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 meatpacking 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 the Seattle Public Library, Wing Luke Museum and the 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 birth date, Feb. 29, 1904; his tenure as a Frye printer (1930-35) and later as a restaurateur; plus the surprise that he served, likely in the late 1940s, as the Seattle chairman 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.