Agency leader changed lives as immigrant advocate

AACA executive director passed away June 6 at age 65. (Image courtesy of Ling-Mei Wong.)

The Asian American community in Boston mourned the loss of Chau-ming Lee, Asian American Civic Association (AACA) executive director, when he passed away June 6 at age 65.

Lee grew up in Hong Kong and attended the University of Hong Kong. He moved to Boston and studied social work at Boston College. After serving as a social worker at New England Medical Center (now Tufts Medical Center) for four years, he was hired as executive director of the AACA, then named the Chinese American Civic Association.

ABCD president and CEO John Drew first met Lee about 30 years ago. Drew said, “I loved Chau-ming. I knew Chau-ming through Mary Chin, as AACA is part of ABCD as a designated organization. He gave his heart and soul to help this community, and I think he did a wonderful job.”

When Lee started at the agency in 1982, it was housed in a basement on Tremont Street leased from ABCD. Lee joined social worker Mary Chin and judge Paul Yee, who served as board members.  He oversaw the 2007 opening of AACA’s 87 Tyler Street headquarters and helped thousands of individuals with immigration inquiries.

“At the time, AACA had only English and prevocational programs,” said Beverly Wing, consultant at Tufts Medical Center who worked with Lee as a colleague, partner and funder over his 35-year tenure at AACA. “He was easy to work with, had good ideas and was patient. If the world could have been more responsive with funding, the results would have been amazing.”

Boston Chinese Evangelical Church Pastor Steve Chin played basketball with Lee at the Wang YMCA bubble, before the Josiah Quincy School opened in 1976 on Washington Street. Chin said, “From my 40 years in the church, I was impressed with his work in the community and how much he was able to grow the organization. It’s phenomenal to see how it could bless and impact so many immigrants.”

Annie Chin-Louie worked at AACA for more than 13 years before becoming project manager at Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute. Lee was her first boss after college and his second daughter Renee served as the flower girl at her wedding.

Chin-Louie said, “What impressed me the most about Chau-ming was his dedication to his work and the community. He devoted his entire career to improving the lives of immigrant families. He was especially dedicated to providing immigration counseling. … He would personally maintain office hours on Fridays to work on difficult cases, knowing how important it was for immigrant families.”

Boston Public Schools former deputy superintendent Bak Fun Wong had a stint as an English teacher at AACA in 1978 before becoming principal of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School and founder of the Josiah Quincy Upper School. He worked with Lee on educational partnerships and admired Lee’s work to grow the agency to serve individuals outside the Asian community.

“He was a good leader in the community, not just in the field, as his heart was always to serve immigrants and people who needed services,” Wong said. “He was a visionary who saw community needs. AACA had language programs, which he expanded to workforce development, the Buds & Blossoms daycare center and the youth program.”

The AACA celebrated 50 years this year.

Richard Soo Hoo, president of Richard Soo Hoo Insurance Agency and AACA advisory board member, said, “If it wasn’t for Chau-ming Lee, AACA would not be where it is today with our resources in job training and connections in fundraising. He’s one of the silent heroes of Chinatown.”

David Chang, AACA board member, saw firsthand how Lee put others first. Chang said, “He led by example. I never saw him yell or scream. Even though I’m older than he is, I saw him as a mentor.”

Johnny Ip, president of the Hong Kong Association of Massachusetts and a former banker, worked with Lee for AACA fundraising efforts.

“We met at an event hosted by my bank, and my wife immediately recognized Lee’s wife Eleanor from high school in Hong Kong,” Ip said. “We connected and became good friends. When we met for lunch, we talked about the good old days and our fond memories of growing up in Hong Kong.”

Mattie Deed, career specialist/financial coach at the Roxbury Center for Financial Empowerment, used to work on Harrison Avenue at the Boston Worker Assistant Center. On her first tour of AACA, Lee told her about his vision for immigrants.

“I will always remember Chau-ming Lee as dedicated, purpose-driven and determined,” Deed said.

Lee was buried June 13. He is survived by his wife, three daughters, two sons in-law and two grandsons.

Jill Uchiyama, co-director at the Literacy Connection and former AACA staffer, said, “His love and dedication for education, employment and empowerment (the motto at AACA) was shown more in his years and determination to work at all costs — even in illness and during injury. In short, he just didn’t quit and in the end, he never retired.”

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About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England 舢舨報紙總編輯。舢舨是全紐英倫唯一的中英雙語雙週報。
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