Wilbur K. Woo, vice chairman emeritus of Cathay Bank and Cathay Bancorp, Inc., was known for his decades of leadership in the Chinese-American community, but his many achievements never caused him to forget his humble beginnings.
He was born in 1916 in a tiny village near Guangzhou in China's southern Guangdong province. He came to Los Angeles at age five. At 12, his father sent him back to Guangzhou to be immersed in Chinese language and culture. In 1940, after two years at Lingnan College (now part of Sun Yat-Sen University), he returned to Los Angeles to complete his education at UCLA.
Like many immigrants, he found humbling work, washing dishes in a small Chinatown restaurant. He also taught at Chinese language schools in the evenings and was popular with his students, who decades later would pay their respects to their teacher whenever they saw him in the community.
During World War II, Wilbur worked as a translator in the Office of Postal Censorship, rising to chief of the Technical Operations Division. After the war, he graduated from UCLA with a degree in business administration and went to work with his father managing Chungking Produce Company, which thrived for 40 years supplying restaurants and grocery stores with Chinese vegetables and other produce.
In 1962, at a time when mainstream banks would not make loans to many ethnic Chinese, Wilbur joined Cathay Bank-the first Chinese-American-owned bank--as a vice president. With a knack for community outreach, he played a central role in the bank's growth over the next decades and rose to senior vice president, administrative vice president and executive vice president.
Alongside his distinguished career in banking, Wilbur cultivated an extraordinarily rich variety of business, political, cultural and charitable interests. He served as chairman of the board of The Chinese Times, the oldest Chinese language newspaper in the U.S.; charter chairman of the Asian American National Business Alliance; founder and chairman of the California-Taiwan Trade & Investment Council; president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce; and organizer and secretary-general of the 8th World Chinese Traders Convention. One of his proudest accomplishments, as grand president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, was lobbying for the historic immigration reform bill of the mid-1960s that opened the doors to a new wave of immigrants from China and Taiwan.
He served as an overseas Chinese representative to the Taiwan Legislature and was a member of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, the California World Trade Commission and the California Commission for Economic Development. He was an organizer and convener of the World Chinese Bankers Convention held in Los Angeles in 1988. That year he was named one of the "20 Most Powerful Men in Los Angeles" by Los Angeles magazine.
In 1996, crowning his numerous awards for public service, Wilbur became the first Asian American to be honored by UCLA with the Neil H. Jacoby International Award.
In 2001 he and his wife, Beth, endowed the annual Wilbur K. Woo Greater China Business Conference at the UCLA Anderson School of Management with the goal of promoting understanding of the economic ties between the Greater China region and the United States. "I established the conference to show my gratitude for the training I received at my alma mater many years ago," he said.
Sadly, Wilbur passed away on November 12, 2012. He is survived by his wife of nearly 75 years, Beth; four children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.