Community Building

(by Susan Davis – 11/21/2007)

Upon meeting Rainier Chamber member Linh Thai, one could describe him as a tall, athletic and confident man. Perhaps he is only average height (or I am short), but his confidence and can-do attitude give him a few extra inches. He’s an interesting man with a no-nonsense approach to life, happiness, and responsibility – both personally and socially.

Ask Thai about his daughter and wife, and his smiling expression reveals his loving and respectful feelings. Ask him about the Rainier Valley and his countenance reveals a determination that has to be admired. Don’t try thwarting his dreams for the Valley because you are wasting your time.

His face and enthusiastic manner show he means business, and, even though his shared vision for an International Festival in Southeast Seattle is less than six months old, he has thoroughly researched his options and has made the proper contacts to make the dream a reality. Like an Olympic athlete, Thai has his eye on the finish line, has taken the proper steps to prepare and has effectively honed his sight on the goal.

The Southeast Seattle 2007 International Festival happens Sunday, Dec. 9, with doors opening at 11 a.m. in Citadel at Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Othello Street. The festival will strive to celebrate a host of international cultures including those originating in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America. The community party comes with all that you would expect of such a gathering of cultures: food, dance, music, art, and activities for all ages.

Thai states it will be a celebration of what and who we are in the Valley. While this is just the first festival, Thai hopes that is will become a Southeast Seattle institution.

Why a festival? According to the planners’ statements on their website, they want “to celebrate the diversity of the immigrant business community of Martin Luther King Junior Way South. Impacted by the light rail construction, active business leaders along MLK…[want] to bring more visibility to this great neighborhood.”

As of the beginning of November, Thai and his festival planning partner, Quan Tran (a professional marketing exhibitor), have booked an entertainment program that includes many local talents and community groups such as a Chinese lion dance group, an East African dance troupe, Jazz musicians, hip-hop artists, Vovinam martial arts practitioners, a church choir, and a Cambodian folk dance group.

They are confident that they will have a lot of community support and that people will show up in droves because these types of cultural events are so important. With the incredibly rich ethnic representation in our community, who wouldn’t want to go to this festival?

Coming together to organize the festival are both Southeast Asian and East African businesses and organizations: the Vietnamese Community Activity Center, International Memorial Group LLC, Rose Petals Restaurant, Minh’s Restaurant, Thuy-Hong Pho, Joy Palace, Salima restaurant, and Horn of Africa. The Seattle Neighborhood Group is also helping with the organizing. Public and private sponsors are coming together to help the festival, including: Department of Neighborhoods, Washington Mutual Bank, Bank of America, Rainier Valley Community Development Fund and the Seattle Police Department.

The festival idea came about because of a concern for how the light rail system, and subsequent development following the mass-transportation system’s implementation, will affect the Valley. Both Thai and Tran want to make a strong statement about the international elements of the Valley by establishing institutions, such as annual festivals, to keep us celebrating what makes the South End unique in Seattle. The festival partners are concerned about changes that may come with the light rail and want to firmly establish the Valley’s identity.

In fact, Thai and Tran feel the festival will be the start of making the Valley’s needs heard. The organizers are planning to begin a conversation about what the Valley’s residents want by asking festival attendees to answer questions about their feelings and ideas for the Valley. From these responses, a planning group will make priorities and create a business and community association focusing on the Martin Luther King Jr. Way South corridor.

In talking with Thai, I sensed that he is simultaneously seeing the aerial big picture and while also connecting with me as a person firmly on the ground. It is clear that he is a high achiever who also has a gift of calm patience for others as they catch up with him.

“I don’t want people to ask me what to do,” Thai said in an explanation of his personal philosophy. “I want them to tell me what they want to do.”

He and his wife own Allstate Insurance agency in the Othello neighborhood. Thai was an army officer, studied political science and is the Executive Director of the Vietnamese Community Activity Center. He is also a master of Vovinam, a Vietnamese martial art developed in the 1930s with an emphasis on one’s personal, as well as social, responsibility. Vovinam’s philosophy is “to live, to help others live and to live for others.”

It is easy to see that Thai embraces this notion, and it’s such a perspective that is shaping the Southeast Seattle 2007 International Festival and steering it toward the goal of bringing Valley residents of all cultures together to enhance their lives and neighbors.

Keep checking the festival website for updated information at

Susan Davis is the executive director for the Rainier Chamber of Commerce and has lived in Southeast Seattle since 1989. She may be reached via


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