Ming Tchou: her life and contribution to the Twin Cities' Chinese community
By Shilyn Chang, staff writer
The Chinese Heritage Foundation Friends held a dinner for 115 guests at Hotel Sofitel last month to honor one of the most respected and well-known figures in Minnesota’s Chinese community — Ming Tchou, CHFF’s founder. It was not only a celebration of Ming’s 89th birthday and the amazing life she has led, but also recognition of her efforts and achievements toward promoting Chinese culture and history in the United States. For years she has facilitated the education of Americans about China, as well as provided ways to connect Chinese and American people in Minnesota.
The celebration began with a social hour where guests were invited to enjoy appetizers, which included a whole roast pig, view a photo presentation of Ming’s life and admire a ginger sculpture created by Bob Bergad, husband of Pearl Bergad, executive director of CHFF. The CHFF board also presented Ming with a special calligraphy couplet.
Guests were serenaded with piano and guzhen performances by young artists who have performed at A Passage to China. At the end of the social hour, everyone was ushered into the banquet room that had been festively decorated under the artistic eye of CHFF board member, Yin Simpson.
Each table hosted guests of different backgrounds and origins, all with a unique and interesting story of how they came to know Ming. Pictures at the event told the story of Ming’s life: the adventures she had coming from China, her involvement in the Chinese American community, and of the many close friendships she has made and sustained over the past 89 years. There were also photos at each table of guests who had volunteered at various Chinese Heritage Foundation events. Each photo had a personalized “thank you” message from Ming written on the back — an example of the dedication and passion she has toward her friends and toward her personal mission of keeping the Chinese culture alive in Minnesota.
After dinner, the entire CHFF board took turns speaking about Ming’s remarkable life. Born into a family of elite scholars, Ming grew up with an understanding of the importance of education and having an open mind that was ready to learn. In 1940, she traveled from Guangzhou to Shanghai alone to study law — an amazing feat at that time for a young woman in China. There she met her future husband James Tchou, who was in Shanghai studying medicine. The invading Japanese army forced Ming back to her home city of Guangzhou. The two continued their courtship through written correspondences. Mail was unreliable at the time, so their letters were numbered so the other would know the correct sequence of the letters.
When the war ended, Ming returned to Shanghai to marry James and soon after, the couple moved to Hanoi, Vietnam, where James established a successful practice. Later, he continued his studies at the Sorbonne, France, (where Ming’s father, grandfather and several uncles had studied law) and eventually in the United States. They traveled all over America, living briefly in many states such as Pennsylvania, Texas and Kansas before settling in Minneapolis in 1961. Ming worked for a while as a medical technologist until she realized there was a demand for Chinese goods in the Twin Cities. She opened Ming at the corner of 50th and France in Edina — an import/export store selling Chinese antiques and jade. She opened a second store in Rochester after the success of the first.
In addition to her success in the entrepreneurial world, Ming became heavily involved in Chinese nonprofit organizations. She served on the boards of the U.S. China People’s Friendship Association and the Chinese Senior Citizen’s Society. In 2004, Ming founded the Chinese Heritage Foundation to give back to the community and to encourage understanding between Chinese and other cultures in Minnesota. She laid down five key priorities for the foundation:
(1) Education — to promote the understanding and study of Chinese history and literature
(2) Arts and culture — to promote understanding of Chinese arts and encourage the development of new artistic endeavors based on Chinese themes
(3) Chinese heritage — to encourage Chinese Minnesotans to learn about their heritage
(4) Chinese seniors’ well-being — to promote/initiate programs tending to Chinese senior citizens in Minnesota, and
(5) Communication — to facilitate interaction between the Chinese and Minnesota communities
In the past nine years, the Chinese Heritage Foundation has more than upheld the mission that Ming set nearly a decade ago. It has awarded a total of 38 grants to various artists and organizations across Minnesota, such as The Minhua Chorus, CAAM Chinese Dance Theatre, Minneapolis Museum of Arts, etc., in order to encourage the development of Chinese art and history in Minnesota. It also established the CHF Graduate Fellowship in History at the University of Minnesota in 2005, which concentrates on the study of Chinese history in the 20th century. This History Fellowship has produced three Ph. D. graduates, all of whom have found jobs in China, Taiwan and the United States.
CHFF itself also hosts several events in order to promote Chinese culture in the Twin Cities, such as A Leisurely Evening in a Chinese Home, which focused on learning about calligraphy, jade, Chinese games and even Chinese New Year customs; and the ever-growing A Passage to China event at the Mall of America. Ming will always volunteer her time at these events, offering her expert knowledge of jade, playing mahjong, catching up with old friends, or meeting new ones, helping the thousands of guests learn more about China and Chinese culture.
In addition to its involvement in the Minnesota community, the CHFF has begun to stretch its influence outside of the state. On this auspicious occasion, the foundation announced that it is undertaking a major project that would continue and extend Ming’s passions for preserving Chinese culture and promoting understanding between Chinese and American people. While some details of this project were shared exclusively at this special gathering, a formal announcement will be made to the public when additional details are finalized.
As the evening came to a close, the audience stood to toast their dear friend and sang her a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday (followed by the Chinese version). The night was a clear reflection of the ongoing success of Ming’s mission to encourage education and cultural understanding of her beloved country.