One interesting thing about writing history’s stories is that even after a book is published, the research continues. Publishing has deadlines; learning never ends.
That is evident in the life of Thomas Foon Chew, a man who was very famous during his lifetime but whose story was nearly lost. Six years ago, I found a few lines about his canning business in an out-of-print book. Last year, I included a chapter about him in my book, “Historic Bay Area Visionaries,” the first lengthy work on Thomas Foon (as he liked to be called) and his Bay Side Cannery published in nearly 50 years.
His story is timely, as he came to California as an 8-year-old in 1897 during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Acts (more on that to come) and was a multimillionaire when he died of pneumonia in San Jose in 1931 at age 42. He is now back in the news, as preservationists work to save the remains of his canneries in Alviso and Palo Alto.
After my book came out, the Los Altos History Museum shared my research as part of the exhibition “Silicon Valley Eats,” a fitting link, as Foon was known as the “Asparagus King” for perfecting the commercial canning of green asparagus. His only surviving son, Timothy Chew, a Berkeley grad born in 1924, was abroad during my research. Last spring he returned, toured the Los Altos exhibition and, with the help of Gloria Hom of Palo Alto – Foon’s granddaughter and Timothy’s niece – we finally met.
Timothy remembered his father (who had asthma) chain-smoking cigars. He also said his mother told him the family came to America on a work visa set aside for Chinese merchants, an exception to the draconian laws of the time. Timothy is a reliable source – he was once an agent with the CIA. He said it was OK to report this now, because he’s retired and age 95.
More new information came from Fred Wool, the last president of the Murison Label Co. of San Jose. Wool contacted me to say he had a stash of Bay Side labels. As Gloria and I reviewed his stunning collection, we learned Bay Side canned under seven different brand names, including Bohemian, Cal Taste, Gondolier, Calico and Snow Peak – all new information to us.
I wrote that Foon’s funeral was in San Jose, but when a reader asked me where his funeral photo was taken, I didn’t know. With the help of Michael Lara, reference librarian at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library (and the help of a magnifying glass), we studied the business names on the awnings in the photo and learned something else. Thomas Foon Chew was honored with a memorial parade, not in San Jose, but along one of the most famous routes in America: Grant Avenue in San Francisco, the heart of the West’s largest Chinatown. Twenty-five thousand people turned out to honor him that day in 1931: a worthy tribute to an American entrepreneur whose fascinating life story is at last being rediscovered.
Robin Chapman is a Los Altos resident, author, journalist and historian.