Nippon Kan Theater, Astor Hotel
From 1909 until the Japanese-American internment during World War II, the Nippon Kan Theater and Astor Hotel served Seattle's Japantown (Nihonmachi) community by providing housing for new immigrants, entertainment and cultural connection, and a gathering space for families, events, meetings, and fundraisers. The National Register of Historic Places Astor Hotel building is now a bike messenger service, but its original theater curtain (advertising the Nihonmachi businesses of 1909 through the 1920s) has been incorporated into the Wing Luke Asian Museum's Tateuchi Story Theatre (1; 2; 3).
Backstory and Context
The theater's role in Japantown life was perhaps best symbolized by the 15-by-30 foot fire curtain which first adorned its stage, composed of logo advertisements paid for by local proprietors including the Maneki restaurant, the only remaining business from Seattle's turn-of-the-twentieth-century International District. The curtain was placed in storage in either 1915 or 1925 and was thought to be lost until the 1970s, when it was rediscovered (1; 3). The theater hall, on the first floor of the Astor Hotel, includes a stepped balcony, stage, hanamichi (traditional Japanese theater runway), and a special platform for musicians, and the rear wall (backstage) is decorated with the names of Japanese-Americans from 1918. The hotel was built as temporary housing for men immigrating from Japan, but following the First World War, competition over employment led to anti-Japanese laws banning new immigrants, forbidding Japanese ownership of farms, refusing Japanese people citizenship, and leading to the closing of many of Japantown's businesses, shops, and hotels. During World War II, the internment of both citizen and non-citizen Japanese Americans stripped the community from the neighborhood altogether. Those who returned to Seattle settled elsewhere (3).
In 2005, the building became home to a bike messenger
service, the owners of which have worked in cooperation with the International
Special Review District (ISRD) board and the Wing Luke Asian Museum to preserve
the building's history (2; 3). The theater curtain, a physical representation
of the vibrant Japantown of the early twentieth century, was restored by conservator
Peter Malarkey and hangs once again as a stage curtain in the Wing Luke
Museum's Tateuchi Story Theatre (3).