Features

Most Influential, Business: James Wong

Prolific developer wants ‘to do more good for the community’

By Chris S. Nishiwaki February 23, 2023

Photo courtesy of James Wood

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

James Wong is one of Seattle’s 25 most influential people reshaping our region. #mostinfluential  

James Wong grew up across the street from Beacon Hill Elementary School with blue-collar parents. His father was a cook at iconic Chinatown International District restaurants Ocean City and House of Hong. His mother was a seamstress. 

Instead of simply crossing the street to go home from school, he walked around the block, then down an alley and entered the apartment building where he lived via a back door. 

“I didn’t want people, my classmates, to know where I lived,” Wong says. “All of my friends lived in nicer apartments. At 10 years old, I felt so much shame living in what I thought was an ugly apartment on top of a church.” 

Wong vowed that he would build affordable homes so no child would have to feel the shame he did growing up. 

“I told myself, ‘Someday, I am going to be able to afford to live in one of those nice places,’” Wong recalls. “’Someday I am going to build more homes and rent them to families so they would not be ashamed of where they lived.’ Having grown up poor, I want to build housing. My goal in life is to bring more happiness.” 

Wong has since cofounded Vibrant Cities and is currently building five projects with a total of 650 housing units, with another 1,000 units permitted in Seattle and Portland. 

Jasmine, the proposed 17-story mixed use building in the former Bush Gardens site in the Chinatown International District, might be his most ambitious project yet. Since buying the property in 2017, development has met with resistance. In August, the International Special Review District approved demolition of the building that had been a community gathering place for decades, clearing the way for Vibrant Cities to develop Jasmine. 

“If you don’t invest in a community, it dies,” Wong says of his motivation to build Jasmine. “I am not ambitious to make more money. I am ambitious to do more good for the community.”

#mostinfluential

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