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Helen Hoh Wu was born to Harry Sai Hoh and Woo Shee in Canton (now Guangzhou), China on November 4, 1918. She immigrated through Angel Island with her mother to the United States in 1921 when her father co-owned and managed a Grant Avenue shop selling Chinese products. The family had nine children, all of whom lived above the store in a small two-bedroom apartment. Everyone worked hard to sustain the family even if that meant making individual sacrifices.
As a teenager, Helen Hoh Wu worked for an army family in San Francisco as a housekeeper cleaning house and cooking for her employer. She also operated the elevator at one of the San Francisco hotels. She attended public schools, including Girls High School where she met some of her lifelong friends, all of whom like her, were fully bilingual in Chinese and English.
Her life changed dramatically when she met Thomas Wai Sun Wu at the Chinatown YWCA where he played piano in a dance band. She fell in love with him and gave him encouragement while he attended the University of California Dental School in San Francisco from which he graduated in 1939. Helen and Thomas married in 1940. Soon after when he started his dental practice in Chinatown, she helped him as his assistant. She continued to support him when he gained leadership in many non-profit, fraternal, political, and professional groups.
However, in 1941 after suffering sharp pain in her eyes, she was diagnosed with Harada’s disease and soon after, other eye diseases that eventually left her legally blind and later on, totally blind. Despite her physical disability, she managed to raise a daughter and son—Laurene and Elliott Wu—with the same emphasis placed on hard work, family values, and pride in heritage that she learned from her own childhood.
While she did not have an opportunity for higher education, Helen Wu found that the Lighthouse for the Blind with its talented teachers and staff, provided her with intellectual stimulation. She loved a semantics class to the point where she became very interested in English words, their origins, and meaning. She took up Spanish and learned to make jewelry. She received piano lessons from a fellow client at the Lighthouse. Her life with the Lighthouse was rich and full as she made friends with teachers and students alike. She also embraced Christianity and attended True Sunshine Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
In her older years, Helen Wu loved to listen to the news and the talking books that she received regularly from the San Francisco Public Library. She enjoyed music. After her husband died in 2004, she was able to live at home with the help of caregivers and wonderful medical expertise and spiritual support. With the care of all of these people, Helen Wu was able to die in the familiar surroundings of her home on September 30, 2015. She left her daughter Laurene Wu McClain, son-in-law Charles McClain, grandson Chris McClain and wife Carolyn, her grand-daughter Janine Wu, her great-grand-daughters Alice and Katherine McClain, her great-grandsons Elliott, Fletcher, and Koliah Wu Cole-Heavens. Her son, dentist Elliott Wu, died from leukemia in 1979.
Laurene Wu McClain, who was born in San Francisco, is an attorney and a history professor. She has published articles regarding American legal history and the experiences of Chinese in the United States.
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