Chinese Arts Impresario Ann Woo Celebrated at South Bay Memorial

Hundreds of friends, family and fans gathered at Chinese Performing Arts of America on September 10th, 2017 to celebrate Ann Woo's life and mourn her death. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Around 350 people gathered in San Jose on Sunday afternoon to mourn the passing of Chinese arts impresario Ann Woo, who died rlnder mysterious circumstances in August at the age of 75.

In 1991, Woo co-founded Chinese Performing Arts of America (CPAA), a San Jose-based cultural center focused on promoting interest in traditional Chinese and related performing arts disciplines that was integral to the creative landscape of Silicon Valley.

Woo's commitment won her wide respect in the South Bay, ranging from parents grateful she provided a platform for their children to learn about their heritage, to community leaders happy she could wrangle high-quality entertainment for any civic occasion.

Representatives of Ann Woo's two families, her personal family and that of Chinese Performing Arts of America, spoke and performed at her memorial.
Representatives of Ann Woo's two families, her personal family and that of Chinese Performing Arts of America, spoke and performed at her memorial. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael M. Cohen)

“I knew Ann for 27 years,” said Patrick Kwok, former mayor of Cupertino and former board chair for the CPAA. “Her dedication and passion for Chinese arts is just beyond any description.”

Woo's death on Aug. 25 occurred two weeks after she fell into a dispute with a woman who had been involved in planning a future event with Woo's organization. Woo was found later that same day, Aug. 11, on the ground outside CPAA’s offices, bleeding from the head.

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The Santa Clara County medical examiner said an autopsy is complete, but the cause of death remains undetermined.

The homicide unit of San Jose’s police department continues to investigate, frustrated by a lack of witnesses to the incident. No arrests have yet been made, and no suspects have been publicly named.

Zhou Hui, Christina Cheng, Virginia Jian, Allie Dong, Liu Yan, Wang Xin perform the "Red Ribbon Dance" at the memorial for Ann Woo on September 10, 2017.
Zhou Hui, Christina Cheng, Virginia Jian, Allie Dong, Liu Yan, Wang Xin perform the "Red Ribbon Dance" at the memorial for Ann Woo on September 10, 2017. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

A lifetime of achievement

Woo emigrated from China to San Francisco when she was 14 years old. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she spent 30 years as an electronic design engineer, one of few women of her generation to undertake such work in Silicon Valley.

But Woo's heart was always in the arts. When she retired from her tech career, she co-founded CPAA to provide low-cost dance lessons to children and adults, as well as cultivate an appreciation for Chinese culture in the wider community.

So great was Woo's contribution to the South Bay arts scene that her work was the subject of a KQED Arts video in 2014.

“When we started, our mission was to introduce Chinese culture to the mainstream through performing arts,” Woo told KQED back in 2014. “But now, we also promote multi-culture."

The center is home to 10 studios, and hosts classes in Indian, Latino and European traditions, as well as Chinese.

Many dignitaries attended and spoke at the memorial, ranging from local and regional politicians to the Consul General of the People's Republic of China in San Francisco, Luo Linquan. Silent videos of past performances played on a screen while one speaker after another recounted Woo's role in building and sustaining CPAA.

Two memorial funds have been established to help Ann Woo's family and her passion project, Chinese Performing Arts of America.
Two memorial funds have been established to help Ann Woo's family and her passion project, Chinese Performing Arts of America. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

“This is a testament to her impact on the community, locally and internationally,” said Woo’s daughter, Tina Fredericks, who came up from Pasadena to speak at the memorial. “My realization of her impact is still growing.”

What lies ahead for CPAA

At the time of Woo's death, CPAA was struggling financially. The center's interim director, Andy Jian, said Woo's death occurred with the nonprofit “six figures” in debt. Jian said he is trying to negotiate with the center's landlord and bank for a grace period as CPAA pulls itself back together.

There seems little question Jian and others are committed to keeping CPAA alive, not just because of Ann Woo's lifetime of commitment to the organization, but also because of its standing in the South Bay arts community.

"If you've been to any event in Cupertino, Ann has touched your heart and soul," said Cupertino Mayor Savita Vaidhyanathan. "I've been living in the city for over 20 years, and at any event I've been to, I've seen something performed by her students. Even if you do not understand Chinese -- which I do not -- her productions just touch your heart."

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