Remembering the Unofficial Mayor of Chinatown, Jimmy Mar

Dean Wong August 1, 2012 0
Remembering the Unofficial Mayor of Chinatown, Jimmy Mar

After a distinguished career as a funeral director in the Chinese American community, James Malcolm Mar passed away peacefully in his sleep on July 11.

Mar, 98, was an institution helping countless families as they mourned the death of loved ones. He has worked at Butterworth Arthur A. Wright Funeral Home since 1946.

In 1966, he handled my father’s funeral. On May 4, 2012, my 101-year-old mother was buried under the direction of the man many simply called “Uncle Jimmy.”

“Uncle Jimmy always had a calm gracious manner,” said Bettie Luke. “It is only when you had to call him for services in funeral arrangements that you truly understood the depth of respect and calming support he provided. He was an anchor in the face of grief, loss and shock.”

Mar served in the U.S. Army’s 58th Medical Battalion during World War II as a medic.

According to his obituary, he was a prisoner of war and earned the Bronze Star. He retired from the service as a Lieutenant Colonel of the United States Army Reserve.

As a World War II veteran, Mar was one of 14 charter members of the Cathay Post #186 and served as Commander of the Post for several terms.

After the war, Mar helped bury Asian veterans who had been killed. Butterworth then hired him. “They talked to me about having someone to take care of Asians…So I got a license…So that’s how I got into it. The thing has been there ever since, since 1946,” Mar said during an oral history interview with the Wing Luke Asian Museum in 2004.

“Uncle Jimmy was an icon in a field where few would step up to, but desperately needed in their time of sorrow. He provided professional service with dignity and compassion,” said Luke.

Ron Chew, executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation and former director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum said Mar understood Chinese tradition.

“He was a tactful, comforting voice at a time of great stress and sorrow for family members,” Chew said.

Mar and his brother Howard owned the Yick Fung Company on King Street in the west Kong Yick Building.

The east and west Kong Yick buildings were built in 1910. Mar’s father opened the store that same year. In addition to running the business, Mar managed the two buildings.

Howard and James Mar were fixtures in the Yick Fung Store. As I got older, I’d stop by the store to talk to the two brothers, sitting on a wooden chair in the back, next to a wood burning stove. The room illuminated by a black and white television.

When I began writing for the International Examiner, I started doing informal walking tours of Chinatown. I would always, always bring people into the Yick Fung Company because the store was like a living museum with rows of candy, ginger and plums in jars. The window filled with produce, hand written index cards in Mar’s office and an old fashioned scale with an up to date certification from the city offered details of old Chinatown.

When the Wing Luke Asian Museum was looking for a new home, Mar who was a key shareholder in the Kong Yick Investment Company which owned the two Kong Yick buildings, helped broker the sale of the east structure to the museum.

“He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the vision of converting a run-down historic hotel into the new Wing Luke. Thanks to his leadership, we were able to purchase the building and revive it into a cornerstone of redevelopment along King Street,” said Chew.

When the museum opened in 2004, the Yick Fung store was recreated thanks to Mar.
“He donated his store to the museum, including the merchandise, cabinets and fixtures to be a permanent living exhibition. We then disassembled the entire store, moving it across the alley and re-assembling it in the East Kong Yick building. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without the generosity and vision of Jimmy Mar, there would be not Wing Luke Museum,”

Today, the Yick Fung Company can be visited on special tours and can be viewed from King Street.

Mar was also a strong supporter of the International District Emergency Center (IDEC), a grassroots organization which began in Canton Alley. He assisted IDEC on some emergency calls, using his army medical experience. “He also donated military surplus supplies to us for years,” said IDEC director Donnie Chin who is Mar’s nephew.

His obituary also lists his other community activities. Mar was president of the Jackson Street Community Center, the Mar Family Association, Chinatown Chamber of  Commerce and Chong Wa Benevolent Association.

“He was one of the civic leaders, the unofficial mayor of Chinatown for many  years,” said Chew.

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