Vi Mar's tours keep the city's ethnic history alive

Spreading good fortune

Your own tour of Asian Seattle

It's a dreary Monday in downtown Seattle, the kind of yawnymorning that spawns a rush at the local Starbucks. Rain fallssoftly, dripping off overhangs in syncopated time. The streetsaround Pioneer Square are empty, and the Pike Place Market is asquiet as the Seattle Art Museum. But in the International District,life is bustling.

On the corner of South King Street and Seventh Avenue South, agroup of schoolchildren sing boldly, dodging raindrops. Across thestreet, in Hing Hay Park, a gaggle of elderly men sit in a circle,playing dominoes, seemingly oblivious to the soak. Amid the hubbub,a diminutive Asian American woman scurries across South King,leading a pack of umbrella-toting followers like the PiedPiper.

"This is the heart of Chinatown," she tells her minions, pausingmomentarily to present the panorama with a sweep of her arm. "Thisis my home."

If any Seattleite can call the Chinatown International Districthome, it's Vi (pronounced Vie) Mar. Now in her 60s, Mar grew up onthese streets and has spent most of her life in the area, and todayshe leads her Chinatown Discovery educational and cultural tours ofthe neighborhood. Mar considers these tours her "ministry" andoffers them to people of all ages.

The tours themselves are adapted to each group's interests andare therefore always different, but you're guaranteed informativetalks, impromptu visits to local businesses, and sometimes asampling of Chinatown's finest food, either a six-course dim sumlunch or an eight-course Chinese banquet dinner. Perhaps mostimportant, the treks are designed as much for locals as they arefor tourists - that is, they're comprehensive immersions for anyonewho wants to learn more about pan-Asian Americans in Seattle andthe neighborhood they call home.

"We're not a big Chinatown like San Francisco or New York, butwe're unique," Mar says of the International District. "There issomething about the pan-Asian American experience in Seattle thatyou cannot get anywhere else."

Mar started Chinatown Discovery in 1985 to help counteractnegative publicity the neighborhood had received from the Wah MeeMassacre, a 1983 robbery at a local gambling club that left 13people dead. She was a travel agent at the time and rememberslooking out her office window to see South King Street completelydeserted. She set out to bring people back to the InternationalDistrict by educating them about it.

The business started slowly. In those first few years, Mar saysshe spent most of her time marketing the tours, and only a fewhundred people took part every summer. But that didn't deterher.

"If the average Asian was apprehensive about coming down here,imagine how apprehensive the average Caucasian was," she explains."I just wanted to stress that our neighborhood is really safe. Iwanted people to see that this is a wonderful place."

Gradually, as Seattle grew and the International Districtexpanded proportionately, the tours grew as well. By the mid-'90s,when Uwajimaya built its superstore on Sixth Avenue South,Chinatown Discovery was a household name. In 1996 Mar became thefirst woman elected president of the Seattle Chinese ChinatownChamber of Commerce.

Spreading good fortune

Today Mar's tours are vibrant, eclectic, and always intense. Onone tour last fall, Mar led her group from the Wing Luke AsianMuseum into Yick Fung Co., a cramped grocery store on South King,where she paraded the group through the aisles on a tour of Chinesedelicacies. She stopped in front of the thousand-year-old eggs andexplained to a curious child that no, the eggs aren't actually1,000 years old but in fact are just fermented to look thatway.

The child, naturally, made a face of disgust, and Marchuckled.

"They're delicious," she explained. "When I was a little girl, Iwould come down here and sample all of this: ginger slices,apricots, even the eggs."

Yick Fung, a historic landmark, is just one of the popular stopson Mar's tours; another is the Mon Hei Bakery, where she andmanager Annie Chan distribute Chinese baked goods to tourparticipants. "The tours are very good," Chan says. "[They let]people know about my business, and [they get] people to come to ourChinatown."

Mar beams when she hears such praise; for her, it's all aboutthe community. She bashfully admits that she and husband HowardKing make very little profit from the tours. Still, the economicrealities of Mar's "ministry" haven't stopped her from craftingplans to give back to the community in other ways down theroad.

Atop that list is a nascent effort to build two Chinese-inspiredgates for the Chinatown International District ― a landmarkof just about every major Chinatown across the country. The gateswould span the intersections of South King at Fifth Avenue Southand South King at Eighth Avenue South. Already, Mar is part of anonprofit organization named the Chinatown Gate Foundation, whichhas stockpiled $5,000 in seed money. Her goal: to christen bothgates by 2005.

"I just want to share this neighborhood with everyone," shesays. "For me, it is the greatest place in the world."

INFO: There are four Chinatown Discovery tours daily($15-$40 per person, reservations required; www.seattlechinatowntour.comor 425/885-3085).

Your own tour of Asian Seattle

If you can't book a tour with Vi Mar, you can still catch someof the Chinatown International District's flavor on your own.

Hing Hay Park. The name of this park is translated as "Parkfor Pleasurable Gatherings," and Hing Hay is exactly that, completewith a dragon mural and a Grand Pavilion designed and constructedin Taipei, Taiwan. 423 Maynard Ave. S.; 206/684-4075.

Mon Hei Bakery. Everything from custard buns to almondcookies. Closed Tue. 669 S. King St.; 206/624-4156.

Wing Luke Asian Museum. The centerpiece exhibit, One SongMany Voices, depicts the 200-year story of Asian Pacific Americansin the Northwest. Beyond Talk: Redrawing Race in Seattle, anexhibit that begins April 30, explores issues of race in the 21stcentury. Closed Mon; $4. 407 Seventh Ave. S.; www.wingluke.org or206/623-5124.

Yick Fung Co. From woks to bok choy, ginger slices to soysauce, one of Chinatown's oldest family-owned grocery stores offersa cornucopia of supplies for Asian cooking. Closed Sun. 705 S.King; 206/623-5966.

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