James “Uncle Jimmy” Mar leaves behind powerful legacy (1914–2012)

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Jimmy Mar (Photo by Ann Marie Stillon)

By Staff
Northwest Asian Weekly

James Malcolm Mar was born in Seattle on July 11, 1914, to immigrant parents Lee Shee and Henry Mar Hing. Throughout his life, Mar would bear witness to the Asian experience in Seattle and the United States and lend his help and services to members of the Asian community.

From a young age, Mar helped his father manage Yick Fung, their import export store, which supplied canned goods like water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, soy sauce, spices, kitchen tools, and fresh Chinese vegetables. Yick Fung became a ticket agent for the Blue Funnel Line, a steamship company based in Hong Kong that kept quarters for passengers. Every two months, passengers from all over the United States would come through Seattle on their way back to their native villages in China.

Mar recalled that many of these passengers were in their old age, and were likely returning to their native villages to die.

Yick Fung continued to be a significant outpost for the community. The second floor of the store was set up with 30 cots to house travelers for $1.00 per night, which included two meals. Others were sent off to rooming houses and hotels ran by Japanese friends. Yick Fung closed in 2008 and is now featured as a main stop on the Chinatown/International District tour at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.

“Uncle Jimmy was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the vision of converting the East Kong Yick building into the new Wing Luke. It was a daring vision at the time, to convert a run-down workman’s hotel into a living museum,” said Ron Chew, community organizer and former executive director of the Wing.

“ ‘If we don’t do something with that building, it’s going to crumble to the ground,’ he would always tell me. ‘None of us are getting any younger.’… He also donated his store, Yick Fung & Company, including all the merchandise, cabinets, and fixtures – to the Wing Luke Museum, so it could be made into a permanent ‘living’ exhibition in the new museum. It was, and is, a time capsule because much of the physical space hadn’t changed in 100 years. … I think his greatest legacy, and gift, was his role in helping broker the sale of the Kong Yick building to the Wing Luke Museum to develop as the new home of the museum. In a very direct sense, he was responsible for the incredible museum we have today.”

Mar was one of the first Chinese Americans drafted from Seattle. He was assigned as the driver for the Battalion Commander of the 56th Medical Battalion Headquarters Detachment and for the I Corp Surgeon. Mar successfully carried out other roles at Fort Lewis, earning a mention in Life Magazine about how he was promoted to Staff Sergeant after just six months. When Pearl Harbor was attached in 1941, Mar was shipped out to North Africa, then on to Corsica, and then Sicily, where he was commissioned as an officer.

Mar earned a Bronze Star Medal for acts of bravery and assisting with casualty in Naples, where his unit was bombed. In Southern France, he was captured and placed on a train headed for a POW camp in Germany. Along the way, he and other POWs managed to escape and they were taken in by Free French Indo Chinese villagers. Mar served a total of 33 years and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Army, Medical Administration Corp. in 1974.

Mar eventually became a funeral director at the  Butterworth-Arthur A. Wright Funeral Home, often assisting immigrant families in providing funerals for their loved ones. Mar worked at the funeral home for more than 65 years. Often, immigrants asked him to translate letters from English to Chinese or for him to write Chinese letters to send back home. His involvement and dedication to the community earned him the name “Uncle Jimmy.”

“Uncle Jimmy was a solid rock of calm, respect, and assurance when people sought him out to take care of funeral arrangements in their time of grief,” said Bettie Luke, vice president of the Ho Nam – Luke Family Association.

“[He] reflected this same kindness outside of business. Whenever he greeted you, it was genuine and warm. He was a person who was trusted by a wide range of people.”

In his later years, community members would remember Uncle Jimmy as a regular fixture in the neighborhood. Many would commend him for his warm spirit and work ethic. His far reaching influence extended from his time as a family man — he became a great grandfather in 2009 — to his far reaching services in the community and the United States. Mar passed away peacefully on July 11th, on his 98th birthday. (end)

Special thanks to Nancy and Haydon Mar for providing extensive research on the colorful life of James Mar.

Staff can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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