Dragon Fest a boon to families, businesses

By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly

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During the festival, Mayor McGinn (center left) debuted the first of 30 new bilingual street signs to be put up across the neighborhood. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

The International District is open for business.

That’s what over 25,000 people attending the International District’s Dragon Fest 2013 last weekend learned as vendors lined the streets and restaurants opened their doors for the neighborhood’s annual summer festival.

In addition to the traditional dances, cultural exhibitions, and martial arts demonstrations that have taken place in the neighborhood for years, the 2013 event featured the return of the International District $2 Food Walk and Double Happiness Hour, the debut of the International Dance Party, and the unveiling of the first of 30 bilingual street signs in the International District.

Over the summer, translated street name signs in English and Chinese or English and Japanese will be added to over 30 intersections in the International District through a partnership between the City of Seattle and the Chinatown–International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA). The CIDBIA worked with over 100 community stakeholders, 15 family associations, the University of Washington, and translators from the Seattle Municipal Court to translate the existing street names into traditional Chinese and Japanese.

“This is awesome,” said Jesse Robbins, a half-Filipino half-white visitor to the International District. “This will bring identity to the International District.”

Visiting the ID

“This festival is leaving a very positive impression on us,” said Shana Weiss, a Magnolia resident whose family was visiting the International District for the first time ever. “We’re so happy to be able to share this cultural experience with our daughter. She’s got to see a few dragon dances and performances, and she’s so excited.”

The story was similar for the many families who made the trip to Chinatown to attend the event. Strollers and toddlers crowding the arts and craft activities and games areas, and children performances were a common sight. Family-aimed activities this year included Splat-a-Paint, a paint-flinging art project by Inscape Arts; and the Canton Alley games, organized by the Seattle Chinatown–International District Preservation and Development Authority. McDonald’s, the presenting sponsor of the event, also put on shows and activities for children.

While the Dragon Fest program was packed, others still, visited for the food.

“We’re really enjoying the Chinese food, especially my daughter Zoë,” said Dennis, who had brought his family from Seward Park in South Seattle. “Zoë’s excited to be here. It’s like we’re in Hong Kong again.”

People who attended the event choose Dragon Fest over several other events last weekend, including the Ballard Seafood Fest, Sub Pop Record 25th anniversary music festival, and the Green Lake Milk Carton Derby. Traveling to the festival also proved more difficult due to closures on I-520 and I-405.

In addition to cultural and family activities, this year’s festival introduced a dance party under Seattle’s Chinatown Gate at S King Street and 5th Ave S. The event closed Saturday’s program, running from 8 p.m. to midnight. Organizers hung a disco ball under the gate, and a DJ played electronic dance music.

“The beginning was kind of weird. It was more like groups performing rather than a dance party,” said Renton resident Uyen Ha, who attended the dance party. “But after the performances everyone started dancing.”

“I had a lot of fun. I brought all my friends and it brings out a lot of people to the area,” Ha continued. “There were younger people, but there were a lot of older people too. It was really a fun mixture.”

Good for Business

Despite the past few years’ successes, the summertime festival was just recently in danger. After decreasing attendance and few  obvious advantages, the community was faced with the question on how to proceed.

“When I came on about three and a half years ago, we were at a crossroads with the event — businesses were asking us to retire the event because it wasn’t helping bring customers, and that was something we saw as a major problem,” said Don Blakeney, the executive director of the CIDBIA, the organization that organizes the event. “Obviously with the rich history, and importance to the community, this wasn’t an option.”

In order to improve the viability of the festival, it underwent a major rebranding and reorganization in 2011, replacing the former title, the International District–Chinatown Summer Festival, with the more recognizable “Dragon Fest.” Fees for vendors also dropped. In 2009, vendors could expect to pay as much as $400 to participate in the festival. In 2011, a comparable booth cost only $120 plus a 15 percent cut of receipts from the festival. Since 2012, vendor fees have remained level.

The CIDBIA has also focused on bringing attendees into businesses as opposed to bringing business to the attendees.

“We wanted to showcase as many businesses to as many customers as possible while we had their attention, with the hope that we would make return customers out of our visitors,” said Blakeney.

The trial 2011 Food Walk proved successful. In 2011, 10 restaurants participated. This last weekend, 30 did.

“Business has been very even and steady today. A variety of people and families are coming in and are enjoying the last day of the festival,” said World Pizza’s Adam Cone. “I always love Dragon Fest, I can’t wait for it. It’s always a special time.” (end)

Charles Lam can be reached at Charles@nwasianweekly.com.

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