Jian Ping's column
Remembering Jay Chen
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The front page news of the March Asian Fortune shocked me. I
was standing in the living room when I opened the monthly
newspaper mailed to me from Virginia. I leaned against the
dining table and took off my eyeglasses to look at the headline
again, hoping I was mistaken. There, in the middle of the page,
was the portrait of Jay Chen, founder and publisher of the
newspaper. Over the last three years since I knew him, Jay had
been a generous friend and enthusiastic supporter.
Jay, at 61, died of brain aneurysm, the announcement in the
paper stated. In the photo, Jay looked older than I last saw him,
but healthy. I had a hard time accepting his passing as a fact. I
talked with Jay over the phone in December 2011. He said he
might attend the Auto Show in Detroit the following month, and
if so, would swing by Chicago. We planned to get together for
We almost never met. My publicist sent a press release on Mulberry Child to Asian Fortune shortly after its release. By the time
Jay contacted the publicist, my contract with the New Jersey based firm was over. Jay searched online and sent me an email
from my website. I called him immediately. It turned out he had published the press release and wanted to send me a copy of
"Writing in English is not easy," Jay said over the phone. "Congratulations!"
We talked in Chinese. His northern accent and straightforward manner drew me to him. We chatted as if we had known each
other for a while.
He sent me a few issues with the coverage on my book. From then on, he mailed me a copy of his publication every month.
I found his newspaper very informative and told him that his paper was the only one that I read from cover to cover. He gave out a
hearty laugh, saying he'd share the comments with his editor.
In January 2009, Jay called to say he'd be in Chicago after attending the Auto Show in Detroit. We arranged to meet over dinner
in Chinatown. I felt as if I were meeting an old friend as we talked sitting across a table. I gave him a copy of my book when we
"I must be honest with you," Jay said. "I don't read books on the Cultural Revolution. Living through it was enough," he added.
I said I understood, but urged him to keep the book. I watched him put my book in his heavy bag, and then take out five or six
copies of new books, mostly written by Asian writers.
"I receive many books from publishers," he said. "I thought you'd be interested in reading these."
I thanked him and wished him good luck driving back to Washington, D. C., as a snowstorm was forecast to be sweeping
through the northeast.
Two days later I received a phone call from him.
"I got stuck in a motel half way from home," he said, his voice without any sign of frustration.
Jay wrote a column on cars and tested driving different models each time he had an opportunity travelling long distance.
"I was tired of watching TV, " he continued. "So I opened your book."
I tightened my grip on the phone and held my breath.
"I must tell you I couldn't put it down," he paused. "Actually, I cried," he continued. "It's a very moving story and well written. I'm
going to have a reporter contact you and write an interview."
I was relieved and honored.
Soon afterward, a reporter called and asked me a number of questions, followed by further clarifications and questions via
In June 2009, a long interview with me appeared in Asian Fortune.
We maintained contact and exchanged phone calls or brief emails from time to time. He was always an enthusiastic
cheerleader for me, genuinely happy for the progress I had made, especially when he heard the book would be developed into a
feature-length documentary movie.
Later in the year, he wrote to say he'd stop at O'Hare Airport to change flights on his way to China and wanted to know if I could
meet him for lunch at the airport. It happened I was flying out of town earlier that day and missed him.
"Next time then," he responded to my email before taking off for China.
In May 2011 when Loyola University Chicago invited me to be a keynote speaker at the commencement for the College of Arts
and Sciences, Jay immediately released story on that.
"How many copies would you like to have?" he called to ask.
How about 50?" I said timidly, thinking that might be too many.
"I'll run some extra and send you 500," he said without hesitation.
True to his word, 500 copies of the June issue came in the mail in four large boxes! I was very touched by his generosity.
We maintained contact and occasionally had a
phone conversation. He told me he went to China for
a month, following a Buddhist master to do
meditation. He said he liked taking long walks and
kayaking by himself.
I was expecting to see him in Chicago or
Washington D. C. sometime soon. At 61, he passed
away too early. I couldn't make sense of it and
couldn't believe it was true.
Reading all the praises people said about him, I
realized he had helped many others in his career. I
also found out that he had won many awards for his
newspaper and for his contribution to the Asian
So many of us will miss him, his ready laughter, and
|Jay Chen was founder and
publisher of Asian Fortune
Newspaper; (below) Chen
holding his grandson--Photos
courtesy of Asian Fortune
dinner and catch up. But he didn't make it to the show. Shortly before the Chinese New Year, we
exchanged a couple of emails and had another phone conversation, wishing each other a
happy and healthy Year of the Dragon.
I swallowed hard and pushed back the surging tears. Jay had never mentioned any illness. He
was tall for a Chinese and was strongly built. He always sounded energetic with his booming
voice and ready laughter. Whenever I made more inroads with my book Mulberry Child, he
would give his genuine praises and encouragements. He recommended me to an Asian
organization, which led to a speaking engagement at its annual national conference. Different
from many first generation immigrants who were busy finding their own footing in the U.S., Jay
was very open and generous in helping others. I realized in reading the articles in his
commemoration that many people felt the same as I did about him.
I took a deep breath and read every word on him and his funeral in the paper. I wanted to find
out more information on his health, as if that would give me some solace. But other than the
"brain aneurysm", not another word mentioned his medical situation. I knew that Jay's
daughter, Lily, had been working with him at the paper for a while, but Jay was my only contact. I
wished I had reached out to Lily earlier. If I had been notified of his passing, I would have flown
to Washington, D. C., and attended his funeral. If nothing else, at least I could have paid my
tribute to him in person and said a final goodbye.