Jeni Kay Fung traveled from Olympia, Washington to Toisan, China at the start of the Great Depression and returned a year later. This is her steamship ticket • Courtesy

On Nov. 16, 2023, at the age of 98, Jeni Fung died peacefully with her daughters at her side. She was predeceased by her husband Cal; her parents Charles and Lam Shee Kay; and four of her five older siblings: Henry Locke, William Kay, Donald Kay, Francis Wick. She is survived by her sister Mary Mar; her daughters Janine Chan (Brian), Alicia Davis (Mark); grandchildren Natalie Rodgers (Blake), Carlyn Bisset ( Denver), Jordan Davis (Kylie), Paul Davis; great grandchildren Reagan, Nelle, Eli, Layla, Ava, Goldie; and numerous nieces and nephews scattered throughout the West Coast and British Columbia, Canada.

Fung was the youngest of five. On Jan. 6, 1925, she was born into the second Chinese family to settle in the Washington State capital of Olympia. Her family, along with other new settlers from China arriving on the West Coast, found the strength and tenacity to support themselves, raise families, and survive the adversities of being Chinese during that time.

The family sustained itself through their father’s abilities as a chef at hotels and restaurants up and down the West Coast and the opening of their first Chinese restaurant, the Nankin, in Olympia. Life in the U.S. became precarious when the depression hit in 1930, and the family decided they would return to their village in Toisan, China. A 5-year-old Fung and her family made the journey on the SS Jefferson steamship for 23 days in steerage.

Family members started returning to Olympia in 1931, and the children got busy finishing grade school and high school while also holding down neighbourhood jobs. By 1941, Fung’s parents decided to open Kay’s Café in Olympia, and the children who remained in Olympia would help in the restaurant after school. Fung wrote in a reflection: “The hardships they lived through instilled a strong sense of independence, fairness and the ability to survive.”

Fung at ages 12 (left) and 5 (right) • Courtesy

Fung was determined to be more than a high school graduate and was the only child in the Kay family to pursue higher education. Between her job as a waitress at the family restaurant and her second job at Jean’s Dress Shop in downtown Olympia, she managed to save enough to pay tuition and dormitory fees for two years at the University of Washington (UW).

Although her parents initially hesitated at the thought of her moving away for school, they eventually relented, and she began her studies in journalism at the UW in 1945. Regrettably, her two years ended with Fung leaving to become caregiver of her future diabetic father-in law, Mr. Fung Ming, until his passing.

She returned to the UW 20 years later as an employee from 1965 to 1988, now married with a family. She established herself as a valuable administrator on campus, helping to solidify the birth of the UW Professional & Continuing Education Program. Fung later worked as the Assistant Administrator to the Dean of Dentistry, followed by the same appointment to the School of Nursing, where she introduced the program to Apple Computers. She remained a Mac computer user into her 90s.

Her work at the School of Nursing gave her great purpose in life, helping make a difference in the lives of students training to enter a healthcare discipline. During her time there, Fung was involved in the development of several key programs under the wing of Dr. Rheba de Tornay, the former Dean of Nursing. One of them addressed the healthcare needs of the aging population, and after her retirement in 1988, Washington Governor Gary Locke appointed Fung to the Washington State Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission as a public member. She served from 1997 until 2000.

Fung at age 69 with her grandchildren (left) and at age 40 with her daughters and nieces • Courtesy

Fung and her husband Cal were married for 74 years until he passed away in 2022. Family life and career work at the University of Washington and The Boeing Company, respectively, kept them both busy. A ‘two year vacation’ described the family’s life as they drove across the Southern United States, relocating to Cape Canaveral, Florida, from 1968 to 1969. Boeing was partnered with NASA on the Apollo Space program at that time.

Traveling through the South in the late 1960s was an eye opener for the family. Those they met along the way had never met Chinese Americans. As they settled into daily life in Florida, Fung saw an opportunity to help establish the first public library in their little town. Regular family life in Cape Canaveral included walking two blocks to the beach and watching the Apollo missiles launch into space from Kennedy Space Center.

The family traveled to various cities throughout the state and visited Nassau, Bahamas. Their daughters learned how to swim like fish in the Florida sunshine. In late 1969, the couple moved their family back to the Pacific Northwest and settled on Mercer Island. The two years in Florida broadened their daughters’ perspectives of the U.S. and its diversity, its people, and the impact travel can have on one’s worldview.

Both daughters completed their post-secondary schooling and enjoyed the experience of living on campus with the help of their parents. It was important to Fung to provide her daughters with the opportunity to have the full college experience, as she had had.

Retirement in 1988 allowed Fung time to support the local Chinese community, participating with other volunteers on the Wing Luke Museum’s Chinese Oral History Project.

Siblings (from left to right:) Frances Wick, Jeni Kay Fung, Henry Locke, Mary Mar, William Kay • Courtesy

The interviews were compiled into a book titled Reflections of Seattle’s Chinese Americans: The First 100 Years, edited by Ron Chew and Cassie Chin. Both Fung and her husband were integral participants in the fundraising efforts to build the nation’s first nursing home to serve non-English speaking Asian people, Kin On, in Seattle. When she wasn’t busy writing Kin On newsletters, the couple enjoyed their time grandparenting, playing golf, and traveling the world with their close friends. Jeni Kay Fung loved life.

Those who knew her will remember her smile, laugh and enthusiasm for life, her honesty and positivity, her work ethic and ability to solve problems, her sense of volunteerism, and her curiosity to learn. 

“You don’t know where you are going until you know where you have been,” she would often say. This belief energized her to research her own family’s history, which spanned over 75 years, starting in 1875 with the arrival of her grandfather, Charley Yeck, from China. She recorded the family’s ancestral story, gathering government documents and historic pictures to create a 100-page account. The document was given to all family members in 2002, in an effort to educate and preserve the Kay family story for generations to come.

The family would like to express their heartfelt thanks for the wonderful care she received while living at Cornerstone Adult Family Home. Erin Liang and her staff of caregivers will always be considered part of our extended family. We will always remember them for the care and comfort they provided to mom.

Jeni Kay Fung will be interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle and a celebration of life will be held in summer 2024. If readers wish to honor Fung’s memory, please consider donating to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, Kin On, the UW School of Nursing, the Wing Luke Museum or a charity of your choice.

Jeni Kay Fung at age 97 in 2022 • Courtesy
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