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From famine to feast: Chinese American business leader shares his success by giving back

Dr. Allen Chan, owner of Jasmine Seafood Restaurant, has helped raise more than a half-million dollars for various charities.

SAN DIEGO — All month long, we've been celebrating AAPI Heritage Month and the many ethnicities that make up the cultural fabric of San Diego.

Now it's time to take a closer look at the Chinese American community, which is my community. There are more than 55,000 of us here, and many have made significant contributions to San Diego.

Here's my profile on a longtime community leader who has made it his mission to share his culture, while making a difference and living the American dream.

You may be one of the thousands who celebrate Chinese New Year or enjoy delicious dim sum with family and friends at Jasmine Seafood Restaurant. What you may not know, however, are all the ingredients of life that are mixed into the owner's recipe for success.

I asked Dr. Allen Chan what he hopes customers experience when they come into Jasmine Seafood Restaurant.  

"We want to give them an experience like dining in a nice Cantonese Chinese restaurant without flying to Hong Kong," said Dr. Chan.

Blessed with an abundance of food these days, Dr. Chan recalled, it wasn't always this way.

He was born in Shanghai, China, and will never forget standing in line for food as a young boy.

"Life was getting hard because of the famine," Chan recalled. "The food supply had been rationed, and I still remember we had coupons or tickets, but we still had to get in line, early in the morning, like five or six o'clock in the morning, we had to go to the market and get what we needed,"

Changes in farming policies, along with droughts and floods, led to a catastrophic shortage of food. The Great Famine killed an estimated 30 million people. When Chan was 11 years old, however, he and his family managed to make their way out of mainland China and survive.

"In December 1959, we sort of smuggled into Hong Kong," he recalled. After waiting three years, his mother's visa to leave China for Thailand, where his father worked, was approved. However, the family stayed in Hong Kong, which was under British rule. Their father later joined them, and they started a new life.

About a decade later, Chan fulfilled his childhood dream of studying college in the United States. He studied engineering at Fresno State for two years but switched his major when he learned the government was offering permanent resident status to people who worked in healthcare.

"The only way for me to stay in the United States, and the easiest way, was to become a doctor or pharmacist or nurse," he said.

So, he became a pharmacist, then a chiropractor, and settled down with his wife Janet in San Diego, where they raised two daughters, all the while never giving up on his dream to own a restaurant.

"I supported myself through college working in Chinese restaurants," he recalled. "And always had some something in the back of my mind that someday maybe I'd like to own a Chinese restaurant."

Jasmine Seafood Restaurant is now the largest, and one of the oldest, Chinese restaurants in San Diego, serving customers in Kearny Mesa since January 1994.

We found a story in our archives from February 1994, just weeks after the restaurant opened, nearly 30 years ago.

The restaurant is a San Diego staple, offering a true taste of tradition, teaching the proper way to pour tea, and how to say thank you with a two finger tap. He explained, the gesture is said to date back to the Ming Dynasty, where the two fingers emulate two knees on the ground, then a bow all the way down.

"I love to do my part of sharing the Chinese culture," Chan said, but there's much more on the table here than food.

At 74 years old, Dr. Chan still lives by his late mother's teachings to "always remember the origin of the water you drink," meaning to never forget your roots.

Humbled by his successes, his life's mission is to give back. Chan has helped organize fundraisers to raise more than a half-million dollars over the years, with the assistance and support of the community.

Chan uses his restaurant for good, turning feasts into fundraisers to help those in need. His efforts have helped a variety of charities and people, including victims of the September 11th terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, Japan's tsunami, Haiti's earthquake, and now Ukrainian refugees. He has also helped raise money for San Diego veterans and children experiencing homelessness.

This month, Chan received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian Pacific American Coalition, and was recognized by San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, and the California State Assembly.

Dr. Chan is also the recipient of the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor, awarded by Congress to immigrants who embrace opportunities to better their own lives and the lives of others.

He believes he's fulfilled the American dream but credits his success to the help of many different people along the way, beginning with his host family when he first arrived in the United States. He's not done yet and has more ideas brewing to pay it forward.

"I've been doing that for over 30 years now and will continue to do that just to serve the community, so that we can continue giving back to the community," he said.

When he first opened Jasmine Seafood, he said there were only about a dozen Asian restaurants in what's now known as the Convoy Asian Cultural District. 

At last count, he said, there were more than 200. He welcomes and supports the competition and is part of the effort to bring signs to the 805 freeway directing more people to the area.

Chan loves seeing the many different AAPI businesses opening in the area. He said everyone supports one another.

"Because number one, we have to remember, number one, we are Americans before we are Chinese American or Vietnamese American. That's important." He said. "This is our home now, and we want to make it a prosperous and improved life for everybody here."

WATCH RELATED: The History of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May 2022)

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