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Published in the Seattle Times online on Dec. 30, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Jan. 2, 2022
Daughter’s ‘superpower’ uncovers father’s early Seattle story
By Clay Eals
Helen Sing thinks her father is the story, but I think it’s Helen.
Last May, her brother Allen opened a box in his garage and discovered a photo of 44 Frye meat-packing workers in what today we call Sodo. Therein, Helen’s father, James Sui Sing, stands eighth from the left.
The Frye plant was destroyed by the shocking Feb. 18, 1943, test-flight crash of a top-secret Boeing XB-29 bomber that killed at least 32 people. Helen knew her father was not among the deceased, but his early life remained largely a mystery that she longed to solve.
A DNA test had helped her locate hundreds of cross-country relatives and a flurry of photos and documents. Also, Helen had retained, after her dad’s 1985 death, 50 letters she had rescued from the garbage, written in Chinese from relatives in China.
The pandemic further unleashed the Rainier Beach resident’s inner bloodhound. Dating the Frye photo was key.
She consulted Seattle Public Library, Wing Luke Museum and Frye Art Museum (it holds the surviving art collection of plant owner Charles Frye and wife Emma). She studied everything from U.S. Census records to period fashion and hairstyles.
Her chief corroboration was a wall calendar in the photo itself (on post at far left). A high-res scan revealed its month: November 1931.
Along the way, Helen unearthed myriad other details, such as her dad’s true birthdate, Feb. 29, 1904, his tenure as a Frye printer (1930-1935) and later as a restaurateur, plus the surprise that he served, likely in the late 1940s, as Seattle chair of the Chinese Nationalist Party.
Her resulting dossier is an enduring family portrait and gift that reflects skill and tenacity. “I know a little bit about a lot,” Helen says, “but I like to think that my ‘superpower’ is that I know who to ask and where to search for information.”
She also feels “the guiding hand of my father, gently pushing me toward clues and answers and people to help me.” It’s “the stone that ripples through the water.”
Her lesson nestles snugly in this time of New Year’s resolutions:
“If you can understand the circumstances of your relatives’ lives and the choices required of them, the struggles they endured but kept hidden from their children, then you might arrive at a point of respect and gratitude for the sacrifices they made to raise their families to the best of their abilities.
“I regret not knowing my dad’s history until well after he passed away. I encourage everyone to start collecting memories from their elder relatives and document as much as you can.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Below are three historical clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
Also, we include (1) a video interview of Helen Sing, (2) an illustrated essay by Helen, “The Stone That Ripples Through the Water: A Journey Through Time,” and (3) a portfolio of photos of a current exhibition kindly provided by the Frye Art Museum.
And at the very bottom, courtesy of stalwart archivist Gavin MacDougall, we add a link to Paul Dorpat‘s original 2013 “Now & Then” on the Frye plant, plus a related column from 1996.
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Video of Helen Sing
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The Stone That Ripples
Through the Water:
A Journey Through Time
Notes for My Family by Helen C. Sing
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Standing at the water’s edge, as you pick up a stone and drop it into the water, ripples extend out in concentric circles. The stone creates waves that grow wider from its point of entry.
This is a story of how with one dropped stone into the water, I found myself unexpectedly unwrapping family mysteries, each revealing more discoveries about my dad, James S. Sing, as he established his life in Seattle after his 1928 arrival.
My four brothers and I knew about our dad’s life after he married our mom in February 1946. From that point, our lives were documented with black-and-white photos of a growing family, typical of many Americans.
We knew very little about our dad’s life, “pre-mom.” As kids growing up in the late 1940s and 1950s, we exhibited an extreme lack of curiosity about our parents’ histories.
After collecting family narratives from our mom’s Canadian Chow branch for a 2006 family reunion in Vancouver, B.C., and updating the 190-plus family narratives in 2020, our paternal Sing side weighed in at a paltry 15 members at the time. In January 2019, we knew only that our dad had an older brother who lived in Portland, Oregon, by the name of Frank, whom we met, perhaps once or twice.
Dad James passed away in January 1985, and mom Nellie in March 2016. In our combined family trees, the Chow branches facing the West grew in leaps and bounds compared to the Sing branch, sadly lopsided. We knew next to nothing about our dad.
In November 2018, I bought a “23andMe” DNA test kit at a Black Friday sale because it was half-price. Why not?
By January 2019, the initial results had started populating my emails. By the beginning of 2020, I received three “2nd cousin” hits from New York and one from Boston. A 2nd cousin match has a greater-than-99% likelihood of being detected.
On February 15, 2020, just as the coronavirus became big local news, with Seattle as the initial ground zero, I started communicating with these cousins. None of the them knew each other. I asked the three New York cousins if they would be willing to move from “23andMe” messaging to a group email to share information and photos.
On February 25, 2020, we started sharing information, trying to figure out if they were related on my maternal or paternal side. On March 4, I visited mom Nellie’s grave on the fourth anniversary of her passing, took a photo of my parents’ headstone and sent it to our group chat.
By March 5, a translation of dad’s headstone showed that James was from the same village and had the same family name as the great-grandfather of Bet and Jeff. Nearly five hours later that day, cousin Kat emailed a 1979 photo to me showing her grandparents, father and uncle immigrating to the United States, stopping in Seattle on their way to New York City.
In the middle of the photo, taken at Sea-Tac Airport, was my dad, James, sitting in a wheelchair! It was eventually confirmed that James was Kat’s great-grandmother’s big brother. I had an Aunt Chun! I was able to send a photo of my grandmother “DONG Shee” to these cousins. She would be these younger cousins’ great-great grandmother.
From February 25 to March 5, in a matter of 10 days after sharing photos and information by group email, we determined that Bet and Jeff’s great grandfather Frank was James’ older brother and that Kat’s great grandmother Chun was James’ younger sister.
I knew that a young James had traveled to the United States in 1917 with his father CHOO Chung Hock and his uncle. At some point, James’s father told him to return to China, as his mother was ill. Older brother Frank (b. 1896) was married with two daughters and had remained behind in Guangdong Toishan, China.
James married wife #1, who later miscarried twins. When James and Frank left for America, Frank left behind his wife and two daughters, ages 4 and 2. Based on these ages, we determined that they left China in 1925.
In May 2021, Kat and I determined that the 2nd cousin from Boston (Henry) was descended from their great-grandmother Chun’s branch. Kat’s grandfather and Henry’s grandmother were siblings. We believe that between all branches, including those of James, Frank, Chun and their uncle, whose family also settled in the northeastern United States, along with the family of their younger brother, Siu Wai, there are likely more than 100 living relatives!
The East side of my family tree started sprouting sturdy branches. What are the odds that five cousins, strangers to each other, living in different parts of the country (Seattle, New York city, Brooklyn, Rochester and Boston) would take the same consumer DNA test around the same time? These younger cousins are my first cousins, twice removed, due to our age and generational differences.
In spring 1985, in one of my visits to mom Nellie after Dad James passed away in 1985, I saw that Mom had thrown away a stack of blue aerogram letters addressed to Dad. Mom explained that they were of no value to us because we could not read Chinese and we didn’t know the people in the letters.
Instinctively, I grabbed the whole stack of correspondence from the recycle bin, stuffed the pile into a garbage bag and placed it in the back of my closet.
Fast forward to June 2020: After Frank left for America with James in 1925, his wife adopted a son. KS was born in 1929. Frank’s two daughters eventually married Americans and immigrated to New York. KS remained behind in Hong Kong, married and had two sons, all eventually immigrating to the U.S.
After locating the two sons (my nephews CT and TM), I pulled out that garbage bag full of letters left untouched for 35 years in my closet. Of the 50 letters, 15 were from KS to his Uncle James in Seattle. After scanning the letters, TM provided general translations for the letters from James’s mother, younger brother, wife #1, daughter-in-law and granddaughter as well as correspondence from his father to his Uncle James.
After I had James’ headstone translated, I noticed that his 1904 birth year did not match “1903,” his listed year of birth on his legal documents. James wrote his headstone inscription and provided it to the monument company before his passing.
Translated, it says that he was “born in the 29th year of Guangxu.” Emperor Guangxu lived from 1871 to 1908. I found an article online on how to read a Chinese tombstone. It stated that you add the number of years to the start of the emperor’s reign.
In Guangxu’s case, he was a 4-year-old child emperor beginning in 1875. So, 29 + 1875 = 1904.
Eventually searching through the lunar calendars for 1903 and 1904, along with a clue from one of the 1970 letters from wife #1, in which she stated that she celebrated his (Western) birthday in April that year, I determined that dad’s lunar birthday of Jan. 14 (1st lunar month, 14th day) converted to a Gregorian/Western birthday of Feb. 29, 1904, a leap year.
Because 1970 was not a leap year, wife #1 mistakenly took his Gregorian birthday (Feb. 29) as his lunar birthday (second lunar month, 29th day) and converted it to a Gregorian date of April 5, 1970.
I don’t know why he recorded 1903 as his birth year unless he needed to be older, or perhaps because 1903 was a leap year in the lunar calendar, or he was confused with the Gregorian calendar.
In May 2021, brother Allen scanned and sent a photo he found in a box in his garage of Dad James standing among 44 employees while working as a printer at Frye & Co., a meat-packing plant in Sodo on Airport Way S. I wanted to date the photo to determine when dad worked at the plant.
Nieces Vanessa and Nicole scanned the photo at high resolution and noticed a wall calendar that seemed to indicate 30 days in a month starting on a Sunday, with the name of the month appearing to indicate a longer month such as September or November.
After finding articles about the Feb. 18, 1943, crash of the Boeing XB-29 bomber from nearby Boeing Field into the Frye plant, I wondered if James was still working at the plant in 1943.
In my research, I read that plant owner Charles Frye and wife Emma had an extensive collection of paintings, many of which were hung at the plant when they ran out of space at their First Hill mansion. Noticing that many large paintings could be seen on the plant wall in the Frye photo, I contacted Cory Gooch, chief registrar at the Frye Museum.
One of the men in the photo looked like the owner, Charles Frye. She confirmed that it was he. Charles Frye passed away on May 1, 1940. This left the calendar options of November 1931, September 1935 or November 1936.
Another man in the photo, wearing a heavy overcoat over his suit, seemed to indicate November rather than a balmier Seattle September. A search of women’s fashion and hairstyles suggested an early 1930’s date. An ad showing women’s fashion had a dress and hairstyle very similar to the one worn by the young woman standing in front of the counter (center) in the Frye photo. The ad line says, in part, “Only 1932 conditions make these low prices possible.”
Cory and Kayla Trail, collections & exhibitions assistant at the Frye, found a 1931 plant survey that seemed to indicate that due to the location of the Frye office, the fire would have been survivable. Frye property records from the Puget Sound Regional Branch of Washington State Archives sent from a friend showed that the office building constructed in 1927 contained a full basement.
Both my brother Phil and I remember seeing a second photo of James and another Chinese employee standing at their print-shop workstation seemingly in a basement along with other employees at their workstations. The photographer may have stood on a stairway or floor above the workstations. In the first Frye photo, another Chinese man stands 12th from the left.]
In June 2021, while searching the Seattle Public Library website, I found the 1940 U.S. Census and located “James S. Sing.” James’s entry stated he was living at 719 ½ King St., Seattle. James filed his “paper son” documents (see footnote below) on Jan. 19, 1928 in San Francisco. By December 1928, James was already in Seattle.
In July 2021, I went to Chinatown to try to locate where dad lived in 1940 and at least from 1935 on, based on the census. I found that the current location of the Wing Luke Museum is at 719 King St. and that the Freeman Hotel was located in the upper two floors of the museum.
In August 2021, I emailed Special Collections at Seattle Public Library trying to determine when James worked at the Frye plant and when he worked as a printer at the print shop in Chinatown. Our family knew he had also been a printer in a Chinatown print shop.
A wonderful librarian replied that James Sing worked at Frye & Co as a printer from 1930 to 1935, based on the R.L. Polk city directories.
From 1937 to 1946, he worked as a printer/manager at the Chinese Star Printing Co., at 711 King St. We had not known the name of the print shop in Chinatown.
The mention of “star” jogged a memory, and I looked in Dad’s stack of correspondence and found a receipt/invoice pad with the name “Chinese Star Printing Co.” with a photo of a military man on the cover. Further research revealed that the star emblem was the official symbol on the flag of the Republic of China (1928-1949; Taiwan). The military man was a young Chiang Kai-shek, the military leader of the Republic of China.
The information on dad working at Frye & Co. (1930-1935) along with the fashion ad, would confirm that the Frye employee photo was taken in November 1931.
In September 2021, brother Allen found two more photos of Dad James in group photos of the Kuomintang (KMT), a political party of the Chinese Nationalist Party (anti-Communist).
One photo was definitely dated “December 9, 1928” and was the first meeting (grand meeting) of the NW branch of the KMT with nearly 70 people in the photo, taken in South Canton Alley, Seattle Chinatown.
On the back of the 1928 photo was a note “13 Goon Dip” and “9 James Sing” identifying the photo location of Dad James and businessman Goon Dip, who owned the Milwaukee Hotel. Revered by the community, Goon Dip was appointed honorary consul of China during the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and, later, permanent consul until his death in 1933.
I contacted the Wing collections manager, and after showing him the second photo, taken on Oct. 24, 1948 (likely for the 20th anniversary of the original 1928 grand meeting), the manager indicated that it was taken downstairs on King Street in front of the KMT office, which also housed the Chinese Star Printing Co. I now knew where Dad James worked on his second job in Seattle.
With the knowledge that the print shop and the KMT office shared the same address, our family realized that our dad was more involved with the KMT than we had known. As a child, I remember Mom mentioning the “Kuomintang,” but I did not know what it was. According to the Seattle Public Library librarian, the Chinese Star Printing Co. was no longer listed as a business in the Seattle Street Address directory in 1947.
In February 1946, James married Nellie, and by October 1946, twin sons were born, with another son born in August 1947. It would seem that James, with a growing family, needed to earn more income.
By 1948, “Jim Sing” was listed in the Polk directory as working at Louie’s Chinese Garden. No Polk directory was produced in 1947, so James could have been working at Chinese Garden in 1947.
The Wing sent a copy of an April 10, 1951, Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, “Chinatown Detests Communism Evil,” with a photo of James Sing in front of the “Kuo Min Tang” office at 711 King St. It quotes James and identifies him as “past Chairman of the Seattle branch.”
James was probably the chairman of the KMT in the late 1940s when that 1948 photo was taken. He is standing in the back of the photo, against the KMT building, under the “K” on the window.
One of the translated aerograms (year unknown), which was a letter from a “nephew” from Taiwan, was addressed to James c/o Chinese Garden. James worked at Chinese Garden from 1948 to 1958.
The letter mentions that this “nephew” could make his way to the United States to carry on or share James’ duties so he could take a break due to his old age. He would need a job when he arrived.
In 1949, James moved his now family of six to a home on Beacon Hill. By 1951, James was the past chairman of the local KMT branch.
We knew that dad served as an informal banker, since Chinese families found it difficult to obtain loans from the local Seattle banks. Families paid a monthly fee, which James collected and recorded. When a loan was needed, he provided the funds and the recipient would repay the loan with interest.
While James worked at the Chinese Garden and Gim Ling restaurants, there was a safe that securely held the deposits. Several years ago, the father of one of my close friends recounted this arrangement. Shirley remembers sitting in her father’s car when he would stop by our house to drop off the money from his family. Dad was respected and trusted in the community.
From 1962 to 1972, Dad and a cousin co-owned the Sea Dragon Restaurant in Puyallup after finding Chinatown Seattle overcrowded with Chinese restaurants and hoping to take advantage of the untapped Chinese food scene about 30 miles south of Seattle.
Unfortunately, Dad retired, and the Sea Dragon was sold at the time of President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972, enhancing the popularity of Chinese cuisine in America. Charlie’s Restaurant & Lounge took over the space in 1972 and still stands today.
Dad constantly practiced his calligraphy even during his rest breaks at the restaurant and after he retired in 1972. Businessmen would have him draw Chinese characters for their business signs atop their stores or restaurants.
He once showed me a calligraphy project in which he compiled and demonstrated 10 styles of calligraphy. Dad even convinced a visiting Chinese master erhu musician to come to our house to show him how to play the erhu after he retired. I came home one day to find a University of Washington Chinese art professor showing him water color techniques!
Among one of the retrieved letters, I found one from January 1973 written by a San Francisco friend of Dad. Loosely translated, it said:
“Christmas greetings! I learned that you have retired and closed the restaurant. Good for you to enjoy your old age and have a good family. Your achievements were due to your talents and your abilities to adapt. If other people were in the same boat as yours, they might not have the same achievements.”
In today’s vernacular, Dad was able to “pivot” from immigrant to political party member to chairman, from printer to restaurant manager, owner and community banker. Add calligrapher, amateur painter and musician in retirement. Most important, he was Dad in our family of seven. Here is an overall timeline:
- 1917 arrived in the United States with his father and uncle.
- 1925 arrived in the United States for the second time with older brother.
- 1928 Jan. 19 filed his paper son documents in San Francisco.
- 1928 Dec. 9 in Seattle as part of the first meeting of the Northwest KMT branch.
- 1930-1935, printer at Frye & Co., meat-packing plant, 2305 Airport Way S.
- 1937-1946, printer and manager at Chinese Star Printing Co., 711 King St.
- 1948 Oct. 24, 20th Anniversary of the Northwest Kuomintang branch.
- Late 1940s-1950, chairman of the Seattle Kuomintang branch.
- 1947-1959, manager, Louie’s Chinese Garden, 516 7th Ave S.
- 1959-1962, manager & co-owner of the Gim Ling Restaurant, 516 7th Ave S.
- 1962-1972, manager and co-owner of the Sea Dragon Restaurant, 113 E. Main St., Puyallup.
- 1972-1985, retired at his Beacon Hill home.
In the last three years, with one stone after another, and with the help of family members and the discovery of many more, this journey has filled in so many gaps in my dad’s early life in Seattle. It also has given his children a fuller picture of his struggles and sacrifices to make a life for his family.
I have so much respect and gratitude for both my parents in their respective journeys from China to the United States, twice for my dad, and from Canada to China to Canada and finally, to the United States for my mom.
We will never know their full stories, wasting too many years, left only with faint memories of a childhood full of mysterious clues, waiting to be pieced together to reveal the truth — their truth.
I would encourage you to speak with your parents and grandparents while they are alive, to follow and preserve their “footprints in the sand” before the incoming tide of time washes away their memory, leaving us with regret for time lost.
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Helen’s footnote regarding the term “paper son”
A “paper son” is explained here. As an early teenager, my dad illegally immigrated to the United States in 1917 and again in 1925 through Mexicali on the southern California border. He jumped ship at some point before docking in southern California and traveled up through California.
By his second entry in 1925, the Immigration Act of 1924, according to Wikipedia, “introduced quotas for immigration based on national origin, creating a quota of zero for Asian countries, as well as forming the United States Border Patrol.” This required that Dad had to provide documentation. There have been many documentaries done on this “paper son” phenomenon.
In part, due to my dad’s immigration status, my parents were always careful not to tell us everything, although I knew that he came through Mexicali. That is why the translation on his headstone was important in telling the truth of when and where he was born. He literally took the truth to his grave.
That is why I believe he was actually born in 1904, based on his traditional Chinese listing of his date of birth. He would have had no reason to lie in Chinese on his headstone, written in a way that immigration officials would not understand. How many kids grew up knowing the name of prominent Seattle immigration attorney Dan Danilov? He was always concerned with the earlier version of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
Chinese were allowed to remain in the United States if they could document that they were sons or daughters (mostly sons) of legal citizens (Chinese parents). They had to file affidavits declaring that they were the son or daughter of an American citizen (Chinese).
I have my dad’s “paper son” documents. This was common in the early 1900s, and many Bay Area Chinese would testify that their “government” documents were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The affidavit was signed by a known citizen who would testify that he “knew” this affiant was born in “such and such” city to “such and such” American parents.
When I started researching my dad’s early history, I knew that the typical Ancestry.com documents would not be helpful, because it was never going to be a matter of finding a straight-line progression of his footprints through government documents. Only when Dad filed his 1940 US Census, married my mom in 1946, applied for Social Security (enacted in 1935) and paid taxes would his U.S. government documents start to appear.
This is why I have such respect and gratitude for my dad in what he was able to achieve in his lifetime. He spent two years of high school (1940 Census), which was two years of night school at the old Broadway High School, learning English after he arrived in Seattle in 1928. Many immigrants did the same. Then in 1930, according to the Polk Directory, he was working at the Frye plant as a clerk and printer — hired by an American company!
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‘Human Nature, Animal Culture:
Selections from the
Frye Art Museum Collection’
The exhibit opened June 12, 2021, and runs through Aug. 21, 2022. It looks at Charles and Emma Frye’s art collection through the lens of their businesses and includes archival materials and photos.
The images below are courtesy of the Frye Art Museum.
To see full descriptions for the entire exhibit, click here.
(Click and click again to enlarge photos)
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Related ‘Now & Then’ columns
To see Paul Dorpat’s Feb. 9 2013, column on the another crash near Airport Way, click here. And to see his column about the fire station that responded to the 1943 bomber crash into the Frye plant, see below.