Gifted guide

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

Spreading good fortune

Your own tour of Asian Seattle

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

On the corner of South King Street and Seventh Avenue South, a group of schoolchildren sing boldly, dodging raindrops. Across the street, 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 Pied Piper.

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

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

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

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

Mar started Chinatown Discovery in 1985 to help counteract negative publicity the neighborhood had received from the Wah Mee Massacre, a 1983 robbery at a local gambling club that left 13 people dead. She was a travel agent at the time and remembers looking out her office window to see South King Street completely deserted. She set out to bring people back to the International District by educating them about it.

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

"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. I wanted people to see that this is a wonderful place."

Gradually, as Seattle grew and the International District expanded 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 the first woman elected president of the Seattle Chinese Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Spreading good fortune

Today Mar's tours are vibrant, eclectic, and always intense. On one tour last fall, Mar led her group from the Wing Luke Asian Museum into Yick Fung Co., a cramped grocery store on South King, where she paraded the group through the aisles on a tour of Chinese delicacies. She stopped in front of the thousand-year-old eggs and explained to a curious child that no, the eggs aren't actually 1,000 years old but in fact are just fermented to look that way.

The child, naturally, made a face of disgust, and Mar chuckled.

"They're delicious," she explained. "When I was a little girl, I would 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 stops on Mar's tours; another is the Mon Hei Bakery, where she and manager Annie Chan distribute Chinese baked goods to tour participants. "The tours are very good," Chan says. "[They let] people know about my business, and [they get] people to come to our Chinatown."

Mar beams when she hears such praise; for her, it's all about the community. She bashfully admits that she and husband Howard King make very little profit from the tours. Still, the economic realities of Mar's "ministry" haven't stopped her from crafting plans to give back to the community in other ways down the road.

Atop that list is a nascent effort to build two Chinese-inspired gates for the Chinatown International District ― a landmark of just about every major Chinatown across the country. The gates would span the intersections of South King at Fifth Avenue South and South King at Eighth Avenue South. Already, Mar is part of a nonprofit organization named the Chinatown Gate Foundation, which has stockpiled $5,000 in seed money. Her goal: to christen both gates by 2005.

"I just want to share this neighborhood with everyone," she says. "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.com or 425/885-3085).

Your own tour of Asian Seattle

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

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

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

Wing Luke Asian Museum. The centerpiece exhibit, One Song Many Voices, depicts the 200-year story of Asian Pacific Americans in the Northwest. Beyond Talk: Redrawing Race in Seattle, an exhibit that begins April 30, explores issues of race in the 21st century. Closed Mon; $4. 407 Seventh Ave. S.; www.wingluke.org or 206/623-5124.

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