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Beth Woo

1915 - 2017 Obituary Condolences
Beth Woo Obituary
December 1915 - March 2017 When her father sent her to live out the Great Depression in China, Beth Woo set off from her native California in a spirit of adventure. "I was raring to go," she recalled later, confident she could handle the challenges of life in a foreign land for a year or two. One year ultimately stretched to 12, however. And what she had blithely imagined as an escape from the humdrum of small-town life turned into a nightmare of war. Beth, who survived the Sino-Japanese War before returning to America to help run a family business and raise five children--including a son who would become the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles City Council--died March 2 at her home in Monterey Park. She was 101. Born in Stockton, Calif., in 1915, she was the second of five children of Wong Sheong Ngon and Yip Yuen Seung, immigrants from Guangdong province in southern China. In 1934, as America's economy continued to unravel, her potato farmer father sent her and her younger brothers to China, where they could live more cheaply and improve their Chinese language skills. Beth married Wilbur Woo, the son of a Guangzhou banker, on the rooftop of the Hong Kong Hotel in 1938. When Wilbur moved to the U.S. in 1940 to attend UCLA, Beth stayed behind, intending to join him after he graduated. But once Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong, that plan was upended. She fled Hong Kong for the Woo ancestral village in Guangzhou and lost contact with Wilbur. Over the next years she defended herself and her two young daughters, Pat and Janice, from pirates, street thugs and enemy soldiers. When the enemy neared, she grabbed a pig under one arm and baby Janice under the other and ran for the hills. Janice couldn't walk and only later did Beth learn her daughter had contracted polio. The war brought daily hurdles, but Beth proved herself the scrappy American. After narrowly escaping the clutches of a lecherous soldier, "I cast aside my dresses, donned [my] brother's pants and shirts¿went to a barber's and told him to make me a man," she wrote in a private journal. "Half an hour later not one passer-by gave any undue notice to the mild-looking youth I had become." After the Japanese surrender, Beth sailed back to the U.S. in 1946 to rebuild her life with Wilbur. She raised three more children-Mike, Elaine and Pam-before taking her place in the family business. For more than four decades she ran the office at Chungking Produce Co., a downtown Los Angeles wholesale produce business founded by her father-in-law, David Kitman Woo, who with his son went on to help establish the pioneering Chinese-American-owned Cathay Bank. As the family prospered, Beth volunteered for community organizations such as the Asian Pacific Family Center. She helped immigrants join the mainstream by teaching English at the public libraries in Chinatown and Monterey Park until she was in her 80s. She was a quiet but powerful presence in son Mike's campaigns, stuffing envelopes, sweeping floors and making sure his volunteers were well fed. Mike served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1985 to 1993. She is survived by Mike and his sisters, Pat, Elaine and Pam, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Daughter Janice died in 2008 and husband Wilbur in 2012. "Our family's history has made us love and appreciate one another," Beth once wrote. She passed much of that history to the younger generations through the vivid journals and other writing she left behind. A visitation will be held on March 17 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, followed by a celebration of life on March 18 at 2 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel at Rose Hills. Burial will be private.
Published in the Los Angeles Times from Mar. 9 to Mar. 12, 2017
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