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Originally published November 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 25, 2005 at 9:46 AM

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Chinatown International District: Dim sum and then some

The outing: High above the city's Chinatown International District, adjacent to the gritty concrete of Interstate 5, a garden grows. The tiered plots of...

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The outing: High above the city's Chinatown International District, adjacent to the gritty concrete of Interstate 5, a garden grows. The tiered plots of the Danny Woo Community Garden on South Main Street are tenderly cared for, and the minimalist Kobe Terrace Park that adjoins it seems committed to sharing the secrets of the young lovers that stroll through.

Like the neighborhood the garden serves, community is evident in every part of the bustling Chinatown ID, proving all the more why a day trip should go beyond that cursory dim-sum brunch.

In the span of a few hours on a recent raindrop-drenched Saturday, I happened upon the hip and historic Panama Hotel on Sixth Avenue South, built in 1910 by Japanese architect Saburo Ozasa. The hotel has housed immigrants, fishermen and, today, international budget travelers. Its basement has one of only two intact Japanese bathhouses in the country. For years the two marble baths served the Japanese-American community here before closing in 1950 and being sealed in that decade forever.

The basement was also a storage area for Japanese Americans who were forced to leave behind their possessions on the eve of the Japanese internment in 1942. Through a glass panel on the floor of the hotel's swanky teahouse, visitors can view abandoned trunks, appliances and clothing. The owner, Jan Johnson, offers private tours of the hotel to student groups.

Windows to history, literal and figurative, seem to be everywhere in the district.

Community leaders point to the Wing Luke Asian Museum on Seventh Avenue South as an example. This pan-Asian-American museum has been a center of the community since it opened in 1966.

The intelligent and emotional exhibits make it a perfect stop. Permanent exhibits include the history of the district's early Asian immigrants as well as one detailing the experiences of local residents in the Japanese internment. The museum is planning to expand when they move into the historic Kong Yick building on South King Street in 2007.

Built in 1910, the Kong Yick building served as a housing and community center, created on the pooled dollars and cents of its residents. The tradition of collective fund-raising continues today with the museum's capital campaign to raise more than $24 million for the expansion. Meanwhile members of the Historic Chinatown Gate Foundation are also raising $950,000 in funds to build two elaborate Chinese gates on Fifth Avenue South and Eighth Avenue South.

SHOPPING: Uwajimaya Village at South Lane Street and Fifth Avenue South is not to be missed. The supermarket includes everything from favorite Asian foods and hard-to-find ingredients to gift items and books. First conceived of as a fish-cake manufacturing company in 1928, this bustling commercial area now takes up an entire block, including an apartment complex and park. For $8.95, I purchased a book of 30 postcards of Chinese comics from kung-fu fighters to anime characters. Beyond Uwajimaya, the entire district is a treasure trove. At the Guang Sang Co. at 617 S. Jackson St., which sells tropical fish, I discovered a delicate faux rose plant made entirely of glass and ceramic, a traditional Chinese craft, for only $6. Bargaining with owners at small shops is always an option. Another great art and gift shop is the Kobo gallery located in the Higo Ten Cent Store building on S. Jackson St. The original Sun May Co., built in 1911, at 672 South King St. is a great spot for antiques.

GOOD EATS: The Green Village Restaurant at 516 Sixth Ave. S. does brisk business, and watching owner Wendy Lu shout out orders in flawless Mandarin, Cantonese and English is a hoot. The most expensive thing on the menu is $6.95. For only $2.95 I sampled the rice with pork sauce, a Taiwanese staple. Another traditional snack spot is the Mon Hei Chinese Bakery on South King Street and Seventh Avenue South. They serve up $1 barbecue-pork buns and chicken pies. Stop there for a while to drink tea among the elderly men gathered in gossip.

GETTING THERE: Take Exit 164 from both southbound and northbound I-5. When coming from the south, take James Street downtown and follow Sixth Avenue South across Yesler Way downhill to the district. From the north, follow the signs for the sports stadiums to Dearborn Street, and turn right on Seventh Avenue or Maynard Avenue into the district. Street parking is pretty good; I plugged in $4 in change for a few hours. There are also several parking lots dispersed throughout the neighborhood. A map of parking lots is available at: http://www.internationaldistrict.org/map_streets.asp

LINKS: http://www.internationaldistrict.org/ (includes information on Chinatown Discovery Tours)

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