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Documentary on Seattle’s Bush Garden Will Be Screened Tomorrow at Tacoma Film Festival

The film tells the story of how the community rallied to save the Japanese restaurant and karaoke bar from displacement — and how the fight continues

An older Japanese woman holds a framed black and white photo of a Japanese man wearing a suit. She sits next to a table set with plates, bowls and chopsticks.
Joan Seko holds a photo of her father-in-law Kaichi Seko, the founder of Seattle’s Bush Garden.
Chris Woon-Chen

Rent hikes and developments have displaced some of Seattle’s most cherished restaurants and gathering places. Chinatown-International District: Bush Garden is a documentary that proves how community support can rally to save them. A selection of the Tacoma Film Festival, the documentary will be screened on Saturday, October 9, at 12 p.m. at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema.

Seattle’s Bush Garden is the first restaurant karaoke bar in the nation and Washington state’s second Japanese restaurant. Started in 1953, the Chinatown International District’s Bush Garden became a meeting place for local activists like “Uncle” Bob Santos and others who fought against the gentrification of the primarily Asian American enclave. Bush Garden was an ideal meeting place due to popular happy hour items like gyoza, onion rings, and shareable yakisoba, pork kimchi, or steak dishes, plus a generous pour at the bar.

When a developer called Vibrant Cities bought the historic building in 2017, Martin Tran and co-directors Ellison Shieh and Christopher Woon-Chen grabbed their cameras and “started shooting as soon as we could,” Tran said.

A community rallied around Bush Garden, but eventually, the restaurant had to close due to another factor: the pandemic. With furnishings and memorabilia stashed away in current owner Karen Akada Sakata’s storage, Bush Garden is now slated to reopen a couple of blocks away at the new Uncle Bob’s Place, tentatively in 2022. It’s a fitting move for Bush Garden, which was also known as Santos’ “after hours office.” Uncle Bob’s Place is owned by the nonprofit Santos started over 50 years ago, Interim CDA.

While Bush Garden will return, the fight continues for the historic building that once housed it. Community organizers envision preserving the building and adding low-income housing on the lot next to it. “People still care about that site,” co-executive producer Cynthia Brothers said. “Once there’s a luxury apartment tower right in the heart of the ID, it opens the floodgates and is reflective of the larger issues and battles around gentrification and displacement in the district.”

For Brothers and Tran, the documentary’s message is one of hope: that gentrification isn’t always inevitable, and small restaurants and businesses can be saved. “Take action, vote for folks you think will fight for small businesses and communities,” Tran said. “[Vote] with your dollars. Go and support these restaurants.”

Learn more about the Vanishing Seattle Films through its website and Instagram, and learn more about efforts to resist displacement in Seattle’s Chinatown International District at the CID Coalition website.