Elaine Chao’s journey
Elaine Chao was 8 years old and unable to speak English when she arrived in the United States after a journey from Taiwan on a freighter.
She wasn’t alone on that 37day trip in 1961. With her were her younger sisters, Jeanette and May, and their mother, Mulan Chu Chao.
And awaiting them in Queens, New York City was the girls’ father and Mulan’s husband, James Si-Cheng Chao, who had saved enough money and filed all the paperwork to bring the family to the US three years after saying goodbye to them.
He had become a sea captain in Taiwan, and received the highest-ever score on the Master Mariner Examination. He was selected to study abroad and had to leave his family in Taiwan to go to the US.
The family joined James, who had enrolled as a student at St. John’s University, and later founded a shipping company, what is now the Foremost Group, an internationally respected shipping company in New York. They settled in Jamaica, Queens, living in a one-bedroom apartment.
While in America, Ruth gave birth to three more daughters: Christine, Grace, and Angela. When the shipping company prospered, the family moved to affluent Westchester County north of New York City.
Almost one year ago, on Dec 12, Elaine Chao and sisters May and Angela, all graduates of Harvard Business School, returned to Queens with their father and talked about the struggle of Chinese immigrants in the US.
“They make many sacrifices, so their children can have greater opportunities,” said Elaine Chao, during the 40th anniversary celebration of the World Journal, a Chineselanguage newspaper serving overseas Chinese in North America, at the Sheraton hotel in Queens.
Standing on the stage with a backdrop of “THE AMERICAN DREAM” in red and blue, Elaine Chao, the first Asian-American woman in US history to be appointed to a US president’s cabinet, shared stories of her family’s immigrant experience.
She recalled the years her mother raised her and her sisters in Taiwan while her father pursued a future in America.
“My father did not see his third daughter, Xiaomei, until she was 3 years old,” said Elaine Chao, the oldest of the six sisters.
“At that time, there were so few Chinese, Asians in America,” she said. “We didn’t understand the language; we couldn’t eat the food; we didn’t understand the culture or the traditions; we had no friends or relatives nearby. But throughout all these challenges, my parents always maintained optimism - their hope for a better future.”
Her parents commuted to Manhattan’s Chinatown every week for food and ingredients, and her mother brought out delicious dishes to the dining table in their first, tiny apartment in Queens.
“We grew up in such a secure and loving family environment,” said Chao.
“My parents taught us to take great pride in our Chinese heritage. They taught us to take the best from East and West. There is no conflict,” said Chao. “Armed with this combination, they said, this will be our comparative advantage in an increasingly international world.”
The six sisters also were largely influenced by their humble and hardworking mother, Mulan, who received her master’s degree in Asian literature and history from St. John’s University at age 53.
She was diagnosed with cancer on Jan 11, 2001, the same day President George W. Bush announced Elaine Chao’s nomination. The elder Chao said nothing so as to not ruin the moment for the family.
She died of lymphoma in 2007, and nine years later, on June 6, 2016, at Harvard University, where four of the six daughters pursued degrees, the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center was dedicated — the first building named after a Chinese American and a woman at Harvard in its 380-year history.