Boston Chinatown Remembers Davis Woo

(Mr. Davis Woo passed away on Sept. 18, 2017 at age 86. A memorial service was held in Boston on Sept. 28.)

2011 CHSNE Sojourner Awards Recipient Davis Woo

By Sherry Dong, for CHSNE Chronicle Fall 2011 Vol. 17, No. 1

By almost any measure, Davis Woo, 80, is an accomplished man. He earned a doctorate in engineering from one of the most renowned universities in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served in the U.S. Army, and had a long and rewarding career. But Davis’ greatest successes cannot be measured by the prestige of his degrees or the rungs he scaled on the corporate ladder. His greatest legacy includes his large and beautiful family—including his wife, Susie of 55 years, their children and grandchildren and his work in the greater Chinatown community. There, for over five decades, he has devoted his passion and energy to helping those in need, improving services and living conditions, and enriching, preserving, and sharing Chinese culture.

Picture of Mr. Davis Woo in 2008 (CHSNE file photo).

Davis Woo was born in Charleston, West Virginia, one of nine children. Not long after his birth, his father passed away and his mother moved the family to Boston. Growing up, Davis established ties to the Chinatown community even though he did not live there. In his youth, he played basket-ball at the Maryknoll Sisters’ Center and later became active in the Chinese American Civic Association.

After serving in the U.S. Army and completing his education, Davis joined the Monsanto Chemical Company at its Everett, Massachusetts location where he spent his entire career. He had ample opportunities to advance in his career, but it would have required him to uproot his family. Given his own experiences growing up, he felt it was more important for his family to live near a strong Chinese American community, such as Boston’s, in order to expose his children to Chinese culture, friends, and a sense of community.

During the civil rights movements that swept the country in the late 1960s and the 1970s, Davis became more involved with the Chinatown community. Most notably, he chaired Mayor Kevin White’s “Task Force for the Resolution of Chinatown Grievances” in 1969, shortly after a survey revealed community concerns about deficiencies in healthcare, education, recreation, public safety and police protection, housing for the elderly, and the physical environment. Davis, along with Task Force Vice Chair Frank Chin, brought together divergent sectors of the community to advocate successfully for new services in Chinatown and attract more attention and resources from the city. The first August Moon Festival was held in 1970—featuring city-sponsored entertainment and activities. A health fair led to the eventual founding of the South Cove Community Health Center. Other programs such as the Golden Age Center, and services for at-risk youth were developed. The city also appropriated land for housing and recreation, including a vacant lot owned by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority that was transformed into Pagoda Park.

Davis’ activism and leadership have touched many organizations. He was co-president of Gee How Oak Tin Association in 1985; board president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association from 1986-1987; and co-chair of the Chinatown/South Cove Neighborhood Council for many years. He also co-founded the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE) in 1992. He advocated for several important affordable housing projects including Tremont Village and Waterford Place.

One of Davis’ riskiest and ultimately most benevolent actions was a financial one. His encouragement and enthusiasm contributed to the formation of a group of Chinese American investors, CI Associates LLC, to develop a project that created linkage funds to benefit the community. The originally planned project in Roxbury stalled, but eventually CI Associates LLC saw the completion of One Lincoln Street near Chinatown. Profit sharing contributions of over $5 million, channeled through the China-town Trust Fund and the Boston Re-development Authority, made possible brick and mortar funding for the Asian American Civic Association, the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, the Chinese Progressive Association, Boston Asian Youth Essential Service and Kwong Kow Chinese School. Their funding also benefited the Oak Terrace affordable housing project, CHSNE, the South Cove Manor Nursing Home, childcare, and other community programs.

(L to R)Frank Chin, David S.Y. Wong, Peter Kiang, Caroline Chang, Ting Fun Yeh, Stephanie Fan, Frank Fresina, Davis Woo, Tom Chin (picture taken in 1992.

Finally, Davis’ list of contributions to the community would be in-complete without inclusion of his role in the founding of the Chinese Historical Society of New England and in the development of the Chinese Immigrant Memorial at Mount Hope Cemetery. Mount Hope was seen as the “defacto” cemetery for the Chinese community, but was not well maintained. Community members wanted to build a legacy and memorial for those Chinese buried there. Five people came together to co-found CHSNE with that goal in mind: David S.Y. Wong, Davis Woo, Peter Chan, Caroline Chang, and Ting Fun Yeh. Davis worked tirelessly on leading the memorial project, and even after retiring from CHSNE he continued to be a great inspiration for board members Bik Ng and Deborah Dong, who carried forward on this project in 1996 to spear-head it through fundraising and construction to completion in 2007. Davis remained involved as a public spokes-man and activist for the memorial long after he stepped down from the board, and continued to be a resource for Bik, Deborah and the rest of CHSNE.

On a personal note, Davis and his wife have four children, Ted, Kathy, Dan and Christine, and fi ve grandchil-dren. According to son Ted, some of Davis’ current interests include dining out and watching war movies, with The Longest Day being his favorite. He en-joys family gatherings, especially with the grandchildren. Ever humble and gracious, Davis wanted to acknowledge Peter Kiang as a person he truly admires and respects, stating that “Chinatown is in good hands with the younger generation of people like Peter who is commit-ted to the community.”

We congratulate Davis on receiving the Sojourner Award and thank him for his many years of contributions and dedication to the Chinatown and greater Boston Chinese American community.

(* Special thanks to Frank Chin, Paul Chan, Peter Chan and Ted Woo for sharing their insights for this article.)