Chinatown-International District Community Watch: Empowering the community to protect themselves and each other
By Emi Okikawa
Growing up in the CID
Tanya Woo grew up in the Chinatown-International District (CID). She spent her childhood exploring the streets and shops of the neighborhood—from the Chinese language school at the Chong Wa Benevolent Association to kung fu lessons on Jackson Street.
“I have deep ties and connection to the CID,” she says, sounding nostalgic. “As a child, I remember spending every day in my dad’s bakery and, later, his law office. So, I identify with this community. I consider this my neighborhood.”
Even in her adult years, she would find herself coming back to the CID for a variety of reasons: to eat food, attend community events, and check on her dad’s office. When she did visit, she was comforted by the familiar sight of elders listening to Chinese opera in Hing Hay Park at midnight; it still felt like the neighborhood that raised her.
Then, in 2020, COVID-19 outbreaks began in Washington State and quickly spread throughout the country. With the rise of COVID-19 cases came the rise of anti-Asian sentiments. In the wake of the pandemic, news of Asian elders being attacked swept across the United States from California to New York City. Videos of violent crimes and assaults against Asian Americans popped up on social media feeds and news networks. In February 2021, a Japanese-language teacher was attacked and knocked unconscious in the CID, striking home for many in the Seattle Asian diaspora.
“In 2021,” says Woo, “anti-Asian hate crimes were coming up to light, but you know, it was happening for years.… [The attacks] made it really real for people. Like, just a couple weeks ago, elders were being robbed and pushed in Hing Hay Park at the ping pong tables. It still happens.”
In light of the attacks, shops were boarded up for fear of vandalism and break-ins. Elders were fearful to go outside after 4 p.m., afraid of both the pandemic and threat of violence. Concerned for her community, Woo began to drive through the CID on her way home from the office, keeping a watchful eye out for shopkeepers or elders who may need assistance.
Forming the Chinatown-International District Community Watch
When the situation began to feel untenable, Matthew Toles, a community organizer, put out a call on Facebook. He invited folks to gather and walk through the community together—the first meeting of the Chinatown-International District Community Watch (CID Community Watch).
“It was great,” Woo recalls with a wide smile, “just finding a group of like-minded people who grew up in the CID, who visit the CID, have family there, live there—folks who really do care.”
They patrolled the CID, Little Saigon, and Nihonmachi (Japan Town)—a five-mile route—every night for an entire year. There were five to six group leaders, and each of them would lead the patrol one night a week.
Woo smiles when she recalls how folks turned out from all over Washington, some from as far away as Tacoma and Grays Harbor.
“I hope it gave the community hope that we were out there watching out.… We were just trying our best to do what we can to help the community,” she says, reminiscent.
Every night, from 6 to 8 p.m., the CID Community Watch members would don their brightly colored clothes and make their way through the neighborhood, stopping to greet folks and help de-escalate any fights they came across. But generally, they were there as a resource for folks—passing out water bottles and meals, checking on businesses and unsheltered residents, and often escorting elders within the neighborhood. In addition, they were ready to provide medical attention if a situation required it, as members are trained in CPR and first aid.
Despite the circumstances in which the CID Community Watch was born, Woo is quick to point out that there is still a lot of joy within the group.
“It’s not all sadness,” she says emphatically. “We have a lot of fun. We talk about food most of the time and we’ve got to know each other. It’s like a fun little social group.… That’s why we love it.”
Community Safety Classes
In addition to its night patrols, the group has expanded its mission to include facilitating programming around community safety.
In May, it held three self-defense classes for community members with Seattle Parks Foundation as the fiscal sponsor—two were cane defense workshops for elders and the third was a self-defense class for the general community. The trainings aimed to provide community members with situational awareness and basic self-defense. The events were also specifically geared toward the cultural needs of the community and had interpreters for both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers.
They went really well,” says Woo, beaming. “It was amazing to see people from all walks of life.… We’re just trying to empower the community to just be aware of what’s happening and keep an eye out for each other.”
The Strength of Community
Now at the two-year mark, the group has scaled back its patrols to Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 to 10 p.m. Woo is proud of the strength of the community network the CID Community Watch has created.
“We all want the same thing: We want to make everything safer,” she says. “We want to see the elders back in the park at midnight listening to Chinese opera, and businesses to be flourishing again, and [to] have more feet on the ground and people in the restaurants.”
Reflecting on the CID Community Watch’s two-year anniversary, Woo shares that the experience has left her feeling more connected to her family and her community.
“My dad died when I was young, and I didn’t really know him,” she shares. “When I volunteer, I feel closer to my dad and to my community in a way. I learned so much about him from volunteering because some people who I’ve met actually knew him. I feel like the more I get to know my neighborhood, the more I learn about my father, my heritage, and myself.”