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Sairen Store Cofounders The Kaitlins’ Guide to Seattle’s Chinatown

“The Kaitlins,” Seattle Chinatown-International District business owners, share their recommendations for visiting the neighborhood.

Seattle Chinatown gate
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Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersection of food, culture, and travel. She is an Association of Food Journalists and Lowell Thomas award-winner, and her cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter and Instagram.

When Kaitlin Uemura and Kaitlin Madriaga first met at the University of Washington, they realized that beyond sharing a name and dorm floor, they both came from Hawaii, and planned to study health. Now, they also share a totally different career, after opening Sairen together in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (known as the “ID”). The boutique features clothes, art, toys, and housewares from Seattle, Hawaii, and Japan, with a focus on products by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Though the store opened in December 2020, they both knew the neighborhood well from living in the city for more than a decade, and Uemura from working in the area. Since 2017, the pair designed clothes under the brand Morning Siren, and when the previous tenant in the space—the store Uemura worked at—closed, her boss suggested the Kaitlins take over the space. The community feel of the neighborhood gave them the confidence to take the leap, says Madriaga, and they loved the idea of being part of the many little shops there—some of them passed down through generations. Like they say, “[the ID] honors the old and the new.”

Here are their tips and recommendations for exploring Seattle’s flourishing Chinatown.

The Kaitlins with a pair of cute puppies in Seattle.
The Kaitlins own Sairen in Seattle's ID.Foto: Kaitlin Uemura and Kaitlin Madriaga

A brief history of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District

The early roots of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District—which now incorporates cultures from across Asia, including Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines—began with the Chinese immigrants who built businesses and hotels along S. Washington Street in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. More recently, Vietnamese immigrants who began settling along Jackson Street in the 1970s created another enclave, Little Saigon, joining existing subsections such as Nihonmachi (Japantown). “Everyone can thrive in their individual identity,” says Uemura. “But they’re part of the larger [Chinatown-International District] community.”

In fact, Sairen’s space is testament to a history shared by many of Chinatown-International District’s buildings. The Kaitlins’ landlord, Paul Murakami, inherited the building from family and represents a third generation of business ownership in the area—something of a rarity, given that few Japanese American families were able to maintain ownership of their properties as a result of forced relocation and incarceration during World War II. However, a Jewish tenant stepped in to maintain the building and pay the bills, handing ownership back over to Murakami’s family after the war.

Seattle's Chinatown-International District with snowy blanketing the roofs and trees.
Snowy scenes in Seattle's Chinatown-International District.Foto: oksana.perkins / Shutterstock

Kaitlin Uemura’s and Kaitlin Madriaga’s Chinatown recommendations

1. Shop: Uemura likes shopping at Kobo, on the same block as Sairen, because its more traditional Asian home goods, art, and books pair nicely with Sairen’s modern ones. Trichome goes a different direction. “It’s actually a [legal cannabis] dispensary,” laughs Uemura. But Madriaga loves the logo hoodies and other streetwear that they design themselves. They also both like the Asian streetwear and jewelry sold in the boutique portion of Moksha, which pivoted during the pandemic from its roots as an event space to a plant biome studio for sound, plant, and light therapy.

2. Relax: Both Kaitlins, along with shop dogs Nala and Kimiko, like to take breaks from the store to enjoy Kobe Terrace, a park just up the hill. With gardens, cherry trees, winding paths, and a 4-ton, 200-year-old stone lantern, it makes for a pleasant wander with a good view of the city, while some of the benches are a good alternative lunch spot to Hing Hay Park, where the tables often get crowded.

A big red sculpture at an entrance to Hing Hay Park in Seattle's Chinatown.
Hing Hay Park is lovely, but it can get crowded.Foto: ARTYOORAN / Shutterstock

3. Eat cool food: For a quick bite, Madriaga likes Fuji Bakery, where the Japanese egg salad sandwich or beef curry buns make an easy lunch, and the ube malasadas (Portuguese donuts) provide a taste of home. The chefs at Itsumono, a nearby restaurant, are also from Hawaii and the fusion cuisine such as loco moco Scotch Egg and cauliflower karaage, along with the neighborhood bar feel brings in a lot of regulars, including the Kaitlins, who like that people ‘talk story’ there—stick around and chat.

4. Eat old-school food: One of the best parts of the neighborhood is the history embedded in the restaurants, including Maneki, which is more than a century old. Madriaga loves the California Roll because it uses real crab, “and the tatami rooms are great for a whole crew.” But like so many restaurants in the area, Maneki is evenings only; so, during the day, the Kaitlins hit Fuji for sushi. “They have a great bento box,” says Uemura, but her favorite is the salmon lover’s roll, which comes with a whole wedge of lemon. “You eat it all,” she promises.

A plate of dusted malasadas at a restaurant in Seattle's Chinatown.
Don't skip the malasadas when in Seattle's Chinatown.Foto: yukimco / Shutterstock

5. Learn the history: To drink in the area’s past, Uemura suggests grabbing a pot of tea or a London fog latte at the Panama Tea House. “They actually take the time to wait for tea to steep,” she says. She likes the wood-floored café as a place to sit, and that it’s a national historic landmark—a clear window into the basement bathhouse area shows the last of the luggage left behind when the hotel stored belongings for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Learn more about that history at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, which offers exhibits covering all facets of life in the neighborhood and region through the years. “I always tell people, even if you don’t have time, just do the gift shop,” says Uemura. But if you do, they offer tours of both the museum itself and of the neighborhood—including food tours.

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