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Wilbur Woo, groundbreaking Chinese American leader, dies at 96

Influential Chinese American leader Wilbur Woo died Monday at his Monterey Park home from complications due to a stroke and pneumonia, the Los Angeles Times reports. He was 96.

Woo's children include the first Asian American City Councilman of Los Angeles, Michael Woo and Los Angeles Times Staff Reporter Elaine Woo — both of whom attended Alhambra High School.

At the age of 5, Woo immigrated to Los Angeles in 1921 and went on to become a respected businessman and banker. He owned and ran Chungking Produce Co., a family business started by his father, and served as chairman of the board of the Chinese Times, a local newspaper. He sat on the board of Summit Western Corp., the developers of Chinatown's Mandarin Plaza Shopping Center, and was president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. He was also the vice president of Cathay Bank of Los Angeles, the first bank in the country owned by Chinese Americans. In 1978, The Times called Woo "one of the leading citizens of Chinatown." 

Michael Woo posted on Facebook about his father:

One of Dad's leadership roles was the presidency of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance in the early 1960s. As a boy, I remember hearing his stories about barnstorming around the country visiting CACA [Chinese American Citizens Alliance] lodges in Salinas, Portland, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Houston. Perhaps his proudest achievement as CACA president was lobbying for the historic changes in US immigration policy in 1965 which removed legal barriers limiting immigration from China and Taiwan.

When I was growing up, I used to think that it was completely normal for a father to tell his family around the dinner table about his exciting meetings in Washington, DC, with Senator Hiram Fong or Senator Ted Kennedy to discuss strategy on an immigration bill.

Woo overcome significant ethnic barriers. When he attended UCLA, Chinese Americans were barred from living in Westwood due to the color of their skin and he had to commute from Downtown LA. Later, when he moved with his family to Monterey Park in 1962, which was predominantly white at the time, they received anonymous calls threatening death to his Chinese American family if they did not leave. They did not, and instead worked with the police to pave the way for other Chinese to safely make the area home.

Woo was also an influential political figure who worked to strengthen foreign relations with Taiwan. He acted as an overseas Chinese representative to the Taiwan Legislature and was a member of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, the California World Trade Commission, and the California Commission for Economic Development. In part because of his father's financial support, Woo's son Michael became the first Asian American elected to Los Angeles City Council in 1985.

He is survived by his wife Beth, his wife of nearly 75 years; three daughters, Pat, Elaine and Pam; son Mike; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. A memorial service is planned.

Read the full LA Times obituary

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