Santa Clara Valley Lives: Thomas Foon Chew: The man who made a difference

Courtesy of Historic Bay Area Visionaries 
Cannery magnate Thomas Foon Chew is second from right in this 1916 photo. His wife is at far left and his mother at center.

There are mysteries in the life of Thomas Foon Chew.

Sai Yen Chew brought him and his mother to San Francisco from China in 1897 when Thomas was 8, identifying them as his wife and son. But the couple had no other children, and that was unusual. In addition, they arrived during the time of the Chinese Exclusions Acts, when immigration from China was prohibited. His granddaughter, Gloria Hom of Palo Alto, points out there were exceptions to the law, but adds these words from her grandmother: “People who had the money could always go back and forth.”

Sai Yen had a small cannery in San Francisco, but when it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, he rebuilt in Alviso. He then brought Thomas into the business, and Bayside Cannery, as it was named, began to grow.

Sai Yen canned only tomatoes, but Thomas expanded into apricots, peaches, plums and more. Sai Yen employed only Chinese, but Thomas hired Chinese and anybody else who would work for him. He added plants in Mayfield (now Palo Alto) and along the Delta. Local papers dubbed him “The Asparagus King” for perfecting the canning of green asparagus. By the 1920s, Bayside had become the third-largest canning business in the country.

Thomas built housing for his Chinese workers, since racism kept many from renting elsewhere. He provided a hot lunch at the plant for just a dime. As he prospered, he became the first Chinese man in the valley to join the Masons. His daughter May Lin was the first Chinese woman to graduate from Los Gatos High.

Chew’s story is so extraordinary, it is surprising it is not better known. But Feb. 25, 1931, he entered O’Connor Hospital with pneumonia and died at the age of just 42. Bayside survived only a few years without his leadership.

Although his life was short, he left a legacy of values. All seven of his children graduated from college, despite the Great Depression. Forty years later, many of his workers said his kindness had changed their lives. Alviso salutes him today with a street named in his honor and with four historical plaques. One is on Hope Street – a fitting place to mark the memory of this optimistic and inventive Californian.

Robin Chapman’s new book “Historic Bay Area Visionaries,” scheduled for publication Monday by The History Press, includes more on the life of Thomas Foon Chew.

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