EDMONDS — Will Chen picked up his son a week ago Friday from tutoring at the Plum Tree Plaza on Highway 99 in Edmonds.
It was a typical day. They got takeout at one of their favorite spots, the Wonton Noodle House, a Cantonese-style restaurant next door in the plaza’s strip mall. Chen’s son, 10, loves a beef rice noodle dish served there. When they got their food, the son made sure to tell his dad that he had first dibs on any leftovers they had.
An arsonist set the plaza on fire the next morning, Sept. 11. Witnesses reported smoke and flames around 5:35 a.m. at the L-shaped strip mall at 22315 Highway 99.
The fire quickly ripped through the mall’s shared attic and severely damaged the noodle house and all 13 other businesses in the plaza. Each sustained either flame, smoke or water damage, forcing them to close their doors.
Edmonds police had not identified a suspect as of Friday afternoon. They were seeking the public’s help to solve the crime.
Strip malls sometimes fly under the radar for commuters or other passersby. Yet they can be more than just a cluster of isolated businesses. Plum Tree Plaza was a cultural hub where Asian Americans connected with their cultures and one another. Among the mall’s offerings were five restaurants, a tutoring center, a dentist’s office, a beauty school, a salon, an antique store and one of the area’s only Indonesian grocery stores, Waroeng Jajanan.
The store with a small restaurant inside was one a gathering place for people with Indonesian heritage. Other businesses served a similar purpose.
“The people there — I speak their languages,” Chen said. “I speak Cantonese, I speak Mandarin — so when they see me, it is like seeing friends or family.”
Chen, a candidate for Edmonds City Council, works just down the street and visited the plaza at least once a week, he said, often walking from his office to grab lunch. He said he has seen how the plaza has been a place for people of various Asian backgrounds to come together.
“This is such a vibrant community up here,” said Mill Creek resident Robert Ha, a travel agent who works in Edmonds. “People drive from miles to come here. Great food. Good people.”
One of the damaged businesses, the State Farm Insurance office of Mark Choi, was popular among Korean and Chinese Americans.
The Edmonds Chamber Foundation is raising money for people who worked in the plaza. The WISH Fund stands for “When Inconvenient Stuff Happens.” It’s a community relief program to help small businesses recover after a disaster.
On Thursday, the foundation presented a $1,000 check to restaurant owner Bufeng Gao at the Plum Tree Plaza. Gao’s restaurant, Qin Xi’an Noodles, was one of the most badly damaged in the fire.
Gao has run Qin for over five years, she said, serving northeastern-style Chinese cuisine, including hand-pulled noodles and handmade dumplings.
“I’m heartbroken,” Gao said in an interview Thursday, through an interpreter. “This restaurant means so much to my family.”
Edmonds Chamber of Commerce President Greg Urban said the foundation hopes to write checks to support all 14 businesses.
As it stood Friday afternoon, there wasn’t nearly enough money in the WISH Fund to do that. So the foundation is seeking donations to help people whose livelihoods have been taken away.
“A lot of people, when they want to help, they go shop at the business to support it,” Urban said. “This is a way — if people want to donate $10, $20 — to support these businesses right now.”
Donations to the WISH Fund are tax-deductible. Those interested in donating can do so on the chamber foundation website.
The owners of the Waroeng Jajanan store are also asking for donations through an online fundraiser.
The owners of Qin plan to set up a platform for online donations soon.
Police said Monday the fire was determined to be arson through security footage and physical evidence. No further details had been released as of Friday. Tips can be directed to Edmonds police at 425-771-0212.