Panama Hotel, testimony to a forgotten world

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By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asia Weekly

A staircase at the Panama Hotel shown during a presentation to the Landmarks Preservation Board. (Screenshot of the online meeting)

Built to resemble a Buddhist monastery, the interior of Hotel Panama shines with a thousand-year-old dark wood that has been preserved for more than a century.

Appreciating such features, the city’s Monuments Preservation Council voted unanimously on December 1 to name the hotel, including its interior, to become a Designated Iconic Site.

“This will give another layer of protection,” said Betty Lau, a community leader, who supported the nomination.

But in granting the site’s nomination, the board was recognizing more than the building’s pristine beauty, though it has repeatedly praised its current owner, Jan Johnson, for preserving it.

During an hour-long presentation, they reviewed what the hotel had meant to different people at different points in its long history, including 8,500 ordinary items that had been left in its basement by people of Japanese descent on their way to the concentration camps.

In every phase of its existence, the hotel’s significance to the Japanese American community, and later to those interested in its heritage, was defined to a large extent by the unjust laws that oppressed the community, making from the hotel a place of refuge and a cultural center.

It was one of the few public baths – sites of cultural significance – when Japanese immigrants were forced to leave Seattle by exclusion laws in the 1920s. It has become a depository for trunks, suitcases and furniture when 120,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated from 1942. After World War II, it became the last remnant of a Japantown that had been largely destroyed.

And today, it is planned to become a Japanese American museum to preserve a moment lost in time.

In 1910, when the Panama Hotel was built, the population of Japanese immigrants and their children exceeded that of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Indeed, anti-immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were primarily aimed at the Chinese.

During this period, the hotel’s six storefront spaces housed businesses that offered repositories of Japanese culture, including a bookstore, grocery store, and later media. But in the early 1920s, oppressive laws against land ownership by people of Japanese descent began to be tightened.

Initially, Japanese immigrant farmers had found creative ways to circumvent laws prohibiting them from owning land, such as putting the land in the name of a child born here or a white proxy. But new laws have made this impossible. This explained a drainage of the Seattle population to remote areas of the state for agriculture or other industries.

But the public baths in the hotel’s basement provided a necessary community center that community members returned to regularly. During this period, there were only 10 Japanese public baths in North America. According to the diagrams of the basement, the public bath was divided into a separate section for men and for women and children.

During its early years, the hotel also provided accommodation for newly arrived immigrants who needed single rooms in familiar surroundings. The hotel has 102 hotel rooms. There was also a laundry room in his basement.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 creating “exclusion zones” which effectively forced anyone of Japanese descent on the West Coast to enter concentration camps.

The owners of the hotel, Sanjiro and Toyo Hori, before being jailed, opened the basement of the hotel as a deposit for people’s belongings that they could not take with them.

Since the order spelled out what families and individuals could carry, people had to make last-minute decisions about what was worth preserving.

“Not surprisingly, shock, fear, worry and confusion were the most characteristic of the emotions” experienced by people during this time, according to a team of psychologists who interviewed 30 survivors, as reported in “Memories”. of Historical Injustice: An Investigation of Emotions in Japanese-American Incarceration Memories, “a chapter in the book” Qualitative Strategies for Ethnocultural Research “.

Later, during their time in prison in places such as Minidoka, Idaho, the emotions turned into fatalism.

But at the time, the items they chose to store in the basement included things that seemed to hint at a desire to prove their identity as Americans.

Besides the ordinary items of teapots, bowls, and rice cookers, there was a large selection of things that reflected absorption into American society, even though society had worked hard to prevent this from happening.

There was a collection of American flags, a voter brochure, a list of requirements for graduation from a local high school, a Coca-Cola ad, and a stitched image of Mount Rainier, among others.

By the end of the war, however, Japantown had been abandoned for years and was never able to recover. Few, if any, camp survivors came to collect their belongings despite repeated efforts by hotel owners to locate them (decades later, current owner Johnson would get a federal grant to catalog the 8,500 items left behind. on the spot).

In 1954, the owner died and his son took over the management.

But by then it was too late. Japantown’s decline had worsened. Public baths ceased to function in the 1960s.

Over the years and with demographic changes, the population of Japanese Americans has dispersed even further, some towards the Eastside, others even further.

In 1985 Jan Johnson, a local art connoisseur, purchased the hotel. Speaking at the Landmark Preservation Board meeting, she said the hotel’s upper floors still function as a hotel. But it’s the internal aesthetics that matter most to her.

“Every day the light and shadows that enter through the windows on the upper floor illuminate a different work of art,” she said.

Board members unanimously praised her for keeping the hotel safe during a time of massive gentrification.

Board member Russell Conway noted that the hotel was designated a national monument in 2006.

“It was a proud moment for the city of Seattle and for Jan to have preserved it as these greedy developers put stucco on it and built condominiums,” he said.

Another board member, Harriett Wasserman, illustrating the hotel’s evolution into mainstream consciousness, said her reading group read a New York Times bestselling novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, “based on the hotel, and had gone to the hotel’s tea room to discuss the novel.

Xiaolin Duan, historian of the history of material culture at North Carolina State University, called it “the transformation of individual memory into collective memory.”

Johnson plans to continue such a transformation by turning the hotel into a Japanese-American museum. Some of the items stored in the basement have been loaned to the Ellis Island Museum and the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles.

But such an enterprise is achievable. In fact, a hugely popular and emotionally evocative exhibit that has spanned multiple continents could provide a model, said Wu Hung, professor of art history at the University of Chicago.

Starting in 2005, a Chinese artist built a giant art exhibition out of all the ordinary objects his mother had amassed during her long and difficult life. In the exhibit, titled “Waste Not,” curated by Wu, the mother sat among all her accumulated possessions and told visitors stories about their importance.

“People need vehicles to preserve and activate memory. We hear echoes of history in dilapidated buildings, worn photographs, torn letters, distressed objects, booming melodies and recurring dreams, ”Wu wrote as part of the exhibit.

The spectators who looked at the ordinary objects were moved to tears.

Karen Yoshitomi, director of the Japanese Culture Community Center in Washington, said the Panama Hotel is “one of the last remnants of what was Niohnmachi,” or Japantown.

“There is an opportunity to tell a bigger story not only about the Panama Hotel, but the Japanese community at large,” she said.

The board will visit the hotel before taking a final vote on the nomination on January 19, 2022.

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