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Philip Choy


1926 - 2017 Obituary Condolences Gallery
Philip Choy Obituary
Philip P. Choy

December 17, 1926 - March 16, 2017

After a brief battle with cancer, Philip P. Choy, 90, died at home. Phil was a renowned historian and architect, a teacher, mentor, family man and friend to many. He had a wicked sense of humor, was passionate about research and history, and generous to a fault. He was not shy to speak his mind. Much to the chagrin of his wife Sarah, who predeceased him, Phil often enjoyed being irreverent for the pure fun of it. He was wise and compassionate, and he could play the harmonica (and piano) without ever having learned to read notes.

Phil grew up in San Francisco Chinatown with sisters Lily and Dorothy, and brother William, and worked in the family butcher shop as a teen. He attended City College until he enlisted in the Army Air Corps toward the close of WWII. Basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi provided him a shocking glimpse of racial injustice and roused his later activism for civil rights. After the war, Phil graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Architecture. His architectural style was eclectic, and he won awards for contemporary and traditional designs. He often laughed at (but was a little proud of) his tongue-in-cheek Pagoda style Chevron Station on Columbus Avenue, which was a Chinatown tourist attraction for many years before it was torn down. Architecture aside, his identity and his passion was rooted in uncovering and preserving the history of the Chinese in America.

Phil pioneered research in Chinese American history -- finding lost records in moldy basements, traipsing through graveyards, scrolling through microfiche, and interviewing elderly persons in remote locations. This avocation became a profession when Phil was asked to help establish the Asian Studies Program at SF State University by co-teaching the first such course in the nation. Over the years, he taught at other universities as well. Phil authored or co-authored The History of the Chinese in California, a Syllabus, Coming Man, Canton Footprints and San Francisco Chinatown. He created the standing exhibit in the lobby of the Federal Courthouse in Sacramento, hosted the documentary series Gum Saan Haak, and consulted on numerous documentaries, exhibits and monuments to the Chinese.

Until his death, Phil was a resource for historians, scholars, and the media. In fact, Phil was interviewed so often that he frequently was surprised when he saw himself on a television program or read his own quote in an article. His home library contained volumes of carefully catalogued rare books, newspaper clippings and illustrations. Phil would enthusiastically open his library to a complete stranger. Hours later, the stranger who walked in would leave a lifelong admirer and friend.

Philip also gave generously to the larger community. Early on, he volunteered as a docent for the Asian Art Collection at the DeYoung Museum. He served on the boards of the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Chinatown Community Development Corporation, as well as the the SF Landmark Advisory Board and the California State Historic Resource Commission. He participated in the preservation of the Angel Island Immigration Station, and often donated architectural services to nonprofit organizations. Over the years, he received countless commendations for his contributions.

Philip loved life, and his list of interests was endless. In his last year, he enjoyed travel to Southeast Asia, China, and Africa. He tended a huge garden, coaxing orchids to bloom, and fruit trees to grow. He reveled in finding deals at auction. Above all, Phil loved to spend time with his family. From family trips to family dinners, or cheering his grandkids on at basketball games, Phil was a devoted father and grandfather. Phil is survived by his sisters Lily and Dorothy, sons Randy (Jiali) and Brian, daughter Stephanie (Michael Wong), and grandkids Michael (Geneva) Alexandra (Vince Liang), Kelcie, Nathan, and Zachary. Rumor has it that Phil left us to join Sarah to commiserate on the state of our nation, in which even Meals on Wheels (where Sarah worked for 10 years) is at risk of defunding -- Phil would want to be an activist to the end.

A Memorial Service will be held Sunday April 23, at 1:00 pm on Treasure Island at the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition (1 Avenue of the Palms). In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Chinese Historical Society of America or to your favorite cause.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Mar. 26, 2017
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