On Feb. 12 Seattle’s Chinese American community lost one of its pioneering members. Florence Eng died at the age of 91 of a heart attack.
To the youths of the Seattle Chinese Baptist Church, she was “Auntie Florence,” a woman who exemplified kindness, inspired reverence and personified integrity. To her younger siblings, Mayme, Ray, Winston and Byron Chinn, she was the “matriarch” who raised them while tending the family shop. And to many in the Chinese American community, Florence Eng, one of the first Chinese female merchant store owners, was the embodiment of its pioneers—loyal, family oriented and strong.
Commented sister Mayme, “She always taught us the importance of integrity, and how important it is not to lose it.”
Added brother Ray, “She also taught us to work hard, be fair to each other and to everyone else.”
Long-time friend and admirer, Ron Chew, executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, recalled growing up in the International District and chatting with Eng about all sorts of information. “She seemed to know everyone and everything. She was a lot of fun to talk to. We are really going to miss her.”
In many ways, noted Chew, she was the “eyes and ears” of the Chinese American community in Seattle.
Florence Chin Eng was born Aug. 12, 1909 in the Hoy Jew Village of Toisan, China. After her grandfather had settled in the U.S. in 1894, her father, Hugh Chinn, obtained a visa to study in the United States in 1909. Like many Chinese students at the time, her father, upon arrival, could not afford to attend school. Instead, he worked in the lumber camps and later moved to Portland, Ore., where he worked at a restaurant.
In the 1920s, her father inherited her grandfather’s merchant business. As a merchant, he was allowed to sponsor his family to the U.S., despite the existence of exclusion acts. In 1923, 14-year-old Florence arrived in the U.S. with her mother.
The Chinn’s Wa Sang Company opened in 1928. Since the first day it opened, Florence worked at the Wa Sang Company. The shop sold mostly Chinese goods, ranging from lotus roots to rice cookers.
In 1940, her life changed dramatically when her father died in a car accident. This was followed soon by her mother’s passing. At the age of 30, Florence was left to care for her three younger brothers and a younger sister, ranging from 9 to 15. Meanwhile, she married and had four children of her own (Nancy, Shirley, Donald and Darrel). Unfortunately, by 1949, her husband Howard also passed away.
Mayme remembered how “very determined, strong” her sister was. “There weren’t any women merchants back then. Right after my father died, people around gave us six months before we’d fold. She was really distressed. I remember her talking to Ray and I, the older children, and asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Then we said. ‘We’re going to keep the shop.’”
Eng became the shopkeeper, the accountant and the salesperson. At the time, it was uncommon for a Chinese woman to head a shop, especially since there were not many Chinese women around Seattle or other parts of the United States because of various immigration laws and other historical circumstances.
As Florence Eng once reflected to Seattle Times writer Paula Bock in 1994, “If God helps me, someday, when the children grow up, we can say we stayed together—at least we have a family, But if I can’t do it, if I fail, then Dad knows at least I tried.”
For a period of time, beyond working for the shop in the day, Eng also took public transportation to work at the Wa Sang Restaurant at Eight and Pike in the evenings. Even while her mother was alive, when she returned home, Eng was the person who took care of the family. Said Mayme, “Our mother was not very strong in her later years. So Florence changed all our diapers and her children as well. This was before disposable, diaper services. She took care of all of us.”
“She’s our sister, and she’s been our mother; she raised us up when my mother died,” reflected Ray. “Later she became my business partner. But always, she was my mentor and my friend.”
Meanwhile, Eng and her family lived in Maynard Alley in a 1,200 square foot home. Through hard times and easier times, Eng took care of the family and the shop.
Although it sounds unusual, agreed Mayme, “In all our years, she never had any strong words. And we (the children and siblings) never argued. We had many disagreements, but we never argued.”
As time passed, Eng and Wa Sang became nearly synonymous. The shop was popular, not only for the goods it sold, but as a place to “hang out,” and “catch up on the news of Chinatown,” recalled Chew. But most of all, it was a place to listen and be entertained by all of Eng’s stories of Chinatown, its history and its people.
“She had an uncanny memory,” added Chew.
Chew credited Eng with having provided much of the inspiration and details for the Wing Luke Asian Museum’s exhibit and publication, Reflections of Seattle’s Chinese Americans and its 1998 documentary, Kong Yick: Finding Home in Chinatown.
People were also attracted to Wa Sang by Eng’s generosity and sincerity. “Whatever she says, she meant from the heart,” noted Mayme.
“People came to her to talk about cooking, personal problems, and she would make herself available to them. She helps others and doesn’t talk about it; she does it just because she wants to, she’s very generous.”
Even as Eng helped nurture people like the young Ron Chew, she remained most devoted to her shop and family. Eng’s hard work would more than pay off.
In the 1960s, after restrictive convenants eased up, Eng and other Chinese Americans could finally live outside Maynard Alley. Other changes came as well. Opportunities that had once been out of reach for many Chinese Americans of the 1940s all became a part of the family’s younger generation. The family now included a nurse, University of Washington graduates, a photographer, a Harvard graduate, an aerobics instructor and an Eagle Scout member, among other occupations.
Sister Mayme recalled how “broad-minded” Florence was. Considering the roles of women at the time, their mother had not wanted Mayme to attend college. “It was for my brothers, but [Florence] convinced my mother to let me go to college.” From that moment on, Mayme was “privileged to do the things that I wanted to do; to travel, get educated,” because her older sister helped her.
But by 1970s, like the children of other pioneering merchants, many of Eng’s youngest generation were not as interested in retail work.
In contrast, for more than 66 years, Eng worked at Wa Sang and refused to retire. Even in her late 80s, she continued bagging 10 pound sacks of rice. She finally retired in 1997, at the age of 88, after Wa Sang was sold to the Washington State Acupuncture Clinic.
Eng and her brothers struggled over the future of Wa Sang. For years, they resisted selling the site. Instead, she and her brothers sought to renovate the building which housed Wa Sang. Instead, they envisioned a building for elderly who wanted to live a nice, simple life.
In 1994, the Chinn family began renovating the empty floors above Wa Sang Market into nice, clean apartments for low-income tenants. The project is considered to be monumental in a neighborhood caught between the pressures of economic struggle and the soul-less gentrification.
Although she had retired, local Chinese Americans did not forget Eng and her brothers’ devotion to the community. This past January, the local chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans honored Eng with its “Golden Circle Award.” The chapter nominated Eng for her exemplary and selfless duty to the community.
According to the local Organization of Chinese Americans’ president, Wang Yung, “She’s one of our pioneers, and provides a model that many of us should want to follow.”
But Mayme recalled that the ever-humble Eng had questioned why she would be “deserving” of such an award. She even wondered if she should attend. “Why me?” she had asked, “I guess it’s because I’m oldest, because so many people have done so much more than I did.”
Eng is survived by her four siblings, Mayme, Ray, Winston and Byron of Seattle; a son, Darrel of Seattle; and two daughters, Shirley of Seattle and Nancy Cox of Lafayette, Calif. Her oldest son, Donald, died last year. A memorial service for Eng was held on Saturday, March 2, at the Chinese Baptist Church in Beacon Hill.