Chinatown Discovery: The Louisa Hotel and the Club Royale

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Chinatown Discovery: The Louisa Hotel and the Club Royale

Uncovered mural photo courtesy of Paul de Barros.

Walking Tour: Thursday, July 18, 5:30pm
Wing Luke Museum
719 S King St

Back in January, 2016, I received an email from Tanya Woo, owner of the historic Louisa Hotel in the Chinatown International District, asking if I knew anything about a vintage jazz club in the basement of the building. In the process of remodeling, she had discovered the words “Club Royale” written above the stairwell leading to the basement, some stunning art deco murals of fashionable folks in top hats and furs, and a floor plan indicating the venue once had boasted a stage and dance floor. This was exciting news! One of my sources for Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle had told me there were “secret tunnels” between Chinatown’s Prohibition Era jazz clubs and what later became the Wah Mee Club, which had been in this building, but I had never once found any evidence of this. I immediately replied that I would love to see the murals. Thus began a research project, funded by King County’s 4Culture, about one of Seattle’s most mysterious jazz venues.

The Club Royale was housed in a 1909 building located at the southwest corner of South King Street and Seventh Avenue South and named originally for its Scandinavian owners—Louis Tagholm, John Nelson and Niels Jensen—who operated it as a working man’s hotel catering to laborers in the Alaska canneries.

During Prohibition, the basement hosted two speakeasies. On the west side was the Blue Heaven (a space later occupied by the Wah Mee); on the east, connected by a secret passageway, was the Club Royale, popularly known as the “Bucket of Blood” and once described by The Seattle Star as “colorful, flourishing and fashionable.” The place appears to have opened in August, 1930, a year after Charlie Louie set up shop across the street at the Chinese Gardens. Both places offered liquor, food, gambling, and jazz.

In his autobiography, the great New Orleans clarinetist Joe Darensbourg recalled playing the Club Royale with Seattle saxophonist Gerald Wells. Newspapers also report that a well known local pianist, Anson “Polly” Butler, was arrested there during a raid conducted by Federal “dry agents.” Though the place was sometimes called the Hong Kong Chinese Society, the owners were not Chinese, but rather a ring of white petty gangsters. Federal agents relentlessly raided the Club Royale, finally shutting it down for good on New Year’s Eve, 1932.

Though the Club Royale appears to have existed for only two-and-a-half years, the Hotel Louisa is a going concern. Purchased by Tanya Woo’s father, the late Paul Woo, in 1963, it re-opened last month with 84 units of low-income housing, with mementos of the past woven into its design. At 5:30pm Thursday, July 18, as part of the Wing Luke Museum’s annual JamFest, I’ll be leading a free walking tour of historic Chinatown International District jazz clubs, including aviewing of the Club Royale stairwell murals. Attendance is limited to 25. If you are interested, please sign up now at Louisahotelseattle.com. –Paul de Barros

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July 1, 2019