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Our Tomorrow: Meet the photographer documenting resiliency in the CID

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Keoke Silvano’s Seattle roots run deep. Born and raised in the Emerald City, he fell into photography “accidentally” a number of years ago while working for his alma mater, the University of Washington. 

While rising costs have forced many of his friends and peers to move to outlying areas, Keoke, a father of two, has done everything he can to stay in the city he loves. Perhaps that’s why he felt compelled to act when he noticed a restaurant in his neighborhood had been vandalized and was getting boarded up.

“I just felt that it warranted some sort of a community reaction, to paint some murals or do something artistic on the boards, so the restaurant didn’t seem to be abandoned,” Keoke said. “That way, people would know that it was still open, that they were still serving the community.” 

We recently caught up with Keoke to learn more about what happened next, and ask what Seattleites can do to continue supporting businesses in Chinatown and the International District. The following are excerpts from our conversation:

Tell us more about the day you walked by Jade Garden in late March. What did you see, and what was your reaction?

Keoke: I live in the area, so I was walking by and saw construction workers putting up boards on the windows to protect the windows. I thought the restaurant was shutting down or going out of business, but after I talked to them they said that someone had vandalized the restaurant the night before, causing $1,500 to $2,000 worth of damage.

I talked to the son of the owner, Eric Chan, and put a call for artists out on Facebook. I posted some pictures of the restaurant and told the story as I saw it. Within a few minutes, I had five artists who were willing to paint murals onto the restaurant. 

I wasn’t trying to make a big thing out of it, but I’ve always done things that I felt like were right at the time, and this is no different.

It ended up becoming a bigger thing than I ever anticipated: There was an uptick of people visiting the restaurants in the area once we started telling our story and letting people know what was going on. And it became a living, breathing thing that’s been taken on by folks who organized a second wave of artists to paint murals following last month’s protests. 

So much of what’s happened in Seattle over the past few months has been on a spontaneous, grassroots level. What do you think that says about the future of art and storytelling in our city?

Keoke: These days, everybody is participating in the media in some sort of way. Personally, I only have 1,500 followers on my Instagram, but I know people are watching, they’re reading, they see what is going on. I don’t consider myself a journalist, but I know in an informal regard I am because I am still informing the public of what I see. 

It’s also self-healing. We’re all stuck at home and that makes it really difficult to even just talk with people in a meaningful way and to make sense of what we see and hear. Instagram, in a way, is my therapy. 

My philosophy is I know that every picture is worth a thousand words, so I always provide some context so that people have a better understanding of what I’m trying to see through the lens of my camera.

The next conversation is: How do we make sure that we collect this? Now that we have all these wonderful murals that are painted, what do we do with them? How do we start systematically archiving and saving these stories, so that 100 years from now we have someplace to go to say, “This is what was going on, and this was the reaction to it.”

Looking out from inside Eastern Cafe, early on in the pandemic. (📷: @keokesilvanophotography)

What are the biggest challenges right now for residents and businesses in Chinatown and the International District? How can other folks help?

Keoke: Even though some of these businesses are bouncing back, there are still tensions surrounding xenophobia and also lingering fear that there could be a second wave of COVID-19. If that happens, we know more blaming and more finger-pointing would occur. If you’re Asian, it doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese or if you’re Korean — we take the brunt of that anger because of the way the pandemic has been framed on the national level. 

People need to know that these places are safe for customers to visit and to buy their food from and that purchasing their goods from this community is the biggest help. I know a lot of people want to donate their time toward something that brings meaning to them, but the meaning really is in keeping these businesses going.

This is why we’re doing what we’re doing — so that we can keep these businesses afloat. 

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.