By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Felicity Wang went through chemotherapy earlier this year, she prayed to Mazu, a Chinese goddess of the sea. On Aug. 30, she stood before a crowd of 110 people at China Harbor Restaurant and announced a step forward in the creation of a park in King County to the living goddess.
“She’s just like Jesus,” she said.
The journey to the establishment of a park in honor of Mazu began for Wang in 2015—and still faces numerous challenges.
But Wang celebrated the designation of Sept. 9 as Mazu Day in King County and the signing of a proposed agreement between King County and the North American Mazu Cultural Exchange Association, both of which were unfurled at the event.
King County Executive Dow Constantine said the agreement will “explore the feasibility of creating” the park in King County.
Describing Mazu as a “compassionate mother figure” in traditional Chinese culture, he said, “As new Chinese immigrants traveled to new lands, they would erect structures to honor Mazu for bringing them across the sea safely.”
Turning to Wang, he added, “And many now appeal to Mazu for other blessings.” He mentioned “world peace.”
The celebration included many groups affiliated with China and a few from Taiwan, apparently those that favor stronger ties with China.
“Belief in Mazu is a cultural tie that connects people of Chinese descent worldwide,” said Constantine.
King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci reverberated the theme, saying that Mazu “symbolizes the transcendence of earthly boundaries, protecting and helping people across cultures.”
Speaking above the crowd noise and eating, as is common in such settings, she added, “We’re taking a big step in honoring our Chinese and Taiwanese communities—and really, pan-Asian communities.”
In her opening remarks, Wang said the establishment of a park “is not political, it would not belong to China or Taiwan or Japan, it is for the global community, everybody who believes in her will be there.”
Wang said in an interview she had encountered challenges along the way, since she first proposed the park, including from local park officials accusing her of trying to establish a religious site.
“But I found a document from the United Nations, that in 2009, the organization declared that Mazu was not religious, but was a cultural tradition,” she said.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Mazu culture belongs to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Described as a folk tradition, rather than a religion, “belief in and commemoration of Mazu is an important cultural bond that promotes family harmony, social concord, and the social identity” of coastal Chinese and their descendants.
Funding for the park would come from the World Mazu Association, said Wang, with members from as far-flung places as Australia.
The temple on the island where the woman who would later be called Mazu was born, which is off the coast of Fujian Province in China, would also raise money.
The president of the Shandong Mazu Cultural Exchange Association, Zhao Qiliang, offered remarks at the event in Chinese.
Calling Mazu culture, “outstanding Chinese culture,” he said the tradition was “our spirit,” which is shared in overseas Chinese communities.
The goal of the association is “to promote culture, travel, and other activities,” he said.
The drive for the park began in 2015 when a former director of Taiwan’s unofficial representative office, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Seattle, Andy Chin, began discussions with King County about a Taiwan park, said Wang.
In 2016, Chin completed his term and was transferred away. Wang kept up the drive. She came to believe that dedicating the park to Mazu as an international cultural figure would make it more likely to come to pass.
When the pandemic broke out, she was forced to cease her efforts. In 2021, she assumed leadership of the Mazu Association in Seattle.
Over her protestations to local park officials that Mazu is not religious, one official responded, “If I approve this for you, since it’s the first cultural park, then India will want one, Thailand will want one,” he said.
Other rationales against the park included that parking would be an issue. One official, she said, resented the fact that local politicians supported her plan.
“‘Are you using these politicians to pressure us?’ he said,” Wang recollected.
Originally, the park was intended to be established on a space in Marymoor Park in Bellevue. But if that fails, Wang said another spot will be found.
The park will contain a statue of the goddess between 29 and 32 feet tall. And a pavilion will contain cultural information. The complex will be called the Mazu Compassion with Wisdom Center.
“We are willing to follow her spirit and take care of everyone like a mother takes care of her children, which can bring a better and more peaceful life to everyone,” wrote Wang in a letter to Balducci.
As part of future activities connected with the park, Wang plans tours to significant Mazu temples in Taiwan, a visit to the goddess’ birthplace, and travels to India and other sites.
According to Wang, Mazu was originally a young woman who saved fishermen. At a later age, she died in the act of performing a rescue and ascended to heaven to become a Boddhisattva.
“Mazu is believed to have lived in the tenth century on Meizhou Island, where she dedicated herself to helping her fellow townspeople, and died attempting to rescue the survivors of a shipwreck,” according to UNESCO, which states there are 5,000 temples to the deity around the world and in private homes. “Followers may implore the god for pregnancy, peace, the solution to a problem, or general well-being.”
This was a theme picked up by state Sen. Bob Hasegawa.
“Right now, the United States is in a very difficult situation, we are losing our way. Peace has taken a back seat to fighting and boisterous arguments,” he said in remarks at the event. “So I think it’s really timely that Mazu draws attention and blessings to the United States. We do need to find a pathway to peace.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.