By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Pioneer Erasmus Smithers platted the area now known as Renton more than 150 years ago.
He didn’t know it then, but his effort transformed what was formerly an open space along the trail from Seattle to what is now a thriving city of 90,927 people — the ninth largest city in Washington.
Smithers was later joined by Capt. William Renton, a wealthy businessman for whom the town is named. Renton provided the financial support for the Renton Coal Company in 1873.
Renton — 13 miles southeast of Seattle — has an Asian/Pacific Islander (API) population that is rising quickly.
According to new data from the 2010 U.S. Census, this combined group has more than tripled from 6.9 percent of the town’s population in 1990 to 22 percent in 2010. During the same period, the number of those who identified themselves as white decreased from 83.5 percent to 54.6 percent. APIs are the largest minority group in Renton.
There is even a connection between Renton and Nishiwaki, Japan, in an alliance that began in 1969 to encourage the exchange of ideas and culture between the two cities.
For house-hunting Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, Renton may be one of the best places to visit and even live.
Quality of life
“Over three generations of my family have lived in Renton,” said Kendee Yamaguchi, executive director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA). “I really treasure the community because of its diversity, beautiful parks, and expansive bike trails.”
Yamaguchi isn’t the only one who values Renton for its livability.
Husband and wife Peter and Lekha Tang have lived in Renton for almost 28 years.
Before they moved with their children to their current home in 1983, they say they spent almost two years looking for a place to live in the surrounding cities of SeaTac, Bellevue, Des Moines, Kent, and Seattle.
Originally from Bangkok, Thailand, Peter Tang said, “We just feel Renton offers the best [housing] value for the money we can afford, and we were lucky to find a real estate agent who was Filipino and very patient.”
Peter’s father was from China and moved to Thailand to work as a schoolteacher.
“The neighborhood is great. We all watch one another,” said Lekha Tang.
Property taxes are among Peter Tang’s least-favorite expenses, but he and his wife, and especially their grandchildren, enjoy their one-third-acre backyard.
He said, “We see deer there.”
“We see rabbits all the time now,” Lekha added.
“We even had a surprise one night over 10 years ago,” Peter said. “One peacock flew from nowhere and came to our backyard and decided to live on top of our roof.”
Excited at first, they enjoyed seeing its distinctive, iridescent blue-green feathers.
However, their guest soon wore out his welcome. “It became annoying. At night, he would just make noise,” Peter said about the peacock’s fourth night on top of their house.
“[However,] we love [this area] the most because of the quality of life, the tranquility, nature, even though there are too many rainy days. The tradeoff is worth it.”
The Tangs enjoy the convenience of living only one mile from the award-winning Valley Medical Center and not too far from public transportation. Peter added, “We have Costco. We have Sam’s Club. We also have international Asian markets (Uwajimaya, Viet Wah, and Seafood City Supermarket) nearby.”
James Wong, CEO of Avidian Technologies, the creator of Prophet CRM software, also enjoys the amenities.
“I love living in Renton, as it’s close to everything and has all of the amenities within a short drive or walk. With no traffic, it’s literally less than 15 minutes to go to Seattle, Bellevue, or the airport. Coulon Park, the Cedar River, and the whole Landing area are very unique to Renton as well,” said Wong. Coulon Park is a beachfront park near Lake Washington Boulevard, the Landing is a large shopping and entertainment center, and Cedar River has scenic trails and a park.
Businesses, real estate, and culture
Developer Duc Tran owns Viet Wah Shopping Mall, which houses 19 shops, a child day care, and Tea Palace Restaurant, which he also owns. Tran picked Renton for the development because he found a large number of Asians living there. The affordability of housing in Renton appealed to Asian Americans, he said.
Lisa Lam, partner of Marcie Maxwell & Lisa Lam, Windermere Realtors, can attest to the affordability of Renton’s real estate. She said a three-bedroom house with a water view is in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. But in Seattle, a rundown house with a view can cost as much as $1 million.
“It’s best to work in the community you live in,” said Lam.
Tran is also the founder and an organizer of the Renton International Festival. Held at The Greater Highlands Center, the festival is slated to become an annual summer event that allows the city’s diverse communities to come together and share their unique cultures.
The three-day 2010 event included a Chinese yo-yo performance, Vietnamese dance and music, a Japanese taiko performance, and Indian belly dancing.
Education and social services
Sue Paro, executive director of Communities In Schools of Renton (CISR), has worked hard since April 2010 to make sure that Renton’s students-in-need do one thing, focus on learning. CISR supports these students so that they can attend school ready to learn, stay in school, and achieve academic success.
The organization serves a total of 837 students on an ongoing basis: 53 — six percent — are Asian Americans and 35 — four percent — are Pacific Islanders.
CISR has four family liaisons, each one serving two elementary schools in Renton. They deal with such issues as homelessness and English as a second language, so that the students who face these issues do not drop out.
Renton’s middle schools also have full-time liaisons capable of providing academic support.
She said, “All the different things that we’re seeing the kids in Renton struggle with, we try to help those families.”
Thirteen Asian American and two Pacific Islander students participate in CISR’s mentorship program. It currently has about 150 mentor matches each year. Paro says CISR is always looking for more men and people of color to volunteer as mentors.
“One of the great benefits here in Renton is that it’s one hour a week in the school,” Paro said.
“When that relationship is built at the school, it really reinforces that’s where the child needs to be.”
From 2009 through 2010, CISR helped more than 5,000 children and their family members annually.
Renton Mayor Denis Law believes that its people are Renton’s strongest asset.
“I feel Renton has the most genuine, caring people of any community in this region. Despite our population of nearly 91,000 residents, there remains a small town atmosphere and a very strong sense of community that is missing in many cities our size.”
“As you know, our city is very diverse,” added Law, “and we’re developing new ways of reaching out to our non-English-speaking residents, to improve the level of services we provide to them, and build relationships that we feel will help all of our citizens feel like valued members of our community.
Renton City Councilmember Greg Taylor also thinks more collaboration between groups would be beneficial for the city. “We have to be a little bit more proactive in convincing our diverse community that we are genuinely sincere about your input, your involvement, your engagement, wanting you to take ownership. This is your neighborhood,” said Taylor, who has lived in the city with his family for 15 years.
Renton continues to help the API community on such issues as small business development and emergency preparedness.
He says he understands many Asian immigrants and refugees come from countries with corrupt governments and law enforcement officers. “When they arrive here, I think that it’s important that we convince them that they can engage with us. It is in their best interest. Renton is wonderful the way it is, but I am so excited about how great it can be when we bring more people to the table,” Taylor said.
“The City of Renton wants to hear from them.”
An Asian American organization
David Hogue and Violet Aesquivel are officers of the Filipino American Community of Renton (FACR), an organization with about 40 members. FACR President Hogue, a Boeing electrical engineer, moved from California to Renton in 1984. FACR Secretary Aesquivel, a marketing manager at Pinoy Reporter, has lived in Renton for almost 20 years.
Every three months, FACR holds a meet-and-greet to welcome Filipinos who are either new in town or are existing residents of Filipino descent as well as anyone interested in Filipino culture.
Other FACR events include scholarship receptions and fundraising efforts for a planned FACR community center.
“If you join the Filipino American Community of Renton, then you will be able to not only enjoy the community that you live in, but also give back something to the community that you live in,” Hogue said. ♦
For more information, visit www.renton.ciswa.org, www.rentonwa.gov, www.rentonifest.org. For more information about the Filipino American Community of Renton, e-mail Violet Aesquivel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.