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Originally published March 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 12, 2009 at 9:28 AM

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Obituary | Mary Pang, 87, public face of frozen-food empire

Mary Pang, who helped build the local frozen-food empire that bore her name, has died at age 87.

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the decades before Chinese food was as ordinary as a grocery-store deli, there was Mary Pang, whom most people knew from the name on the red-and-yellow boxes of egg rolls in their freezers.

With her husband, Harry, in the kitchen, Mrs. Pang, who died of a heart attack Friday (March 6) at age 87, was the public face of a Seattle frozen-food business that grew from virtually nothing to a million-dollar concern.

But it was much more than that to her.

For years, she taught Chinese-cooking classes from her own school in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. She gave huge fundraising dinners for local PTAs. And she personally went to grocery stores to hand out samples.

She said she was sure that if people knew how good it could be, they, too, would grow to love the food of her roots.

"I tell them to try it. If they don't like it, they can throw it away," she told a newspaper reporter in 1977. "Nine out of 10 do like it, and they are our new customers."

Eventually — and sadly — Mrs. Pang's name would also become synonymous with the 1995 warehouse fire her own son set, which claimed the lives of four Seattle firefighters and killed the business as well. But the mark she leaves on Seattle goes much deeper, her family and friends say.

"She was always in charge of the situation; you never saw her lose her head — ever," said her granddaughter, Kristin Pang, of Mercer Island. "She was one of those people you just noticed. And she loved to make people smile."

Born Feb. 15, 1922, in South Seattle to immigrant Chinese parents, Mrs. Pang went to Franklin High School and the University of Washington.

After Harry Pang came home from World War II, they married and opened a grocery store. But soon they took over a fledgling frozen-food operation from Mrs. Pang's sister, Ruby Chow, the famed local restaurateur and future King County councilwoman who died last June.

It was a tiny, energetic affair, using Chow's kitchen in off-hours to chop, cook and package everything by hand, recalled Betty Yee, of Modesto, Calif., a goddaughter who lived with the Pangs during her childhood.

Mrs. Chow, barely 5 feet tall, landed all the new accounts and delivered all the food herself.

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"She was tough and she was feisty," Yee said. "They ate and slept that frozen-food business."

In the early 1960s, the Pangs bought an old building on Seventh Avenue South, headquarters for Mary Pang's Food Products. In the meantime, Mrs. Pang taught Chinese cooking to thousands of students, and in 1990 published a cookbook, "A Wok with Mary Pang."

In 1995, their adopted son, Martin, torched the building in an attempt to collect on the insurance. He is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence for manslaughter.

The Pangs' business closed after the fire, and with it went most of Mary Pang's public persona. Her husband's health quickly declined, and she devoted her time to taking care of him before his death in 2004.

"I often wonder what might have happened if the fire hadn't happened," said Kristin Pang, Martin Pang's daughter. "They loved that business, and I wonder how it would have gone, because she was such an amazing woman."

In addition to her son and granddaughter, survivors include another granddaughter, McKenzie Pang, of New Zealand; and two brothers, Bill Mar, of Issaquah, and Roy Mar, of Seattle.

A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Friday at Butterworth Arthur Wright Funeral Home, 520 W. Raye St., Seattle. Donations may be made to Kin On Health Care Center, 4416 S. Brandon St., Seattle, WA 98118, or a favorite charity.

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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