By Jake Chang, AsAmNews Intern
Upon receiving the American Bar Association Liberty Bell Award in 1995 for his exemplary community service in Oakland, Walter Yin Chinn said the following: “Tell me, I forget; remind me, I remember; involve me, I understand.”
In the later years of his life, Chinn understood the importance of direct engagement with community members in uplifting their voices and sought to create a lasting impact within the Oakland Asian American community.
Chinn passed on Dec. 14, 2022 at the age of 99. His legacy includes founding successful youth and anti-gang programs in the Asian American community, as well as serving as an inspiration and father figure to many.
AsAmNews spoke with Deborah Chinn Murray on the remembrance of her father’s life and achievements.
Murray grew up seeing racism in the 1960s as the daughter of a mixed race couple, with her and her brother, Randy W. Chinn, being one of the few HAPA children in school. Her father would strive to reduce racial discrimination against them by reaffirming their Asian heritage.
“My dad always made sure that we didn’t feel any discrimination and that we embraced both cultures,” Murray said. “But, of course, he particularly wanted to make sure that we honored and acknowledged our ancient Chinese heritage. He was so proud of our background, and so proud of what we were, because we were also Chinese Americans and part of both cultures.”
Coming from a family of nine children in an immigrant Chinese family, Chinn dedicated his life to his family despite his humble background.
“He worked in his family’s business 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to help support his family,” Oakland’s Wa Sung Community Service Club historian Roland Hui told AsAmNews. “He sacrificed his chances for going to college or meeting girls just so his younger siblings could have better education and brighter future. Ever so modest and humble, he rarely mentioned this to other people.”
Chinn, a veteran of World War II, worked as a mechanic for the China Clipper in the US Navy Reserve along with other Chinese service members. He was also the first manager of several Payless drug stores who was a person of color, where he worked for 32 years.
“He was a very hard worker, and was highly recognized and promoted at a time when there were no people of color in management at all,” Murray said. “So to have him really break those glass ceilings and travel up the ranks was amazing. His innovations and management style enabled him to become a senior executive at Payless.”
Following his retirement, Chinn took up local politics in Oakland’s mayoral office as a council aide and chief of staff of celebrated vice-mayor Frank Ogawa. This position allowed Chinn to make contact with other leaders concerned with the safety of the Oakland Asian community and eventually co-found the Asian Advisory Committee on Crime (AACC) in 1986.
“He taught us to feel that the police were here to serve us and to work with us, and we respected them,” Murray said. “That’s really what he wanted for these young Asian immigrants to feel like these people are going to help you.”
Chinn became aware of the presence of gangs in the Asian community, which Hui would recount to be an issue that the city was reluctant to solve because of police understaffing. However, Chinn spearheaded an effort to have the Oakland City Council adopt a resolution and unite Asian groups to work with police towards a common goal.
“The task was extremely difficult because these groups were afraid of gang retaliations if the police failed to offer protection,” Hui said. “There was also a cultural tradition in Asian communities to resolve problems internally without outside involvements.”
Partnering with the local police department, the AACC served Oakland’s Chinatown and Little Saigon in bridging the Asian community with law enforcement. This included implementing the original police substation for Chinatown in 1990.
“We say the word dedication a lot. Sometimes, it’s used very loosely. Walter was really, truly dedicated,” Oakland Deputy Police Chief Clifford Wong, who has known Chinn for more than 20 years, told KTVU.
Once gangs had largely disappeared from Oakland in the early 1990s, the Asian Youth Services Committee (AYSC) was created by Chinn and former Laotian police officer Robert Sayaphupha in 1990. The organization sought to empower Asian immigrant youth by engaging them in community activities and events that taught skills of leadership and camaraderie with the help of adult advisors.
“Walter’s devotion to the youth of the community was unparalleled,” senior advisor of AYSC Richard Fong told AsAmNews. “He strived to develop youth to reach their highest potential. This program exists today, through his mentorship of teaching respect, self esteem, integrity, and leadership development.”
The AYSC is the first of its kind to be explicitly aimed at keeping Asian youth off the streets of Oakland and channeling them into successful educational and professional careers, according to Murray.
Members also express gratitude towards the AYSC and Chinn for the support given to them in becoming leaders in their industries and community.
“There are generations of kids that have just come back and been in contact with them for the past 30 years sending emails saying ‘Here’s what I’m doing today,’” Murray said. “‘It’s because of you [Chinn] that I’m in this position.’ I can’t tell you how many people have said that. It’s quite astounding.”
Ivan Fung, an advisor for AYSC, details how Murray’s father mentored him on his life goals and how to help his family with their business. Chinn’s guidance led him to pursue higher education and found success working at JP Morgan, thanking Chinn for his help and inspiring a life of service.
“My life [became] what [it] is today because of him,” Fung said. “His mentorship helped me with success, more effective than some of the MBA program[s]. I decided to continue to help with AYSC to help carry his legacy. That is what I can do for him.”
The impact of Chinn’s work in the AYSC reached the CIA, who contacted the Oakland Police Department a few years after AYSC’s conception to use the committee as a model for community policing throughout the country, according to Murray.
Oakland’s Wa Sung Community Service Club also benefited from the leadership of Chinn, Hui recounted. Chinn’s knowledge on Oakland’s Chinatown prior to 1950 were particularly valuable to Hui as a historian.
Becoming close friends with Chinn, the leader also gave encouragement to Hui as he composed a book on Lew Hing, a Chinese pioneering industrialist in San Francisco/Oakland in the first two decades of the 20th century.
“He saw potential in me that I didn’t know I had and would always offer words of encouragement for whatever I do,” Hui said. “Coming from him, these inspiring words had a special impact on me as I had always admired his leadership and dedication in serving the community.”
Chinn’s work is commemorated in several proclamations, recognitions, commendations and resolutions from the U.S. Congress, California State Assembly, Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the Oakland City Council.
In a 1995 resolution passed by the California Assembly, it commended Chinn for his exemplary record of civic leadership. Last week, both a state legislature and Oakland mayor’s office proclamation were issued in honor of his legacy.
“For many years as a leader in the State of California, Mr. Chinn in public life has distinguished himself for his character, and devotion to the interests and growth of the City of Oakland and its Asian community,” the proclamation states. “He has won the respect and affection of the public for his services to the community, not only as a private citizen but as a public servant in the many civil and military service which he held.”
In seeking the development of a strong artistic and cultural force in Chinatown, Chinn also helped to found the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in 1984, where the celebration of life will be held in his honor on March 26.
Local organizations appreciate Chinn’s leadership, where he served on the board of local hospitals, cultural centers, service organizations and more. Now, community members are reaching out to keep his memory alive.
“People are like, ‘What can I do?’ They’re really just standing tall and wanting to help as much as they possibly can,” Murray said. “I’m quite surprised by the outpouring of support from the community. We knew that he was popular and had a great deal of success, but I had no idea that it was this much.”
The family plans to hold a memorial service for Chinn at the Renaissance Plaza in Oakland Chinatown in March. In memorializing Chinn, there is talk surrounding a statue being erected in Chinatown in Chinn’s honor, as well as a Chinatown street being named after him, according to Murray.
Murray also requests that donations be made to the Wa Sung Community Service Club’s Perpetual Scholarship Fund, one of the scholarships named after Walter and Mildred Chinn that is awarded to AYSC youth.
In her ambitions to further her father’s legacy, Murray hopes that a biography is written about Chinn and his lifelong commitment to public service and Asian American empowerment.
“I’m just another person that he inspired,” Murray said. “But there’s so many, so many people.”
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