Photo caption: From left to right: Francis and Sirdana Ma, longtime owners of Le Hama Jewelry. Photo courtesy of Michael Yee.
The other Saturday afternoon I dropped by Le Hama Jewelry to ask several questions to finish this column. At first sight, one would think that there was a wake going on in the store on the corner of Jackson Street and Maynard Avenue. People were going in and out, some bringing food, others huddled around and conversing. However, once inside, there was a festive mood in the shop. This was not a wake — at least not for a person.
Sirdana and Francis Ma first opened Rainbow Gift Shop in an interior space of the Bush Hotel Building in 1979. In 1983, they moved into the prominent corner location on Jackson and Maynard. I first met the Mas in 1991 when I became the director of property management for Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), which owned the Bush Hotel.
Wait. Maybe this should be a love story.
Sirdana and Francis met in Hong Kong and were sweethearts. Although in love, they became separated when Francis immigrated to America. Sirdana, who understood the power of love — and ultimatums — told Francis: “I won’t wait for you forever. I’ll give you two years.”
In 1972, Francis returned to Hong Kong to marry his true love. The Mas eventually moved to Seattle and started a family.
Over the years you could find their son and daughter, and eventually their granddaughter, running the hallways of the Bush.
When asked how they could work so closely together for 34 years, Sirdana replied, “Love.“ Elaborating for her parents, their daughter explained how there were days where mom and dad would come home and express their frustration with the one another. But at the end of the day, they remained committed to each other and valued the “give and take” of a marriage.
Too sappy. Maybe something more edgy.
Part of the appeal of Le Hama Jewelry is literally the mom-and-pop nature of the business. It’s not like going to a shopping mall jewelry store, where you could spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a piece of jewelry and not know the person you are purchasing it from or depend upon that person to be there next time you visit. Going to Le Hama Jewelry is like going to your mother and father for advice. If “trusted jeweler” is not in your vocabulary or experience, Le Hama is the place to go, but go soon. They have been my trusted jeweler through many engagement rings and other purchases. However, we had a nice laugh when they learned that I recently bought another engagement ring from a new source. Like family, they were just plain supportive of me changing up the mojo.
There are few retail businesses left in Chinatown-International District that have been or will be open as long as Le Hama Jewelry. As a non-food, retail business, 34 years is an extraordinarily long time. Their mission to serve their customers made them the most well-known and successful jewelry store in the neighborhood. Perseverance comes to mind when they talk about days when no customers would come in.
They speak with wisdom about operating a business. Their words could be from numerous business books: “loyalty to customers, provide value, be consistent, treat everybody fairly and be honest.” When I see businesses fail, I often see owners failing at the execution of these simple business principles.
It’s not a wake, it’s a celebration.
As I sat in Le Hama that Saturday afternoon, I was not in the middle of a wake. Sirdana and Francis are retiring and closing the store on April 20th. But like a wake, family, friends and customers are steadily coming in and giving their well wishes. It happened to be Sirdana’s birthday, so with a big, motherly smile, she offered me a piece of fruit cake that a customer had mailed her. The Mas shared how customers often drop off food for them at the store, are now traveling companions and second-or-third generation past customers. The mood is festive because it is a celebration of family and friends that surround Sirdana and Francis.
Still at SCIDpda, I wonder what will become of the space. It is not likely to continue as a jewelry store. In this economic climate, prospective tenants will be judged for their credit score, capital funds, return on investment and a host of other criteria. The Mas have shown me that love and passion for what you do should be added to the list of criteria.
Sirdana and Francis hope to do more babysitting with new grandchildren, but they are not in control of that. So for now, Francis plans to garden more, and Sirdana looks forward to more mediation time. Their love story will continue on, and I wish them the best — and more grandchildren.