Frances Wu is seen in this 2009 photograph. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

Social Impact

Trailblazing Trojan alumna helped build community for Southern California’s Chinese American population

TITLE IX: Philanthropist and former social worker Frances Wu used her “can-do attitude” to start Golden Age Village, a low-income elderly housing facility for Chinese Americans.

April 17, 2023 Ramon ?Ray? Delgado

To say Frances Wu was a problem-solver is an understatement. No barrier was insurmountable for the former social worker and philanthropist who died in 2017 at age 96 and was known as a major champion for the Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley.

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Frances Wu
Frances Wu was a university honorary degree recipient in 2009. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

Wu overcame language and cultural barriers to become the first Chinese American to receive a doctorate from what is now the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in 1974, just two years after Title IX was passed. Born and raised in China, Wu was a 1948 graduate of Ginling College at a time when few women in China attended college. She then came to North America to earn a master’s degree in social work from McGill University in Montreal and became a social worker in New York, first working with children and later assisting the elderly.

When Wu was accepted to USC for her doctorate degree, she packed her belongings and drove cross-country to Los Angeles and set up roots in Monterey Park, which had a growing Chinese population, said her nephew Ren Wu, who met his aunt for the first time in 1979 when she helped sponsor him to the U.S. from his native Taiwan.

“She had this can-do attitude,” said Wu, who now lives in Maryland and is an engineer. “She wants to do it and she can do it. I think one of the most admired things I knew that my mom mentioned to me, is that she drove all the way from New York to L.A. in 1971 by herself, a single lady cross-country. Can you imagine that, an Asian lady at that time?”

After graduating from USC, Wu dedicated herself to developing the resources needed to build a residential facility for older Chinese Americans. With the help of the USC Andrus Gerontology Center, which co-sponsored the project, she applied successfully for a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to build Golden Age Village, a low-income elderly housing facility that opened in 1980 in Monterey Park with a 400-person waiting list.

“Dr. Wu was truly loved by many of the Golden Age residents, who not only became dear friends but also family,” said May Ross, a grant developer with the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging who serves on the Board of Directors of the Golden Age Village, in a 2017 obituary on Wu. “She leaves behind a lasting legacy at the Golden Age Village, where she fulfilled her dreams of creating a safe place for immigrant seniors to live well and age in place. Her presence will be greatly missed.”

Trojan trailblazer’s additional projects

With Golden Age Village’s success, Wu built Golden Age Manor, a 33-unit condominium complex, in 1986 and the 29-unit Golden Age Villas in 1994. She designed the latter herself in a distinctly Chinese style, with bright-colored balconies overlooking serene courtyards featuring a small pond with fountains or waterfalls and a bright red arched bridge. The complex received five superior ratings from HUD and a beautification award from the city of Monterey Park.

In 1997, the Chinese American Golden Age Association gave $1.5 million to establish the first endowed chair at USC’s social work school. Established in Wu’s honor, the Chinese American Golden Age Association/Frances Wu Endowed Chair for the Chinese Elderly has been held by Professor Iris Chi. Wu also personally endowed the school’s Frances Wu Scholarship Fund.

Wu also guided numerous boards that advance the public good. These include the Asian Pacific Coalition on Aging, the Planning Committee of the Los Angeles Chinatown Redevelopment Project and the Monterey Park Commission on Aging, which she chaired.

Trojan trailblazer’s many honors

Among her many honors are Monterey Park’s Woman of the Year Award, The East Los Angeles Community Union Women’s Achievement Award, the American Legion Citation for Meritorious Service and the Chinese-American Women’s Outstanding Achievement in Humanitarian Services Award. She also received the George D. Nickel Award from the California Social Welfare Archives, the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Community Service from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from USC.

And notwithstanding all the accolades and recognition for her trailblazing work, Wu remained humble and appreciative, her nephew said, even living at the Golden Age Manor until her death.

“It means a lot to me because she didn’t come up intentionally to talk about, ‘Oh yeah, I got this and that, got recognized,’” Wu said. “She just continued to duck her head and move forward. And I would say it’s a way of humility and I think that’s her way, a humble person. Instead of moving out of the area she created, she lived in there, and then she had her eyes and ears to see and to feel what the other residents needed.”

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work staff contributed to this report, portions of which were originally published on Aug. 29, 2017.