The wide worldview of James Mar

Jim Mar has a distinct take on things. He is a pragmatist and, as he nears 91 years of age, he has a sense of perspective that only time can bring.

Then there is his worldview. During World War II, he served in North Africa and Europe, so he has seen other lands. But Seattle's Chinatown is the realm he knows best.

Jim was born on July 11, 1914, at Seattle's Providence Hospital. He is the fourth of eight children born to Mar Fook Hing and Lee Shee. Both his parents were born outside Canton, China, and immigrated to the United States separately in 1906. They met after they'd arrived in the West.

Once here, his father renamed himself Henry, though his mother kept her Chinese name. When Jim was born, he was given the Occidental name James, as well as the traditional name Mar Gim Toon.

Like all his siblings (and, eventually, his children), Jim attended Garfield High School. He lettered in basketball and baseball, and graduated in 1933.

All in the family

His father Henry was an import/export merchant who, over the years, branched out into many aspects of that business, providing a livelihood for each of his sons as he entered adulthood. Henry founded Seattle's first Chinese-run grocery store, steamship travel agency, barber shop, taxicab company and express baggage company. One by one, his sons took over each of the businesses.

"I couldn't believe my father's ingenuity," Jim said. "He didn't want us to bother each other, and he made sure we didn't."

Jim got the grocery store, Yick Fung & Company, located on South King Street and opened by his father in 1910. Primarily a wholesale company that services Chinese restaurants, it sells canned and dried goods, fresh produce and cooking supplies.

"Nationwide, all of us importers know each other," Jim explained. For import purposes, the United States is divided into clear sections; Yick Fung services Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The modest storefront opens into a rectangular room with a worn wooden floor and a ceiling so high it almost disappears. A black banner is emblazoned with two gold Chinese characters signifying the name of the store, which means "good benefits." White globes hang here and there, their long pull-strings dangling within reach.

An old scale sits in an alcove, and next to a jar of Red Vines and bags of Top Ramen there's a heavy, black adding machine; it has white, round keys that must be hit hard as well as a lever that must be pulled after each entry.

Items on the scalloped shelves look as if they have been there awhile - because they have: most are for display only. Customers decide what they want, then buy it in cases.

That's changing, however, as Yick Fung's retail business increases.

In years past the store was also an agent for the Blue Funnel Line, a steamship company that transported 90 to 100 passengers to and from Hong Kong. There were 30 cots upstairs where people stayed before they left or after they arrived, and meals were served for 25 cents each.

At war

Jim was the first Chinese-American man in Seattle to be drafted when World War II broke out. In February 1941 he was drafted into the Army's 56th Medical Battalion and stationed at Fort Lewis.

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was sent to Fort Dix, N.J., then on to Fidala, Morocco, near Casablanca, where he served as a medical supply staff sergeant.

Jim also served in Corsica, Italy, France and Germany, and was in Berlin at the end of the war. Commissioned while in Palermo, Italy, he retired in 1945 as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve Corps.

He returned to Seattle where he resumed operating Yick Fung and attended college at the Army Reserve School. In 1946 he began working for Butterworth Mortuary on Capitol Hill. Four years ago Butterworth sold some other funeral parlors it owned and moved its headquarters to Queen Anne.

Meeting a need

Jim got into the mortuary business because he perceived that the special burial needs of Asians, especially Chinese, were not being met in Seattle. This was due not to racism but to the fact that many Chinese did not have family here.

"Back then," Jim said, "many people returned to the old country to die, around age 60." (Of course, the Blue Funnel Line was available to get them there.) But life and death can be unpredictable; some people didn't make it in time, and so they died here, often alone.

Nowadays many Chinese choose to stay here to the end, and they live longer besides. Jim says that more people die when the weather changes: "Summer is our slack time."

Chinese funerals are almost always burials rather than cremations; it is a sign of prestige to be able to afford a burial. In contrast, Japanese funerals are almost always cremations. Jim thinks that is because of the limited space available in the old country.

A matter of tradition

There are many special Chinese funeral traditions. One is that members of the bereaved family must not wear red. Red is the color of good luck, and is inappropriate for the occasion.

Another is that as people leave the funeral, mortuary staff hand out white envelopes (white signifies purity) containing a piece of candy, to rid the mourners' mouths of the bitterness that accompanies death, and a coin to buy another piece of candy to prolong the feeling of sweetness.

Jim is sensitive to these needs, but he will accommodate any family's needs regardless of ethnicity, culture or religion. In addition to the service, he helps the family pick out the casket and plot, along with ironing out other details. He takes on funerals as they arise, about two per week.

Personally, "I have no set religion," Jim said. "In my business you have to be neutral." To maintain good public relations, he donates money to a variety of churches and organizations. "I play ball with all of them," he said. This stance has served him well - he's been funeral director at Butterworth for 59 years.

Love and hoops

At a basketball tournament in 1948 (Jim played in a national Asian-American basketball league), Jim met Ida Lee. They married and had four children, three daughters and one son. Upon their marriage, Jim's Chinese name was changed to Mar Tai Yip, as dictated by an ancestor in his father's village.

Tragically, one of Jim and Ida's daughters died at 43 of breast cancer. The couple have six high school- and college-age grandchildren. Ida teaches ESL at South Seattle Community College, as she has for 38 years.

In 1967, Jim and Ida built a house in Seward Park, where they've lived ever since. Three stories tall with six bedrooms and a view, it's on a dead-end street near Lake Washington, just above the Stan Sayres Hydroplane Pit.

"Seward Park is a nice neighborhood," Jim said. "It's quiet, the people are friendly and watch out for each other, and it's racially diverse."

Now all but one of the bedrooms are empty, but Jim and Ida's children still throw parties there. "It seems like the kids have never gone," Jim said.

The couple also owns a home in Hoodsport, right on the shores of Hood Canal, where they spend holidays and where their children often go.

Both busy and active - their secret for long life - Jim and Ida have no hobbies, unless you count the water-aerobics class they take together twice a week.

"There's really nothing bad about getting old," he said. He added that he has slowed down a bit, but you can't tell by his brisk and purposeful walk.


Jim has a long civic résumé. To cite just a few of his accomplishments, he is past president of many organizations: the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the Jackson Street Community Council, the American Legion Veterans Association's Cathay Post No. 186 and the Mar Society.

The latter is a family association with about 240 active members. Jim likens it to a social security association for people with the family name Mar (which means "horse"). The society helps immigrants named Mar handle all the logistics of arriving in a new country, helping them find a place to live, a job, how to read a bus schedule, etc. Other extended Chinese families, like Chins or Wongs, have their own societies.

Jim is worried about the future of family associations. "Our memberships are depleting because young people do not join," he explained. "They only come to our dinners..."

For that matter, all of Chinatown is changing. "I used to know everyone," Jim said, "but now I don't. All the people used to be Chinese, except for the Japanese on Main Street, but now there are many different kinds of Asians." After all, the area is called the International District now.

But it's far better than his father's village outside Canton, Know Yin Mee, which Jim has visited several times. "Life was just awful there," he said. "There was no electricity or plumbing, and poor sanitation. Mosquitoes were everywhere. People gathered twigs for firewood - wood was like gold."

On his most recent visit eight years ago, conditions in the village had improved with the installation of utilities. On that visit he gave away three family homes by picking names out of a basket.

Juggling two occupations, helping people in life and death, keeping traditions alive through change. No small feat for a person of any age. But Jim does them all - and with purpose in his stride.

Teru Lundsten is a freelance writer living in Queen Anne. Write her by email at[[In-content Ad]]