A Remembrance


February 12, 2020
Dr. Cheng-Tsu Wu: A Remembrance by Charles Heatwole

Tony Grande recently informed me of the passing of Dr. Cheng-Tsu Wu. C-T, as he was affectionately known, served on the faculty of this department from 1957 to about 1984. As that suggests, biographical data from the era of pre-computer record-keeping is sometimes lacking. What is clear, however, is a remarkable life.

Cheng-Tsu was born in mainland China in 1922. Given a family that was well-to-do, in his youth he received a first-class education. In 1945, despite the intervening Japanese invasion and occupation of much of his homeland, he graduated from National Central University in Nanking with a B.S. degree in geography.

In China, World War II was followed by civil war between Nationalists and Communists.  I never heard Cheng-Tsu talk about that period. What is certain is that for the next couple of years he taught geography in high school and college settings. Then, shortly before the Communist victory, he left his native land to attend The Ohio State University, which in 1950 awarded him an M.A. degree in geography.

Whatever Cheng-Tsu’s plans may have been, he could not return home.  The United States and The People’s Republic of China did not have diplomatic relations. Indeed, they would soon be at war on the Korean peninsula. In any event, the revolutionary change of government in China had rendered his Chinese passport invalid. And as a non-U.S. citizen, a U.S. passport was unobtainable. Basically, he was marooned in America. He was able, however, to move to Manhattan.

Despite New York City’s tradition of accepting immigrants from diverse lands, Cheng-Tsu discovered it was a bad time to have recently arrived from mainland China. U.S-Chinese relations were hostile. McCarthyism was in full swing. Fear of Communist spies was rampant.  Not surprisingly, C-T did not escape scrutiny. Accordingly, for a couple of years he was required to regularly meet with an FBI agent to report his activities.

Nonetheless, he also was able to continue his formal education. During 1951-54 he earned graduate credits in geography at Columbia University.  That was followed by a fellowship from Clark University, where Cheng-Tsu received his Ph.D. in geography (1958).

A year earlier, while working on his dissertation, C-T began his affiliation with Hunter College, specifically in what was then The Department of Geology and Geography.   Over time, his job titles would include Temporary Lecturer, Lecturer, Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor.  At some point along the way he met and married Julia (surname unknown), a professor in Hunter’s School of Education.

Cheng-Tsu’s research for his doctoral dissertation, “Chinese People and Chinatown in New York City,” significantly influenced his later years in two ways.

First, it established him as an expert on the nature and experience of the City’s Chinese community, as well as his being a major figure within it. Confirmation was found in the publication of his book “Chink”: A Documentary History of Anti-Chinese Prejudice in America (World Publishing Times Mirror, 1972) and his appointment to the New York City Human Rights Commission.

Second, his research provided a treasure trove of information on Chinatown’s restaurant industry; in particular, the supply chain that linked eateries and grocers with regional farms and other sources of foodstuffs characteristic of Chinese cuisine. This would lead to his co-founding of a company that supplied such items to other (i.e., non-Chinatown) Chinese restaurants, as well as to his business association with a Chinese restaurant in Mid-Town. Both ventures were highly successful and resulted in his being possibly the wealthiest faculty member in the history of The Department. How wealthy? I don’t know. But I well remember the day (early fall 1975?) when all departmental faculty and staff gathered for a cook-out at his home – which turned out to be a multi-acre estate on a hillside in Hastings-on-Hudson overlooking the river.

In part, what made that setting seem remarkable was Cheng-Tsu’s complete lack of pretense. There was nothing about his appearance or behavior that suggested wealth or special status. On the contrary, humility was a hallmark. At Hunter, everything about him suggested he was just your average guy. But besides his home, I do remember two things that rather gave it away.

Once every week or so a group of faculty members would go out for lunch. When the entourage included Cheng-Tsu, the destination was always a Chinese restaurant. And invariably, when we walked through the door, a considerable hubbub would ensue with the owner and employees all paying their respects.

And then there was the banquet at the Chinese Mission to the U.N. It was early 1979. Although The People’s Republic of China had been admitted to the United Nations several years earlier, full diplomatic relations with the United States had only recently been established. Thus, it came as a shock when Cheng-Tsu announced to his colleagues that the entire departmental faculty had been invited to a banquet at The Mission.  It was an astonishing culinary experience. I sat next to C-T and remember him marveling at foods and beverages he had not seen since leaving China. The reason for the invitation was never explained. The common conjecture, however, was that it was all about diplomats wanting to connect with Cheng-Tsu.

Full diplomatic relations meant that Cheng-Tsu – now a U.S. citizen with a U.S. passport – was able to visit his native land. It was 1980. He had been away for at least 31 years. Fortunately, both of his parents were still living.  As departure day approached, his excitement was apparent.  It was with equal excitement that he later described the family reunion.

During the next few years, the academic environment became less to C-T’s liking. Teaching had always been the principal mission of the College and Department. That’s how Cheng-Tsu saw himself: a teacher. But in the early 1980s, research grants and publications became leading indicators of job performance. Like other “old-timers,” the effect on C-T was negative. Though he never said so, his closest associates could tell that Cheng-Tsu sensed his time had passed. Accordingly, he retired. Years later he sold the estate and moved to Alexandria, VA, where Julia apparently still resides.

Dr. Cheng-Tsu Wu . . . He was a complete gentleman. A dedicated and beloved teacher. A role model, particularly to students who shared his ancestry. A valued colleague. A team player. I never saw him express anger or heard him speak ill of anyone. He wrote poetry. Practiced calligraphy. Taught tai-chi. Possessed a warm smile and great sense of humor . . . I look back with regret that I didn’t do more to stay in touch; but also in awe of someone who came to this country on his own, lived a full life, and did very, very well.

[Thanks are due to Tony Grande for sharing his memories of C-T, and to Christina Santiago for tracking down relevant information.]