he Chao Family:One of a kind

By Larry Lee | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-02-03 11:31

 he Chao Family:One of a kind

New Transportation secretary Elaine Chao is sworn in by US Vice-President Mike Pence as her father, James S.C. Chao, holds a bible during the ceremony at the White House on Tuesday. Carlos Barria / Reuters 

The family of James S.C. Chao is likely the most well-known Chinese immigrant family in the United States, and the shipping magnate says that raising"wonderful daughters"has been his greatest triumph, Larry Lee reports from New York.

The man for whom it probably could be said has everything doesn't have a membership of the Harvard Club on West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan near the international shipping, trade and finance company he founded in 1964.

Only alumni and faculty of Harvard University are pre-qualified to apply for membership. But James S.C. Chao's Harvard connection is a long and deep one.

"Four of my daughters and two sons-in-law are members," said Chao proudly of the four of his six daughters who graduated from Harvard Business School.

The Chao family has donated more than $40 million dollars to Harvard, where the executive education building was named after, in Harvard's words, the matriarch of "this most prominent and accomplished Chinese-American family", the late Ruth Mulan Chu Chao.

Waiters know him

Chao is a familiar presence to waiters at the Harvard Club. He has his designated table in a relatively quiet corner where he can talk with guests.

He was my guest for lunch there on Jan 13, one day after he returned to New York from attending the Senate confirmation hearing for his eldest daughter, Elaine L. Chao, as secretary of Transportation. With her swearing in on Tuesday, she became the first female Asian American to serve in two US presidents' cabinets, a feat few Americans, male or female, can match.

For her 90-year-old father, it was not easy to travel from the Big Apple to the nation's capital and sit in the hearing for almost four hours. "We have a family tradition: One for all, and all for one," said Chao.

Some 20 years ago, I was Chao's luncheon guest at the Harvard Club, the recipient of an invitation spurred by his learning about the story I had written about his eldest daughter Elaine when I was Washington bureau chief for a Hong Kong newspaper.

Then, Elaine Chao was a distinguished fellow at a Washington think tank. In the lengthy interview she gave me,she expressed her views about many issues, including some sensitive ones in the Asian community, such as affirmative action. She didn't hide her objection to affirmative action, pointing out that quotas and goals harm Asian Americans and America, saying that in the land of opportunity success should be based on merit.

That luncheon in 1998 was the first time I had met her father, and my first time at the club. We had a very pleasant conversation; he asked about my age, my experience as a journalist and my future writing plans.

All I knew about Chao then was that he was quite successful in the shipping industry, and that he had six very talented, well-educated daughters who were on outstanding career paths.

Biography published

But this time, the night before our lunch, I had stayed up to 3 am to read a copy of Fearless Against the Wind, the Chinese version of Chao's biography. I hope someone can translate this biography into English so that more people in the US can know about Chao's great family history.

Right after his biography was published in Taiwan in November 2016, I had the luck of obtaining a copy from Chiling Tong, a longtime friend of the Chao family, and the founding president of the International Leadership Foundation. She used to be the associate director of the Minority Business Development Agency in the US Commerce Department.

I had the honor of attending Tong's wedding in Taipei in 1996. Her husband, Joel Szabat, is deputy assistant-secretary of Transportation and executive director of the Maritime Administration.

John Tsu, the late chairman of the Asian Republican National Committee, introduced Tong to me more than 20 years ago.

Tsu was President George H. W. Bush's Chinese tutor and a close friend. He was a member of the White House transition team when Bush was elected the 41st US president in 1988. He had played an essential role in recommending qualified Asian-American candidates to the Bush administration.

Tsu had also encouraged many young and talented Asian Americans to enter politics. He was mentor for Tong and many others.

Publication of the 434-page book in Taiwan coincided with Elaine Chao's nomination as Transportation secretary and so the book had aroused a lot of attention among the Chinese community and Chinese media in the US.

At our lunch we talked about his biography,the cabinet nomination of his daughter, and what has been the formula, if there is one, for Chao to have such successful and devoted daughters and a successful career as an ocean shipping tycoon.

He is chairman of The Foremost Group, headquartered in New York and with branch offices all over the world. The company's bulk fleet totals approximately 4 million deadweight tons, with an average age of less than five years.

On his success, he spoke simply: "If you can't change your environment, change yourself."

And on the success of daughters, Elaine, May, Christine, Grace and Angela, (his second daughter, Jeanette, passed away in 2008), "Thank God I had such a good wife. Without her, nothing would have happened."

Chao clearly recalled details of what we had talked about in 1998.

"You wrote many editorials, right?" Doing so was a regular part of my job back then. And Chao recalled his early years: "As a student at Shanghai Jiaotong University in the 1940s, I was the publisher of a student newspaper, Youth. I was in the limelight at that time, dreaming to be a journalist in the future."

The bi-weekly newspaper with a circulation of more than 2,000 was distributed to eight public and three private universities in Shanghai. At the time, it was the final phase of China's civil war, and dangerous for a student newspaper to cover sensitive political issues. Youth ceased to publish after five issues. So ended Chao's dream of being a journalist.

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