preservation and revitalization efforts in the International District are bright and will continue for many years to come. The community sees Chinn’s influence on the community that goes well beyond him, his family, and his work.