Photo caption: James Mar was the last living member of the original 14 members of the Cathay Post. He passed away last July, reflecting the end of an era. Photo credit: Dean Wong.
On a recent Saturday, I sat at the Four Seas Restaurant with six war veterans: Terry Nicholas, Milton Wan, Lloyd Hara, Jack Pang, Dick Kay and Lip Mar. All are longtime members of the Cathay Post #186 of the American Legion, except Wan, who joined the Post last summer during the Chinatown Seafair parade.
They had gathered for lunch right after their regular monthly meeting at the Wing Luke Museum of the Pacific American Museum across the street in the International District. Nicholas, Pang and Mar are World War II veterans. Kay is a Korean War veteran. Nicholas, Hara and Wan served in Vietnam.
Nicholas, the sole Caucasian member of the Seattle-based, mostly Chinese-American organization and the youngest person at lunch at age 63, spoke first for the vets. Nicholas is completing his term as commander of the Post in July. He said the Cathay Post, established in 1945 by returning Chinese-American World War II servicemen, has put out an urgent call for younger veterans to join the organization.
The Cathay Post, like many other organizations created by the World War II generation, is on shaky footing as its most ardent supporters pass away. Nicholas, Wan, Hara, Pang, Kay and Mar want to keep the organization going, but they know the odds aren’t good. They said there’s a nucleus of eight to 10 members who attend Post meetings, sometimes fewer. The meetings are typically followed by lunch, an enticement that, according to Kay, hasn’t brought about the spike in attendance the group had hoped for.
“We would like to sustain the Post into the future,” Nicholas said, “But right now our members are up there in age, and they don’t have the energy to keep moving things forward by themselves. We’re down to a small number of members. They’re all dying off.”
Jack Pang – who’s been active in the Cathay Post since 1950 and served as Post commander in 1975 – chimed in: “We don’t want to close up shop because we still have 60 or 70 members. But the majority of them are in their 80s and 90s.”
Last July, James M. Mar, the last of the 14 original charter members, passed at the age of 98.
“That ended an era,” Pang remarked.
The Post’s signature event – a Memorial Day program culminating in an honor guard salute and the laying of wreaths at the Chinese0American war memorial in Hing Hay Park – has become harder and harder to pull off each year. Even when the Post’s membership rolls were more flush – between 500 and 600 names have been part of the roster over the years – the community response has always been lukewarm.
“One year – in 1968 – I wrote to every Chinese American organization I could find, asking them each to donate a pot of flowers for the Memorial Day service,” Pang said. “I looked them up in the phone book. I typed a letter to each one. Do you know what? None of them replied. Not one.”
It seems, Pang said, that nearly everyone has forgotten the Post’s long history of community involvement. In its heyday immediately following World War II, the Post ran a busy cocktail lounge in the heart of Chinatown. It sponsored a Moon Festival in the late 1940s (a carnival with food and games), organized blood drives, hosted annual Chinatown Christmas parties and sponsored spaghetti fundraisers to support the Kin On Nursing Home. The Post has scaled way back since then, and now concentrates mostly on awarding small scholarships to needy local high school students and its signature Memorial Day program in Chinatown.
In recent years, the Post has even struggled to find enough members to participate in the Memorial Day honor guard salute.
“We’re supposed to have seven riflemen for the ceremony, but last year, we only got three,” Kay said. “It’s even getting harder to find guys who can walk without falling.”
This year, Kay said, the Post may recruit additional firing squad participants from ROTC to help out.
Attendance at the Memorial Day ceremony in Hing Hay Park is also shrinking, Pang added. The Post should shoulder some of the blame, he said, because “our guys just want to get the ceremony over with and go home.” He’s thinking of expanding the program this year to include music and other activities to entice more people to attend the event.
Pang said that the Post is handicapped by the lack of a facility to serve as its home base, in contrast to the Nisei Veterans Committee, a group who owns their own hall.
“We’re homeless,” Pang said. “We’ve been in existence for more than 60 years, and we don’t have a damn thing to show for it.”
Why doesn’t the organization open up its membership to non-veterans? Nicholas said they can’t.
“We’re kind of hemmed in by the bylaws and our affiliation with the American Legion,” Nicholas explained. “If we opened up to non-veterans, we would have to disband the organization.”
So for now, the call goes out for younger veterans to discover the Cathay Post. Pang – looking ahead to the installation banquet which is usually at Sun Ya Restaurant in July – said the membership dues are modest: only $28. Membership is open to veterans regardless of ethnicity or background.
Kay says a small number of core members trade off as officers.
“If we can’t find some new folks for the officers, we’ll recycle guys who’ve done it before,” he said.
Nicholas and the others aren’t upbeat about the chances of getting a lot of new folks involved in the Post.
“I don’t know whether it’s because of apathy or anti-veteran sentiment in our culture, but we’re just not getting the support that we need,” said Nicholas. “It looks like the curtain could be coming down on this organization.”
The others agree.
“Eventually, everything will vanish, but right now we’re just in limbo,” said Pang. Adds Kay: “As long as we still have half a dozen people, I guess we’ll continue it.”
To learn more or join the Cathay Post, #186 of the American Legion, please contact post commander Terry Nicholas at (206)355-4422.