Olympia Area Chinese Fellowship thrives after 34 years

Olympia City Council honors organization, its matriarch for contributions

ahobbs@theolympian.comApril 23, 2014 

Toy Kay, who founded the Olympia Area Chinese Fellowship in 1974, operated a restaurant with her husband for nearly 36 years on Capitol Way.

TONY OVERMAN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Toy Kay might be the matriarch of the Olympia Area Chinese Fellowship, but she considers herslf an American through and through.

After 34 years, the fellowship thrives as a cultural resource and heritage hub for the local Chinese community. One of the fellowship’s most notable programs is the Olympia Area Chinese School, which is housed at Westwood Baptist Church. Olympia area residents who have adopted babies from China use the school as a resource that helps children learn about their native culture.

The fellowship’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Olympia City Council issued a proclamation this month that recognizes Kay and the fellowship’s contributions to local culture for more than three decades. Upon accepting the proclamation at last week’s council meeting, Kay, who is 89, received a standing ovation from the audience.

“Our community strength is based on its diversity,” Mayor Stephen Buxbaum told The Olympian.

The fellowship began after Chinese refugees sought Kay’s help in navigating their new country – a struggle that Kay understood as an outsider in U.S. culture.

Born in Butte, Mont., Kay was the first of eight children born to parents from southern China. As a youth, Kay was pressured to conform to her family’s traditions, despite longing to participate in American culture. She felt oppressed by the cultural expectations of Chinese females, who were supposed to be submissive and pleasing, she said.

In 1941, she arrived in Olympia at age 16 after an arranged marriage to Bill Kay, who was nine years older and the uncle of former Washington Gov. Gary Locke. The couple ran a restaurant for nearly 36 years on Capitol Way.

Kay eventually went back to school and earned degrees in education and human services. She began teaching English as a second language at what is now called South Puget Sound Community College.

At the time, the region was experiencing an influx in refugees from Southeast Asia. Kay’s class consisted of ethnic Chinese residents who had just arrived from Vietnam and Cambodia. Not long after encouraging the class to form a support group, about 25 Chinese refugees showed up at Kay’s house and asked her to start the fellowship. Kay wrote the bylaws, which became official in 1980. A major step forward for the fellowship, she said, was when she had the bylaws translated into Chinese.

“I’m very proud to think that this thing lasted,” she said.

However, times are changing for the fellowship. Olympia native James Wynder was recently selected as the fellowship’s first Caucasian president. For 20 years, Wynder had lived in Taiwan, where he met his wife and raised their five children.

Wynder, who is fluent in Chinese, said he is excited about serving on the fellowship’s board and expanding its reach in the community. The majority of the fellowship’s 400 members hail from Olympia. Wynder noted that many Chinese immigrants settle in Olympia because of the city’s schools, which they consider among the region’s best.

“They come to Olympia to work and they like the schools here,” he said of the local Chinese population. “They like the community.”

Wynder’s selection as president had initially ruffled a few feathers among traditionalists in the fellowship, said Kay, noting that the bylaws allow anyone from a Chinese family to serve in the position.

“You have to be open for diversity,” Kay said. “Try to be bicultural and bilingual and get the best out of both. That’s my advice.”

Learn the language

The Olympia Chinese School has openings for Chinese language lessons. To learn more, visit olympiachinese.org. plaque’s tribute

In 2004, a plaque was installed at Heritage Park in downtown Olympia that pays tribute to the city’s Chinese community. The Chinese began arriving in Olympia in the mid-1800s, and soon established the city’s first Chinatown on Fourth Avenue between Columbia Street and Capitol Way.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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