“It’s an award I never really took seriously and had never really thought I would be receiving,” said Raymond Cho, president of the Chinatown Community Development Center.
The honor, an annual “Father of Chinatown” award presented by the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA), came to him at his 85th birthday, after a lifetime of advocacy and service to the community.
Cho is the president of the community development center that serves South Side Chinatown in Hong Kong and Chinese communities in Southern California and the United States. He has served since 1995.
Cho, who was born in Hong Kong and came to the United States in 1949, studied public administration at UCLA and business administration at Harvard. Before being elected president, he was the director of marketing and campaign finance for the Nikkei Community Action Network (N-CAN), which was created in 1995 to serve as a social welfare service resource for Japanese Americans.
In an interview, Cho reminisced about life growing up in Hong Kong and his experience in the United States. He reflected on Japanese internment camps and the internment of Latino people in New Mexico, both of which bothered him deeply as a child.
His brother and sister were in those camps. His family had to leave them after his brother was drafted into the Army.
“The family moved to South Los Angeles. I went to South Garden Elementary and then to Alhambra High School. I was told at school to get out of the United States because I looked Asian,” he said.
Cho said many people were scared that if they supported the growing Chinese community, which was decades behind the Japanese one, they would be deported.
“My father gave me a story when I was younger of going to the Navy yard. This boy wanted to know how they felt about me. He said, ‘At the Navy yard, the same thing happened to us. People said we look like we belong in the country, but we weren’t allowed to stay.’”
Chu told his son this story to try to explain the anger and anxiety directed at him because of the North American Aviation contract. He insisted on remaining in the United States, even after the ship business he was working at in Alhambra failed. He became a construction worker in San Pedro and began working for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1930s. When he enlisted in the Navy, it was as a steerage clerk. “I could enter a business without a business certificate,” he said.
Around the time he entered the Navy, he married Nga Cho, whom he’d met at an interracial dance in 1964. Although they were not from the same boat, they were moved by the same love.
As a young man with limited English and limited military training, Cho was hesitant to enter politics but felt he had to help the community.
“After the Little Tokyo riots in the mid-70s, I came back and vowed to serve my community and helped make sure the government worked with the community,” he said.
Cho became involved in the South Los Angeles O.K.I.G. march, which was being planned by a Christian Buddhist youth group. It became the Million Man March in 1995.
In that movement, he helped found Young Democrats, a group that involved older Korean Americans and Japanese Americans as well as immigrants from the Philippines and Taiwan, with the aim of helping these groups survive in the community.
“There’s a demand to change. Older people, especially, are no longer going to let the world manage us anymore,” he said.
Chu’s fellow members of the South Side Chinatown chapter of the Young Democrats elected him president of the organization in 1999.
“My work motivates me to push forward,” he said. “Sometimes a young man will come up to me, maybe an Indian boy, and talk about how he wanted to become a lawyer, but he hasn’t been able to pass his bar exam. I talk with him and encourage him to get the exam, that he can make things happen.”
Chu said he doesn’t have a plan for retirement. He plans to stay involved in the community and in politics. “For me, it’s how can I serve my community the best?”