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Chi Mui, 53; Was the First Mayor of Asian Descent in San Gabriel's History

April 28, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

One month ago, a frail but spirited Chi Mui thanked a standing-room-only audience at San Gabriel City Hall for honoring him in becoming the first mayor of Asian descent in the city's 93-year history.

It was a point of pride for him knowing that San Gabriel had found a way to celebrate its transformation from a sleepy suburb of mostly whites and Latinos to what many now consider the epicenter of the San Gabriel Valley's thriving Chinese community.

"Chi is a great friend and communicator, and an invaluable link to the members of our Asian community," the outgoing mayor, Juli Costanzo, said at the meeting.

After a long struggle with cancer, Mui died Thursday at San Gabriel Valley Medical Center with his wife and close friends by his side. He was 53.

Friends say his legacy is visible in the vibrant commercial district along Valley Boulevard -- Mui liked to call it the Golden Mile -- with its Hilton Hotel, where half the guests are from China, Taiwan or Hong Kong.

Mui was one of only a handful of first-generation Chinese Americans to have successfully run for political office when he was elected to the City Council in 2003.

He was credited with integrating non-Asian residents with the newly arrived Chinese who now make up half the city's 40,000 population.

Mui was born in Guangzhou, China, and moved to Hong Kong as a young boy. He and his parents, a seamstress and a cook, left for the United States in 1963. They lived in New York City's Chinatown, where Mui learned to speak English.

He graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Polytechnic University of New York in 1980.

Friends say Mui, who spoke fluent Cantonese, never forgot what it was like to come to a new country and grow up in an ethnic enclave. It's what drove him to later work in Los Angeles' Chinatown, where he helped develop affordable housing for seniors and urged immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Mui lobbied to obtain $35 million from the state to build a park and community facilities in the cornfields north of Chinatown. He also coached youngsters in the Los Angeles Chinatown Athletic Assn. Volleyball Club, which he co-founded.

Though Mui was recognized by the Chinese American mainstream, he was also well-known in working-class communities such as the Indochinese.

He gained the support of the largely unknown local Chinese-Vietnamese community, which had elevated itself over the last 30 years from poor refugees to middle-class suburbanites. Mui could be counted on to attend Chinese New Year festivities in Lincoln Heights, where many Chinese-Vietnamese still have their community centers.

"He worked so hard for our community," said Derek Ma, a former president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. in Chinatown. "He was a pioneer. We feel so bad losing him. He knew how difficult it was to be a new immigrant."

Mui was a past president of the Los Angeles Chinese American Citizens Alliance, a civil rights group founded in 1895. He was also a field representative for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) when she was in the Assembly, and he worked for former Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles).

Despite his illness, Mui never missed a council meeting until the one on April 18.

The city had "a great deal of affection for him," said Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park). "They admired his courage in the way he carried himself."

Mui was known for his gregarious personality. He greeted people with a sturdy handshake, often with two hands. He liked to hold meetings with community leaders, politicians and reporters in some of the region's finer Chinese restaurants.

Food was a passion for him; he often debated where the best places were for signature Chinese dishes.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

Mui is survived by his wife, Betty Tse, and his two sons, Kevin and Brian.

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