The oldest family association in Seattle’s Chinatown, Gee How Oak Tin, will be celebrating its 110th anniversary this Sunday at the House of Hong Restaurant. This association is for members with the last names Chin (Chen, Chan, Chinn), Woo (Hu, Wu), and Yuan, and remains strong for over a century, despite past lawsuits and conflicts.
We would like to congratulate Oak Tin. For an organization to cross two centuries, it must have done something right.
First, Oak Tin has often supported worthwhile community causes. Its members have spearheaded many successful fundraising campaigns for the Kin On Nursing Home, Chinatown Gate, and Sichuan earthquake.
Oak Tin’s fundraising style is speedy and often brings in an impressive sum from its members. It is often the first family association to respond to important community causes.
Many Chinese community organizations are run by men. Oak Tin is one of the few Chinatown organizations that has a valuable female auxiliary. Its female members have provided active support since its formation in 1967.
With more than 400 members, Oak Tin is one of the few family associations in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District that owns its building and has a well-financed foundation. It was remodeled into 23 low-income apartments in 1990.
Although Oak Tin’s local membership is not as large as that of San Francisco or Los Angeles, a Seattle member was elected as the West Coast division’s national president twice: Yik Tin Chin in 1964 and Michael Chen 2007. Chen has used his position to enhance the visibility of the Seattle Chinese community. He fought hard for Oak Tin to recognize China. For decades, Oak Tin was pro-Taiwan.
Whether the association should display the Taiwan or China flag for celebrations was, and still is, a controversial issue.
The East Coast wanted to keep the status quo, while the West Coast wanted to support the place where their ancestors first arrived from in the late 19th century — Toishan, China. This issue resulted in a lawsuit between the East Coast and West Coast organizations. They settled out of court. Chen led the West Coast to victory. Now Oak Tin in all cities displays China’s flag.
In 1994, there was a family feud. The association and its foundation ended up in court due to a disagreement on the legal ownership of the building. After three years, the matter was settled out of court. Now the foundation operates the building.
The storm has not broken the family association. In fact, its members have become more aware that its survival is dependent on new blood. “We need the younger generation, who can speak English and get into the mainstream,” Chen said.
Recognizing its strengths and weaknesses is not an easy process. For Oak Tin’s leaders to openly discuss the challenges they’ve faced is unheard of for many Chinese community organizations. Most just want to talk about achievements for fear of losing face. Oak Tin sets an example of transparency and welcomes criticisms and suggestions. For that, Seattle Oak Tin is truly a pillar of strength and well-equipped to journey into the next phase of positive development.
Seattle Oak Tin is older than its San Francisco headquarters. Its history is a legend. “When outsiders ask what our last name was several decades ago, we just have to say we are Mr. Seattle. Then folks would know we are the Chins,” said many of the older Chin members. ♦