May 21, 2017

David Hong-Toh Bau, Sr

I am named after my grandfather, who was the scion of a wealthy Shanghai family and an enterprising young banker in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930's. But in 1941, the intellectually ambitious and multilingual young man grew restless and decided to to embark on a big "Act 2" for his life, leaving the comfort of a privileged life in China to travel to the U.S. to train himself as an international economist.

Act 2: A Mixed-Up Move to America

So, in the summer of 1941 at the age of 28, grandpa made the rare trek from Shanghai to the University of Maryland, together with his pregnant young wife Fanny and his baby daughter Deanna.

I do not know if David H. Bau, Sr. flew to the U.S. on the China Clipper into San Francisco or took a steamer like the Nippon Maru into Los Angeles, but there was certainly no convenient way of physically getting from Shanghai to College Park in 1941. While traveling halfway around the world and traversing the continental United States that summer, my grandmother went into labor. So they stopped in the middle of their trip and delayed their arrival at UMD for a few months to take care of the new baby. My father Paul was the first American-born kid in our family, and it is a fitting designation. Born in Chicago, my dad is really American through and through; he's all about football, poker, stamp collecting, and hamburgers, and he's a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.

Act 3: The American War Effort

But what should happen on December 7 of 1941 as David and Fanny were taking care of little baby Paul? When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered the war on the Pacific front, it brought an instant halt to normal commerce with China, and my grandfather found himself cut off from the funds from his family that would have supported his leisurely life and his graduate studies. He suddenly needed a job to pay the rent for his house in D.C.

So the young graduate student applied for a job at the U.S. war department, where his multilingual skills and knowledge of Asian banking and agricultural economics would come in handy in the fight with Japan. He was a thinker, not a fighter, and so naturally he was recruited as intelligence officer in the OSS, what they used to call the CIA. We don't know much about his job as a spy, but it probably involved the deskwork that would have been needed to wage economic warfare against Japan. To implement an effective blockade, you need to know which types of trade to interrupt and how. You need an Asian economist to study the problem. Due to the exclusion act, my grandfather might have been the only one in the country.

The war years witnessed global turmoil, including the communist revolution in China, during which the family's fortune in China was decimated. There are various old arguments in my extended family of which I am only vaguely aware, but I believe they go back to the stress and strain of dividing up scraps of remaining family wealth from those turbulent years.

My grandfather would recount the non-secret part of his job at the end of the war, which was exactly the opposite of the blockade he might have created during the war. General MacArthur recruited him into the army, and sent him into Japan to lead the agricultural reconstruction of that broken country. My grandfather was responsible for re-feeding Japan and getting its population back on its feet; he says that this was the most rewarding work of his life.

Act 3: International Economist

After the war, I do not know if he completed his graduate studies, but he did achieve his dream of becoming an international agricultural economist, working for the U.N. My father tells stories of a big family trip to Thailand where they lived in an old palace so large that they used to bicycle down the hallways. That must have been 1951: I can see on Google Books a U.N. report grandpa wrote that year called Agricultural Economic Survey of Sarapee District, Chiengmai Province, Thailand.

But then he turned down a senior post with the newly-formalized Food and Agricultural Organization, because he loved Washington D.C. and did not want to move the family to Rome. So my father and my aunt and uncle grew up as Washington D.C. kids. Their family house was just a few steps from the Capitol. To stay in D.C., my grandfather embarked on a new career as an American businessman.

Act 4: American Businessman

Due to the overt racism of the day, there were only a few realistic career avenues open for a midcentury Chinese-American businessman, and one of them was to open a Chinese restaurant. Apparently grandpa opened up two, one in Georgetown and a second one in the comfortable tropical climes of Puerto Rico where my dad graduated from high school (he still loves the island and has many friends there). My grandfather also used to recount stories of trying to become a farmer, unsuccessfully, with the new-wave crop of soybeans, on land in Puerto Rico. He failed at business several times before deciding that business was not for him. Then he moved on to his "Act 5", finding another way to live in his beloved city Washington D.C.

Act 5: Librarian of Congress

He went back to school, spending some time in Ann Arbor to get a degree in Library Science (I can find his graduate research funding support in 1962 and his graudation with a masters from University of Michigan a couple years later). With this training, he became one of the top Asian literature librarians in the country, taking a job around the corner from his D.C. house at the Library of Congress.

I found this 1995 obituary of my grandfather in the Washington Post. It summarized the story of his life after the war years.

DAVID H. BAU Library of Congress Librarian

David H. Bau, 82, a senior cataloguer at the Library of Congress since the early 1960s, died of lung cancer Feb. 16 at his home in Washington. He had lived in the area off and on for more than 50 years.

Mr. Bau was a native of Shanghai, China, and a graduate of Nanking University. He did graduate work in economics at the University of Maryland and received a master's degree in library science from the University of Michigan.

He did agricultural credit work for banks in Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong in the 1930s and was an agricultural economist with the Foreign Economic Administration in Washington during World War II.

He served with the Army in Japan after the war and was an agricultural economist with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization until 1951. He operated a restaurant in Georgetown, the Sino Cafe, and a restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico, before joining the Library of Congress.

Survivors include his wife, June Lee Bau of Washington; three children, Deanna Bau of New York and Paul Bau and Ronald Bau, both of Weston, Mass.; and four grandchildren.

The elderly senior librarian is the grandpa I remember, and he seemed so very happy in his Act 5. He brought me to his office at the LoC and showed me the shelf where he always had 10 asian-language books that he was speed-reading simultaneously to catalog them. He told me that being a librarian was supposed to be his retirement job, but it was a job that he did longer than any other in his life. He was always full of jokes and energy, and he always had some sort of crazy project going on such as renovating his own bathrooms, or processing his own raw soybeans into other food products in his kitchen.

He died shortly after I was able to introduce him to Heidi, who I married not long after his death in 1995.

Grandpa's many adventures have given me the confidence to try to reinvent myself in my own life. His life was an inspiration, and I still miss him.

Posted by David at May 21, 2017 08:16 PM
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