2009 Horatio Alger Award Recipient
James S.C. Chao
“The traits you need for success are vision, courage, determination, confidence, and trust.”
James S. C. Chao was born in a small, rural farming village in China's Jiading District to Yi-Ren Chao and his wife, Yu-Chin Hsu Chao. His parents were subsistence farmers, and his father was principal of the village elementary school. An only child, he grew up in a country plagued by political instability, societal upheaval, foreign invasions, and civil war, where daily existence was fraught with danger, risk and poverty.
Believing education would be their son's path to a better life, Chao's parents sacrificed and saved to enable him to attend upper schools near Shanghai. An able student, Chao also won many scholarships. In addition to his stellar academic abilities, he was a popular student leader and a natural athlete, and he became the university's table tennis champion in Shanghai. Chao majored in navigation, finished his coursework in 1949, and went to sea as a cadet on a merchant vessel.
While at sea, China's civil war climaxed with a blockade of the port of Shanghai. Unable to return home, Chao's ship headed for Taiwan. He never saw his father again, and it was 24 years before he was finally reunited with his mother following President Richard Nixon's opening of relations with China.
In Taiwan, Chao rebuilt his life. There, he married his wife, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, and they started a family. He advanced with unprecedented speed through the ranks to become one of the youngest sea captains of that time. In 1958, he broke all previous records for and achieved the highest score on the National Maritime Master's Special Qualification Examination, which won him a government sponsorship for further studies in the United States. Even though his wife was then seven months pregnant with their third child, she encouraged him to seek better opportunities in America.
Chao arrived alone the day after Christmas. It took him three years before he was able to save enough money to send for his family to join him. Even so, the only passage he could afford for them was on a cargo ship. After their arrival in New York, the family of five lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, and Chao worked three jobs to make ends meet.
In 1964, after graduating with a master's degree in business administration from St. John's University, he founded Foremost Maritime Corp. (which became a part of Foremost Group) in New York. His company was the major agent for shipments of rice to Vietnam during the war, and Foremost carried humanitarian cargo for the United Nations during the Bangladesh war in 1971. Foremost became a well-established, much respected international organization with activities in shipping, trading, and finance.
Active philanthropists and volunteers throughout their life, James and Ruth Chao have awarded thousands of scholarships to U.S. and Chinese students through their Shanghai Mulan Education Foundation. Chao's many awards and honors include induction into the International Maritime Hall of Fame at the United Nations, recognition by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as an Outstanding American by Choice, and a Lifetime Legacy Award by the International Fellowship Foundation.
James and Ruth Chao had been married for 57 years before she died in 2007, leaving six daughters and six grandchildren. "My wife, Ruth, is the love of my life and soul mate," he said in his 2009 acceptance speech. "Together, we had an extraordinary life, and I dedicate my Award to her."