– James Wing Woo (1922–2014)

Born in Oleum just north of Oakland, Sifu James Wing Woo was a kung fu and taichi teacher until he was 91. He appeared on films between 1975 and 2007. James was a Navy cook during World War II, stationed at Milne Bay and Subic Bay. Marji Lee interviewed James Wing Woo on 6 August 1997.

My father first came to the United States in the 1890s. My grandfather was a fortune teller, a feng shui master, in Chekham, Guangdong. Another Woo came back from the United States and asked my grandfather for help to pick the right place for his new house and to get married. That man obviously made a lot of money. He told my grandfather that he was settled, so he gave his travel papers to my grandfather. My father was picked to come here when he was only 14. He came with one Hong Kong dollar and a new pair of shoes.

James Wing Woo in 1997.
Photo courtesy of Duty and Honor.

My father came in the hole. For Chinese on the ship, they would never see daylight. But he made good friends down there in steerage. He landed in Seattle where there was a Woo Family Association. He hitched a ride to San Francisco Chinatown. A distant cousin got him working at a restaurant, but he was never paid. My father needed new shoes and asked the owner for some money to buy shoes. The owner slapped him so hard that my father was hard of hearing on the left side.

My father met a friend that he knew from the ship. That boy had a lot of money because he was a doorman for a gambling place; he was working for the tong. My father also joined the tong. The story goes on and on.

My father went back to China three times. The first time my father returned back to China with all this money. His father took all the money. My parents got married during that trip too. My father left his wife after six months, and she got picked on a lot by the relatives. Then one day, my grandfather brought a baby back for my mother. My oldest brother was adopted. We never knew; he was the only short one in the family. Altogether, we will be eight brothers although we lost one in the war. Four of us were born in California in Oleum. My father was then running a cafeteria for Standard Oil refinery. Then there was a horrible fire. After that, my father went back to tong work. At one time, he ran aliens in from Mexico.

I was born in Oleum, and my father took us all back to China when I was seven in 1928. There was a “price on his head” in America. When I was in China, my uncle was the principal of a Chinese flying school. He learned how to fly in Canada so he could join the Chinese Revolution. At one point, my uncle was protecting President Chiang Kai-shek. My father was the one who funded the uncle’s training.

When the Japanese came to China, we started coming back to the U.S. in the late 1930s. I came back when I was 18. I still knew English from watching movies. I was working at a grocery store in Oakland. On 7 December 1941, all the neighborhood—including me—wanted to sign up with the Marines that very day. But they wouldn’t take me as I’m Chinese. They said, “We can only take you as a messman.” I said, “Forget it.” All those other kids—the first Marines—none of them came back. That same week, my old man said, “We’re going to Winslow, Arizona.” My father bought a grocery store with some partners. I worked for them and at the National Café.

I enlisted in 1942. I signed up for the Navy in Winslow. I was sent to Prescott, and they put me on the train. I was working at the Farragut Naval Training Center in Idaho. The officers noticed that I was a hard worker. He said, “Hey, Jim. You want to make some more money?” I sure did. So they made me cook 3rd class. Then I became cook 2nd class. By the end of it, I was cook 1st class. I was in charge of the galley when I was in Tanforan10. When I went AWOL for 30 days, they wanted to forget my absence as I was the cook. One time in Tanforan, I’m stirring roux. Roux gets really hot. And this other cook is crazy and just yelling at me. He walked away when I threatened him with the hot roux

We went to Milne Bay, New Guinea. We were stupid. A man dared me to jump off the crow’s nest for $50. I jumped, and I missed the rail by inches. One time I worked all night to get breakfast ready. At 5:30 am, I was just hitting the sack and this ensign comes and said, “Everybody up for inspection.” I told him I just got off. He said, “I don’t care,” and he pushed me. I hit him. They took me to the three officers of deck court, and they gave me ten days of bread and water. But I’m the cook. They want me to work? I want my record cleaned. I had the yeoman take it off my record. He wanted steak, and I wanted my record cleaned.

One time we were watching a movie, and the loud speaker called out my name to see the captain. Our captain had a 45 handgun cocked. There was a little Japanese fellow with him, but they couldn’t communicate. So they asked me. What can I do? I don’t speak Japanese. I did write a few kanji words, and he said there were 500 more Japanese in the hills. They wanted to surrender. We sent Marines to bring the Japanese down.

I was also stationed in the Philippines. In fact, I set up Subic Bay. My crew was the first to land. They wanted us to set-up the galley so we had to clear the village. I was acting chief, and I had three second-class cooks and three third-class cooks. I wrote out the menu. No one would eat the mutton we got from Australia, so I threw it over the side. There are more stories there. A lot of things happened during the second World War. I had a cook that was really crazy at Subic; he was even making whiskey in his own still. There were too many things that I don’t feel like sharing. There were all these kids that were lost.

When I got back, we were stationed at Pleasanton, California. Because of my points, I had to take two troops back to Memphis, Tennessee to discharge them. When I got there, there were two kinds of “cans”. I asked which one I was supposed to use. When we got on the bus, all the “colored guys” went to the back. When you are walking on the streets, and you see White people coming, you get off the sidewalk. This was in 1945!

I’m glad I was able to help a little bit during World War II. I was the only Chinese in the outfit. Although I’m one of the boys, I’m not one of the boys. You can feel the animosity. A lot of the men were from the hills, and they never even wore shoes until they got in the Navy. People are people. I learned to be a little more independent. I grew up. But I feel sorry for the guys that got thrown over the ship and disappeared. When people didn’t like you, you better stay away from the rails. How much “friendly fire” was there? I never used the G.I. Bill; I didn’t feel like it.

After the service, I had no plans. I worked in San Francisco as a cable car conductor. I then came to Los Angeles on vacation in 1959. I got into teaching Kenpo Karate with Ed Parker in Pasadena. Every kid in China was involved in martial arts, and I had trained. In 1961, I opened the Academy of Karate Kungfu at 5440 Hollywood Boulevard. In those days, no one knew what kung fu and karate were. In 1963, I moved to 5156 Hollywood, and I renamed my school Chinese Martial Arts Association. In 1986, I moved to 5123 Sunset Boulevard

Sifu James Wing Woo.

Photo courtesy of Woo’s Chinese Martial Arts Association’s website.


10 The Tanforan Racetracks in San Bruno, California were used as a temporary assembly center for Japanese American internees, and then as a naval base where sailors were assigned to Pacific Ocean fighting areas