Hing Hay Park is the best town square in Seattle. You can keep Westlake Park, Cal Anderson, or Occidental Park. Hing Hay is king.
That’s partly because it’s on King Street, and therefore across the street from King Noodle, which is a name I assume refers to both the street and the regal quality of the soup-oriented noodle product.
The King Street thing is more important (some would say, if they’re dummies who don’t like noodles and fish cakes) because King Street is very close to the center of downtown, and lends its name to Seattle’s Amtrak and commuter rail station. Then there’s the matter of the former Union Station, much closer to the park, and the light rail station, and the intercity bus hub, and the Bolt Bus.
Hing Hay Park is where you can go if you were going somewhere but you don’t have to go there yet, or you already went there, or you changed your mind about even going there at all.
The park itself looks like this: the ground is covered with red brick and cement, like the facades of the buildings around it. There is a stately pine tree in the middle, which shades a pavillion built in Taiwan in the ‘70s, in the style of classical mainland Chinese architecture. It’s surrounded by large deciduous trees, and there are shrubs that make flowers in planters all over the place.
There is a kind of amphitheater with metal benches on the west side of the park, with a modernist sculpture that mimics the beautiful, ornate gate to Chinatown that you can see from underneath it. There are tables and chairs everywhere, and a giant plastic chess set that has been bleached by the sun, and ping pong tables. People use all the furniture.
The park has a really nice mix of people. It’s not as homogenous as Cal Anderson, nor as inebriated and overprogrammed as Occidental, and definitely not as chaotic, busy, and sad as Westlake.
Hing Hay reflects its neighborhood; it’s always full of API seniors, who make up the majority of the folks passing the time. They play ping pong or talk at the tables in their native languages, most often Chinese and Vietnamese. (You catch plenty of Japanese and Tagalog too.) And there are plenty of younger people: some are Asian American, and there’s no shortage of Chinese college students. Chinatown is full of businesses and hangs that are very Asian, and it draws people who need those things from across the city. On four out of five days, an old Asian woman who tops off mind-bending patterns with a pink, sparkly, sequined Red Sox cap and knockoff Gucci sunglasses crushes all comers at ping pong. The place is “authentic.”
There are also hipster white dudes like yours truly, and plenty of other young people of all races. And there are plenty of workers and diners and shoppers who have wandered in from downtown, white collar white people. I’ve noticed that the park’s patronage is often majority Asian, and every day majority POC. That is unique among just about any of Seattle’s public places. The place fills up on sunny days, or even days when it’s not raining that much.
There is also a safety thing, and a thing about unwanted, unrespected people in the open, that I would be remiss not to address. Hing Hay, despite its name—which is, according to the parks department, translatable from Chinese to “Park for Pleasurable Gatherings” or “Celebrate Happiness Public Park,” and therefore chill as hell—was, for a long time, the site of some sad gatherings. Or lonely gatherings, which is a contradiction if there ever was one. Lots of people without shelter slept out here, and you used to see a lot of people using or drinking in a not fun way. Lots of the folks hanging out were not well.
There was, also, a true safety problem that has gotten a lot better. The grandmas and teenagers have rescued the place from sporadic but not improbable shouting matches, public injection, fistfights, and muggings, or at least reduced the frequency of all of them.
Some folks who do those sorts of things still hang out here during the day, but the cops pass through often on bikes or hang out in a car at the edge, and there are usually attendants keeping an eye on things, picking up trash, and distributing ping pong paddles as necessary. There are also buskers which the city hires, usually white guys singing rock songs with acoustic guitar. (Which is a real drag, but I guess some people are into that kind of thing.) The whole point is to discourage the unsavory things that used to happen here.
A friend of mine, Sonny Nguyen, is one of the people who has helped to transform the park. They are a native child of Seattle, a member of the Vietnamese community, and they keep an eye on the cops in Chinatown and the people in Chinatown, in a similar (but less dangerous) way to real life, late superhero Donnie Chin.
“Even though there are a lot of complaints about crime and homelessness in the neighborhood, residents really think of homeless folks as part of the community,” Sonny told me.
“It took some time, but even the drinking club is accepted. They’ll play ping pong with the grannies, and help clean up the park at the end of the day. In the park, everyone who helps gets to be part of the community.”
This is a trying time for the city. Thousands of people are on the streets, and the people who live in houses near them are afraid and angry. Here’s what I recommend: everyone should get lunch in Chinatown, and work off the stupor by walking to Hing Hay Park. They’d find that Chinatown isn’t perfect, and it has tensions, like any neighborhood. But you can’t help but notice that people know each other, and they get along.
Also published on Medium.