Philip Choy
1926 - 2017
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 by San Francisco Chronicle from Mar. 25 to Mar. 26, 2017.
To plant trees in memory, please visit the Sympathy Store.
Memorial service
Treasure Island at the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition
1 Avenue of the Palms, San Francisco, CA
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41 Entries
Phil and Sara wish that we protect each other— young and senior, everyone cared for.
March 20, 2021
A brilliant and humble man who inspired many younger Chinese in San Francisco to remember their roots and to do good in the world.
Lester Chang
July 16, 2020
Benjamin Tong
May 8, 2019
Phil and Sarahcredits to our human race, our Chinese race, SF, CA, USA. Unforgettable! Hope to meet in heaven!
May 7, 2019
Lana Chong
September 30, 2017

I am Lana Fong Chong, fifth daughter of a paper son, FONG KWOK SHEE. Philip (and his wife Sarah) crafted the enduring book, CANTON FOOTPRINTS, to give a voice to the many Chinese immigrants in Sacramento who seldom spoke out about their arrival, their lives, struggles and successes. Mostly, during the awful Chinese Exclusion years that lasted through 1943.
Philip and Sarah interviewed me in 2003 and from that auspicious beginning, our friendship blossomed. For the last nearly fifteen (15) years, we shared special times, enjoyed Miller's Deli, the best dim sum, but most of all, we reveled in our treasured friendship and love of good food.

I believe that Philip's legacy of ensuring that our stories are recorded, told and shared resides in my passion for preserving family history through photographs, cooking and searching for morealways. In the dozens of years that we shared, he encouraged me to record, share and publish my recipes for GAI-JEW, GEE-GHERK, WOO-TAO GAO. Even more, he and his daughter Stephanie hosted a three generations JOONG MAKING session ad his home, just last August., 2016 What a fun, laughing-out-loud (LOL) day.

Phil reminded me always to remember who you areso, Yes, I am the fifth of seven daughters, ninth of thirteen children, born to two determined, hard-working, traditionalist parents, FONG KWOK SHEE and YEE WEE PING. When I spoke of how my Baba hated gambling and when he walked in on a clandestine Mah Jong game and took two tiles (thus disabling our game)Phil roared in laughter. Then the irony of gambling.' Philip explained to me how the Chinese Keno' tickets worked, even gifting me a blank sample so I could write about its impact on our family (Mama won a Keno game enabling her to buy several residential properties in Sacramento!) (More importantly, Mama helped provide the grubstake for Baba to strike out on his own,' to buy his own farming properties)

We talked of the importance of Asian American Studies, of telling our stories,' (because they reflect our life experiences) As with many immigrant families, our Mama and Baba seldom spoke of the early years of deprivation, loneliness and hard times; through Philip's endeavors, research and interviewing, he taught me how to reach out, to seek records; also be a resource.' By his example, he also demonstrated how important it is to stand up and be counted. I was honored and so proud when he asked me to help Geri Koeppel who was writing a story about the Chinese Telephone Exchange in San Francisco: my mother in law's clan, the Chan Lees of San Francisco and bay areas, were very involved; so, by his guidance, I am becoming a resource.

Now I am still learning and becoming the historian that Philip was; his work and encouragement have enriched mine forever.
Lana Chong
September 30, 2017
I truly admire Phil's excellent example for all. His humility, generosity, tenacity stressing the importance of our roots. His spirit and passion will always be remembered. gladys wong
June 9, 2017
I got to know Philip and Sarah when I was on the Board of the Chinese American Council of Sacramento (CACS). Philip and Sarah often came to Sacramento to support CACS. Philip presented at the Author Dinner Lecture series, curated the Chinese Pioneers of Sacramento exhibit permanently displayed in the rotunda of the US Federal Courthouse (1999), and authored Canton Footprints (2007). CACS inducted Philip into its Hall of Fame (2013) at its annual Gold Mountain Celebration honoring his enduring contributions for generations to come.
-Derrick Lim, Sacramento, CA
Derrick Lim
May 24, 2017
I met Phil the first time in 2013 when I was in SF to do research on film in Chinatown. What I thought was going to be a quick coffee turned into a day of exploring the streets and the history of Chinatown. By late afternoon, I found myself in Phil's home office, hunched over an original postcard of a Kearny Street movie theater from 1911.

Another time, Phil took me driving around the city to help jog his memory in order to locate the building of an old archive the CHSA once had donated materials to. Needless to say, he found it.

Of the few fortunate times I had the privilege of spending time with Phil, what thrilled me more than the discoveries he helped me make was the depth of his knowledge and the seemingly endless capacity of his memory. But most of all, I was always taken by his incredible kindness.

Phil was a titanic historian and a great man. I count myself very lucky to have known him. Even for a short period of time.
Kim Khavar Fahlstedt
May 1, 2017
Dear Dr. Philip Choy,
It is always an honour to know you. I am blessed because I am enriched by your ideas and inspired by your mission on history and human stories.

You planted the earliest seeds of American Chinese history in my little brain and they sprouted in my works ever since. Your contribution to the academic field was unquestioned. It was a tremendous honor and privilege for me to have your support and contribution in my documentary film.

I never forget the dinner I cooked for you after sharing my film in your home. It was such a lovely meal, at least, for everyone on the table. It was fabulous because you kept telling me the long struggle of Chinese ancestors in US, the Chinese-built railways, the brilliant and tragedy of human stories as if I see you dig the truth up by the roots in fragile manuscripts and fading historical evidence.

I hope we will honor your spirit, passion, and dedication in all that we do. Thank you very much!

Best regards,
Can To
April 27, 2017
Dear Dr. Philip Choy,
It is always an honour to know you. I am blessed because I am enriched by your ideas and inspired by your mission on history and human stories.

You planted the earliest seeds of American Chinese history in my little brain and they sprouted in my works ever since. Your contribution to the academic field was unquestioned. It was a tremendous honor and privilege for me to have your support and contribution in my documentary film.

I never forget the dinner I cooked for you after sharing my film in your home. It was such a lovely meal, at least, for everyone on the table. It was fabulous because you kept telling me the long struggle of Chinese ancestors in US, the Chinese-built railways, the brilliant and tragedy of human stories as if I see you dig the truth up by the roots in fragile manuscripts and fading historical evidence.

I hope we will honor your spirit, passion, and dedication in all that we do. Thank you very much!

Best regards,
Can To
April 27, 2017
For the past 63 years this man, Phillip P. Choy, was my Uncle Phil. I always knew he was a great man, but I didn't realize how far reaching his influence reached and how many people he touched. We were never close, but that is my loss and my greatest regret.
Thank you Uncle Phil, for just being here for us and the family. You are already missed. I never said this to you before, but I love you.
Jeffrey Chow
April 24, 2017
I was not privileged to know Phil. If I were living in California, fate might allow me to get to know him better. Like him, I am fervently interested in our people's continuing saga in the New World, which I'd include Australasia, my part of the world.
Douglas Lam
April 24, 2017
Phil is such a giant in the human race. I'm still learning from him of his humbleness, truthfulness, and caring nature. If everyone has a bit of Phil in him/her, the world will be a much better place for all. I definitely will miss him but thankful that I'm lucky to know him and work with him on and off. Wish I had done more with him. Cathie Lam
April 23, 2017
It has been an honor and a pleasure to have known and worked with Phil Choy as a CHSA board member. I have known and appreciated Phil's knowledge and dedication to community service as he helped CHSA navigated through to its final permanent home at the YWCA. He is truly dedicated to teaching all of us about the Chinese American experience as part of American history. Phil and Sarah both have demonstrated strength and strong commitment on how to move through complicated times with grace, compassion, and inclusion. We know that they would want us to stay engaged with the process of assuring that people are aware of the continuous Chinese American contributions. Thank you for being a true historian, mentor, and a friend.

Bruce Chin
April 23, 2017
22 April 2017

My late husband, Paul Louie, and I had known Sarah and Phil for many decades and have enjoyed seeing Phil's reputation grow in proportion to his expertise in writing and mounting exhibits about various aspects of Chinese American history. My children called them Auntie Sarah and Uncle Phil. And Phil, with his wonderful sense of humor, loved to tell that he spent his first date with Sarah babysitting the two oldest sons when they were toddlers. When our family lived in Los Angeles, Paul, who was one of the three founders of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, often consulted Phil on the history of the Chinese in southern California. Due to Phil's knowing its importance, the Chinese Historical Society in America received the Dan Ching Collection of images of the Chinese in the early 20th century.
I am thankful that Phil and Sarah were a part of my life.
Emma Louie
April 23, 2017
It is always a great loss to lose an angel and a hero such as Phil. But surely he will be looking over us from above and we down here will continue the good fight. So sorry to miss your send off as I am out of state. Blessings to all for our loss. Nancy Wang
Nancy Wang
April 23, 2017
Phil Choy was an inspiration to many of us from coast to coast --in Asian American studies, architecture and activism. I got to know him during my board tenure at CHSA and he was always welcoming and exuded remarkable warmth and compassion. He will always be our mentor, teacher and friend.
Sandy Lee
April 22, 2017
I see Phil Choy as one of our important people in the SF Chinese community. I appreciated knowing him from when I worked @ CAA in the 1980s.
Donna Jung
formerly SF, now Oakland, CA
April 22, 2017
I met Phil Choy when I was scanning Chinese Certificates of Identities at the National Archives in San Bruno years ago...

I had been years since Phil has seen me... One day, while I was shopping at the San Francisco Costco, he calls out my name from behind.
April 22, 2017
Dear Randy,

We were saddened to hear about the passing of your father last month. Richard Kung had sent us a message about the service tomorrow at Treasure Island. Unfortunately, Pat and I will not be able to attend the ceremony. Please accept our condolences on your father's passing. Your dad seemed an immensely fun person as well as someone who fought very hard for the fair treatment of Asians, based on the story of his life that we read, and we're sure he will be missed.

Our best wishes to you and your family. Hopefully, we will get to see you sometime in the near future.

Best regards,

Stuart and Pat Lum
April 22, 2017
I served on the CHSA board with Phil for many years, including the establishment of the current museum. The society could not be what it is today without his urging. He will be sorely missed.
Bill Roop
April 22, 2017
I've known of Phil Choy most of my life. His youngest son, Brian, and I were in the same Cameron House club. And my sister, Debbie, and Phil's other son, Randy, were also in the same group at CH.

As an adult, I got to know Phil better from our association with the Chinatown Community Development Center. Such an eloquent and wise soul. Phil always had his priorities straight.

But I'll always remember him as the cool Chinatown dad in the turtleneck.
Alton Chinn
April 19, 2017
I was saddened to hear of Phil's passing.
He was a game-changer who bravely chronicled Chinese history on the pages of our nation's diary. Early in 2015 I started working on saving Chinese cultural resources in Folsom, California and eventually found myself at his door. As I'm sure Sarah and Phil had with many local historians, they invited me in, sat me down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and listened to the familiar tale of urban development vs saving Chinese cultural resources. With humor and guidance, they fortified me, educated me, let me peek into some of the rare books in the library, and sent me on my way with enough confidence to stay the course. Thanks to Phil I met people who opened doors to knowledge and action. He was always patient, gracious and full of energetic enthusiasm before his beloved Sarah died. After her death, his enthusiasm turned to quiet urgency which bolstered my resolve not to give up on the Folsom project. My heartfelt condolences go out to his lovely family. He also will be missed by the larger community he gathered around himself; his legacy will be carried on by countless people like me...grateful to have known him and grateful to have spent a little time with both Phil and Sarah.
Deborah Grassl
April 19, 2017
Doug and I had the most pleasant memories of the oral history interviews we conducted in the writing of Canton Footprints. I would elect for Sara and Phil to be my honorary parents being so loving, kind and generous inspiring all of us with innovative progressive ideas. Phil was a unique leader lighting the way
with a humble and charismatic flashlight.
Karun & Douglas Yee
April 18, 2017
Phil and Him Mark Lai were not only historians, they made history. Supporting civil rights and equality in their youth, they were veteran champions of justice long before I met them at Chinese for Affirmative Action in the early 70s. Their dedication to Chinese Americans' stories is the legacy they leave to many generations.

Katheryn Fong
April 17, 2017
As a historian, Phil rocked the boat and became the rock we stand on. Phil was my mentor, friend and inspiration. I hear his voice always. With love and gratitude,
Connie Young Yu
Connie Yu
April 16, 2017
Both Phil and Sarah had a long relationship with my family from the time Sarah was a parishioner at True Sunshine Church when my grandfather Rev. Daniel Wu was presiding, through years later when Phil came to my Mom and Dad's home to interview my Dad Dr.Thomas Wu about the old Chinatown bands. My husband Chuck and I always appreciated Phil's vast knowledge of history, his sense of humor, and his devotion to the Chinese Historical Society of America. Laurene Wu McClain
April 16, 2017
As tribute to Philip Choy & condolences to the family members.

Raj Kumar
April 16, 2017
Mr Philip Choy Army service during World War II earned him the status of "America's Greatest Generation". Tom Brokaw once asserted that this generation developed values of "personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith". This is what made America great. It was their service that build America's economy and preserve our freedom and democracy that we cherished and valued. Thank you for your dedicated service to our nation's cause.

Raymond Wong, Commander - VFW 91st Division/Chinatown Post 4618 San Francisco
Raymond Wong
April 15, 2017
Super Thanks & Super Blessing to a Super Hero & Pioneer - Phil Choy! You have served the community with heart & soul and now you belong to the ages! Rev. Norman Fong
April 7, 2017
I wanted to post my tribute to Philip Choy because he was an important pioneer for Chinese American historians. I grew up in Stockton in a vibrant Chinese American community but it was not until I arrived at Cal Berkeley in 1977 and took an Asian American history class that I understood what our community had gone through since arriving in Gold Mountain. Later my cousin Lani Ah Tye wrote a book on my maternal family history in detail, and followed in the shoes of people like Philip Choy . . . Their importance as chroniclers of our history cannot be understated. Rest in peace, Philip Choy for a life well lived and a job well done.
Rachelle Chong
April 6, 2017
Adrian Praetzellis
April 3, 2017
In my "golden years", I discovered Mr.Choy and appreciate how much he did for us Chinese-Americans growing up in USA Chinatowns in the 1940's and the history of Chinese immigrants coming to America.

Wish I had a big brother like Mr. Choy.
March 31, 2017
Your work with your beloved Chinese Historical Society of America honored your community, the state, and the Nation. As directors, we were truly blessed by the energy of your life. And by the way, Phil, I liked your books -- a lot.
Doug Chan
March 31, 2017
Phil was a primary mentor for those of us who first put together Chinese American Studies, right at the dawn of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. Nowadays people can pursue PhD's in the discipline at campuses like UC Berkeley and UCLA. That initial wave of Ethnic Studies scholars and instructors was motivated by the likes of Phil to thoroughly document the CA experience. We conducted, from the early 1970s going forward, oral history forays into the small town California hinterland, interviewing anyone who would give us time. Included in that field research enterprise was coverage' of those still around from the first and second generation of Asian Americans in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Phil was one of a kind & will be missed more than we can imagine at this time.
Benjamin Tong
March 30, 2017
Sorry for your loss. May you find peace and hope by trusting in God. Romans 15:13.
March 27, 2017
I came to know Phil through his beloved wife, Sarah. Sarah befriended me when I visited CHSA in 2005, giving me a privately-led tour of the museum as we chatted about how Chinatown's community, life, and culture brought us to where we were that day. My wife and I were soon to adopt a baby girl from China. Sarah extended congratulations to us and a warm invitation to introduce our daughter to her and her husband upon our next visit to San Francisco. Thus began an ever-strengthening bond between Phil & Sarah and myself and my family over the next 12 years. Sarah and Phil extended their generosity and hospitality to us and especially, to our daughter, that I will forever cherish. Many lunches in Chinatown with them and visits to their home on Russian Hill will always be fondly remembered. We were deeply saddened to hear of Sarah's passing two years ago, and it is with an equally heavy heart that we bear the news of Phil's as well. I, personally, feel all the more enriched for having Phil and Sarah share part of their lives with myself and my family.
Jordan Lage
March 26, 2017
Hubert Yee
March 26, 2017
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