To some, Frank Chin was a community activist and a mentor. To others, he was a decades-long fixture in the Asian community and the unofficial mayor of Boston’s Chinatown.
But to so many, he was best known as “Uncle Frank,” the kind, humble and dedicated community pillar who spearheaded a voter mobilization effort among Boston’s Asian community at a time when local politics were not known as being particularly diverse.
Fifty years since his first political venture—going door to door to Chinatown residents to encourage them to register to vote—Boston now has a Chinese American mayor, and Chinatown residents have more access to affordable housing and social service organizations.
Chin passed away earlier this week at the age of 91, but his legacy as a true friend to all is a gift that will carry on for generations.
Paul Lee, chair and founder of the Asian Community Fund at the Boston Foundation, joined GBH’s All Things Considered to testify to Frank’s impact, both professionally and personally. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: It seems like everyone has a personal, touching story about their first encounter with Frank. Would you mind sharing how you first met him and the impression he left on you?
Paul Lee: I met Frank so many years ago I’m not sure I remember the first encounter. I was a young kid running around Chinatown, going to school at the Josiah Quincy School and the Chinese School, and I ran into him on the street. He was one of the responsible adults that made sure we behaved. Inner city kids running around, playing hooky from school, doing things like setting off firecrackers where they shouldn’t be set off... Frank would—gently and kindly—tell us to behave ourselves and to find the better angels in us.
That’s really what he was. He was just such a kind person. I remembered all of the times that he would just put his hand on your shoulder and say, “You know, you really shouldn’t doing that.” And that made a real, big difference for us.
Even as I grew older, and even in recent years before his health problems, whenever I went to Chinatown, it seemed like I would run into him on the street, and we would always have a nice exchange. He would ask about my parents. He would ask how I was doing, and we would talk about some of the issues he was working on because he cared so much about Chinatown.
Rath: Give people a sense of what that means, going back to the time when you were a young man, because we’ve come a long way. But in Massachusetts and across America, Asian Americans were slow to get involved in politics.
Lee: Chinatown was a very insular community for many years, particularly when I was growing up. Frank was really one of the few people who worked outside of Chinatown when he worked as a purchasing agent for the city. We knew that he was meeting really important people, like the mayor and other people working in city administration, so we knew that he was making connections for us and helping us to be seen. But he was really kind of our window, really, into the outside world.
Rath: And also, I imagine, in a time when there weren’t an awful lot of Asian American role models like that.
Lee: Yes, that’s absolutely right. He really was one of the few role models of somebody who could be in the neighborhood with us, but then also go out into the wider world and have an important job and be respected.
We sort of felt that, you know, he carried himself with that confidence, that he knew that his own community loved him, but he also knew he was gaining acceptance in the outside world.
Rath: What are some of the things you would say that Asian Americans in Boston might now take for granted? That is, progress that we can have Uncle Frank to thank for?
Lee: The fact that Uncle Frank recognized early on that in order for us to be heard, we had to have political power. So, he really worked hard at increasing the number of registered voters in Chinatown, and that gave us a voice, and that gave us the confidence to feel like if there was going to be an urban renewal decision or some other decision affecting our streets that we didn’t agree with, that we could speak up. That was a really important power that he gave us.
Rath: How would you describe Frank and the joy that he brought to the community? How would you explain that to someone who may have never heard of him?
Lee: Frank was a consummate people person. He always had a smile on his face. He was always cheerful, and he was always reaching out and trying to connect. He really cared about people, and he cared about Chinatown.
We saw what he did to help new immigrants get resettled. We saw all of the work he did to try to help residents feel more comfortable and feel safer in the face of crime and, in recent years, in the face of the attacks on Asians. We saw how much he helped the businesses of Chinatown, the small businesses, the bakeries and shops. He really cared about the whole community, and that just brought out a sense of joy. Here is a person that’s on our side and is going to do anything and everything he can to make life better for us.
Rath: Paul, something that’s so striking from your description is how you keep talking about this wonderfully positive, optimistic, cheerful quality that he had while talking about the things that he’s dealing with and facing and working on improving are so serious and intense and difficult. But he’s doing all of this with a smile on his face.
Lee: He is. It wasn’t until I sort of grew up and went into the wider world myself that I realized that it wasn’t all just joy and smiles—that you also had to be tough. We knew that Frank could be tough. We knew that he could be firm when he needed to be, and we knew that if he felt that we needed to ask for something, he was not shy about asking. But he did it, really, by establishing relationships.
I don’t know of anybody who met Frank who didn’t like him, and he remembered everybody he met: the names, the faces... So, when he needed something, he felt very comfortable calling on people, and people were so impressed with his humanity that they wanted to help him. That’s how he got so much done for our community.