James Henry Woo OBE

The following is a eulogy given by Warren Woo and published in Kundu News Issue 69 Jan-Feb-Mar 2019, Newsletter of the Papua New Guinea Chinese Catholic Association of Australia 

26/12/1939 – 11/11/2018

On Sunday, the 11th of the 11th at 2.52 pm our community lost a great man, a giant among men. Our Dad was a very special person. On the 11th of the 11th the universe lined up for him. The numerals 11:11 has a particular significance. So on that day, the angels and saints descended upon the earth to embrace Dad and accompany him to heaven.

James Henry Woo has been described as “larger than life”, generous, of good humour, fair, of sharp mind and wit, a man who backs up his friends. He loved life, music and song. Dad loved to sing and had a magnificent voice. Dad was a true leader, a man with a big heart. Dad could walk with kings, and was equally at ease mingling with the villagers from East New Britain.

Dad was born Woo Ping Waf on 26th December 1939, in the Bainings, East New Britain Province in PNG. He was the third son of Woo Chin Cheong and Wong Kam Fong. Ping Wai was christened James Henry by the Marist brothers in Rabaul.

Because he was a strongly-built, rough and tumble kind of guy, the Marist Brothers sent him to Assumption College in Kilmore, Victoria, figuring the country kids could be a good influence on him. Kilmore was a bitterly cold place and Dad explained he never once ate fresh bread and he recalls warming up the crusty, stale bread under his arms before eating it. Protein was also a rarity, so it was a wonder that Assumption College was famous for producing the best AFL footballers in the state.

Upon completing his Leaving Certificate, Dad wanted to study medicine at university, but due to affordability constraints, Grandma Woo wanted him back in New Guinea. When he returned, Dad worked for Shell driving tankers to refuel aircraft.

Grandma Woo was a cocoa dealer. She bought cocoa in Rabaul town and set up fermentaries in Rabarua and Matakabung. Dad set up Matakabung. After marrying Mum [Nancy] and giving birth to me, Dad figured he needed to work a business to provide for his family. So he bought the property from Grandma and moved us all from town to Matakabung on the North Coast Road.

Dad called the business Toluvia Trading and it was re-named Pila Pila Holdings when he had to sell the business to local interests due to nationalisation of the industry. It was at the time of Pila Pila Holdings where Dad excelled as a businessman and a great human being. Upon nationalisation of the cocoa industry, Dad sold all the shares to individuals in the four surrounding villages. After closing subscriptions, he promptly paid a dividend equal to the cost of investment back to the villagers. So in fact, he gave the business away to the villagers that had supported him for years. Twice each year Dad would declare a 40% dividend so it was a great business for the shareholders.

Dad was a busy man. While he was running his business, Dad served as a member of the Rabaul Town Council. He also served on the Rabaul Catholic Church Parish Council and on the Board of Management of the Sacred Heart School. Later, he served on the boards of the PNG Development Bank and the Papua New Guinea Banking Corporation.

Dad had a great affinity with the Tolai people of New Britain. He was generous and kind to them and they loved him back. Whenever someone from the nearby village died, Dad would donate a coffin. Our truck was used many times as an ambulance to ferry sick villagers to Nonga Base Hospital. Each year, he would donate prizes for students at St Mary’s Vu Vu, St Leo’s and Pila Pila Primary School.

I recall we used to go to Mass in Rabaul on Sundays. Just at that time, the villagers would be dressed in their Sunday best for church too. When they saw our car drive by, they would smile, wave and yell out “Ah Wai! Ah Wai!” which was Dad’s Chinese name, all the way from home to the Toliap junction. Dad was a huge rockstar.

Dad was also a teacher. He gave us many lessons. I recall when I was 6 or 7 years old, at 4pm every day, the village women would come to our fermentary to fill their buckets up with water. I shooed them away, believing that the water was only for us and our staff. One day, Dad caught me doing this – he got angry with me, telling me that water is life and I must allow the villagers to use it. I had assumed the villagers had access to clean running water; they did not. At that moment, I felt ashamed of myself and never forgot the lesson.

One other lesson he kept reinforcing was to contribute back to society. He explained Grandma taught him and now he’s teaching me. These type of lessons guided my decisions in life. Thank you Dad, much of the success I enjoy is due to you.

In lots of ways, Dad was a misnomer. His political leanings were towards the centre right, but he supported what he called “responsible unionism”. He believed that workers had to be paid properly and treated fairly. Dad provided an annual academic scholarship for the Rabaul Workers Union. It was for the members’ children to study in Australia.

Long before gender-equality became mainstream, Dad was already practicing it. He supported women’s groups in Ratung and lawakaka. He raised funds for them, and found ways to empower women in Tolai society.

In 1982, Dad was made a Duk Duk by the Tolai people. For the Tolai people, this is the highest form of respect they could have paid to Dad. James Woo became the first person outside Tolai society to be initiated as a Duk Duk. All the Duk Duks in ENB and New Ireland had to first agree. A Duk Duk is a secret “Male-only” society that has religious, social and political objectives. Duk Duks have a role in keeping law and order within the Tolai society. Dad’s acceptance into this secret society was a rare and history-making event. His Duk Duk’s name was “Tatamai”.

Dad was a humble person and rarely spoke about this, but in 1984, he received a Queen’s Honour, the Order of the British Empire. His citation was for services and contribution to the community. Dad deserved his Imperial Award and was rightly proud of it.

Dad’s long-time friend, Sir Julius Chan, wrote to our family on his reflections of Dad:

James was such a helpful friend. He was able to articulate his views and ideas clearly in written and spoken words. We often had productive discussions on critical national issues and his contributions have been worthy and came from the heart. These are rare qualities from someone who lives with a purpose.

You and your family should feel proud of him. He served Rabaul and the people of Papua New Guinea with dedication, devotion and loyalty. These virtues were always steadfast, unbendable and remain in his highest priorities.

It is through the efforts and selfless regard for the national interest of people like James that the younger generation of Papua New Guinea have fine examples to follow.

Upon settling in Sydney, Dad again became involved in community work. He was Vice President of the PNG Chinese Catholic Association of Australia. His work involved visiting the sick, and giving them Holy Communion. Again, he was considered as a leader in the community. His advice and counsel were sought. He was entrusted to perform executorial duties. One thing he did enjoy was singing at the annual Christmas party of the PNGCCA.

In 2000, Murray’s late wife, Melanie, was diagnosed with liver cancer. It was natural for Dad as a loving father to support Murray in his care for Melanie. Dad visited Melanie in hospital daily, providing care, comfort and offered financial support for medical expenses. Dad was a family man; an excellent father and grandfather. He was the one that kept us together. Dad actually gave up pursuing his own ambitions because he would be away from family for unacceptable periods of time.

Dad loved his grandchildren. He gave them gifts; he spent time with them. Dad attended Nicole and Tahila’s sporting events, their graduations. He taught both girls how to drive, made sure they did the mandatory 50 hours and took them to the RTA for their driving tests. They both passed, first go.

Aaron was in Grade 1 after his mother, Melanie, passed away. Dad taught him to read. He taped TV shows for Aaron and helped him with his homework. Dad even built Aaron a Bougainville bamboo pipe instrument for his school project.

Dad always did things for people but he never expected anything in return. He would have some fun and have a go at uncle Frank Chan, and uncle Frank would fire back. There was no malice and Dad would do a lot of nice things for uncle Frank. I believe Dad was uncle Frank’s de facto IT consultant.

Dad didn’t know he was sick. Early this year, a routine blood test led him to consult with Professor Judith Trotman at Concord Hospital. On the first day of consultation, Professor Trotman told Dad there was no cure and that the prognosis did not look promising. Dad promptly told her he was John Wayne explaining he had dodged many bullets and this was one he would sidestep as well. Judith couldn’t believe what she was hearing – here was this very sick 78 year old man, with a highly dysplastic bone marrow, low blood counts and multiple health issues telling her he was John Wayne? Judith immediately took a liking to Dad and promptly recommended him to participate in a clinical trial – such was the effect Dad had on people.

In hospital, Dad was suffering, but he never lost his sense of humour. The urology team came in to tell him some serious news; there was a massive blood clot in his bladder and there was no way of getting it out due to his condition. Dad replied “You think that’s big? … wait till you see my prostate!” He was still able to make light of a serious situation.

Dad was suffering from fluid overload, so the doctors had to put him on a severe water restriction. As a consequence, his veins narrowed and collapsed. At that point, when injections were given, or the many drawings made for blood tests, it would be very painful for him. There were literally no more injection sites, and Dad joked to the nurses that they would have to use his big toe. Despite all the pain and discomfort, without hesitation, he volunteered to give blood samples for research. This was a heroic and completely selfless gesture – I was in awe. Dad was a great human being.

Dad told me he had a couple of life readings done when he was much younger. Both masters told him separately that “he had the seeds of greatness sown in him” but he said that it did not manifest in him and he hoped it would in me. Dad was far too humble. He was already great, but his humility prevented him from even thinking this may be so.

At Concord, I was present when Karma So (the urology nurse practitioner) visited Dad. During a conversation, she told him, “James you remind me of a Chief. I have met chiefs all over, from Malaysia, Indonesia, but none from China. You are the first one from there”. This was from someone that had just met Dad – I was not surprised.

I had a private and very special moment with Dad at the hospital about a week before he passed. He told me he was glad I was his firstborn, that he loved me and he thanked me for caring for him. I replied, “Why are you saying this? There’s no need. I am your son”. He then replied, “It’s true and it must be said. When I get to heaven, I will ask God to bless you”. Dad was still thinking of me, even beyond the grave. I am already blessed and I am truly blessed, to have a Father like that.

I got a call from Patrick Szeto who explained he had called Dad several times but he did not pick up. I replied that Dad physically could not pick up the phone. Patrick wanted to convey to Dad the love and prayers of the PNG community and the committee. Dad told me to tell Patrick that he thanked them for their support and prayers, and that he loved everyone; but most importantly, “The good work of the committee must go on”. Dad was significantly weakened but he was still thinking of the good of the wider PNG Chinese community – such was the man.

Dad loved his family.

His mind was sharp to the end. Before Dad passed, he was giving us instructions, still giving us lessons. Dad became very Chinese in the end and spoke of matters deeply entrenched in the Chinese culture. He espoused the virtues of family and instructed on family leadership when he was gone. He continually called uncle Gerry “Si-lo“. To him, uncle Gerry was not his cousin, he was his “tong hing dai“, uncle Gerry was his brother, his younger brother.

Dad was getting weaker, he struggled to talk and asked us to gather round his bed. He called out each of our names and told us he loved us.

He named each of his grandchildren and proclaimed his love for them. He said he loved his sisters, his nieces and nephews; he loved us all.

At this juncture, I would like to mention the excellent work of the doctors and nursing staff at Concord hospital. We have the utmost respect for their commitment to James which was beyond the call of duty.

Dad fought hard, he suffered willingly; he didn’t want to miss taking one tablet, not one Azacitidine injection, as painful as they were. He wanted to get better, not only for himself but for us and the entire medical team. In fact, Dad amazed everyone with his feats of courage. In the words of Vince Lomardi:

I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.

In the end, Judith [Trotman] called me personally to pass on her condolences to the family. This is the human side of medicine shown by Judith and her team. I would like to share one of the numerous tributes to Dad. This was written by Dominic Sengi, a Papua New Guinean diplomat who sent me a message upon discovering Dad’s passing:

James Henry Woo is a phenomenon… In solemn retrospect, it was people like JHW who dared all else to make that people-to-people connection with the Tolai culture and PNG to lay the cornerstone for the PNG-China relationship to flourish and prosper.

Centuries before Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road initiative, there were people in the likes of JHW who were trail blazers that took to Melanesia and, indeed, the entire Pacific region, on what is now Beijing’s new maritime silk route.

I salute James Henry Woo. May his soul rest in eternal peace with the Lord.

There are many, many more tributes from friends, business and political leaders from PNG. Too many to include.

James loved the songs of Gordon McCrae, Elvis and Frank Sinatra. He was well-read in contemporary, historical and current affairs and he was a romantic and a talented poet.

This was a man who could build a house and write poetry!

Dad’s love for Mum was exemplary.  He visited Mum early last Friday morning. This prompted Mum to look for a gift Dad gave her sixty years ago. She found it. For her 21st birthday, in 1959, Dad gave Mum a jewellery box. In the box was a poem he wrote for her. In it, he professed his love for her. Although this would make Dad blush, I will share this poem with you:

Dad, thank you for your decades of love, support and guidance. In the last six months, you endured much pain and suffering. You told me you desperately wanted to attend Tahlia’s wedding, see Alessandra put on her first dress for school and go to Lachlan’s graduation. This was not to be, but I smile knowing you are at rest and at peace with God.

Dad, you lived a full and fulfilling life. We are so proud of you and the legacy you left behind. You made a difference in the way you touched other’s lives. As Frank sang, “You did it Your Way”.

I love you Dad, with all my heart… Although I want to hold on to you dearly, I know we must let you go and set you free. I want to assure you that us four brothers, and Sonya will take care of Mum.

God saw you getting tired
And a cure was not to be
So he put His arias around you
And whispered “Come to me, James, my son; come to me.
Your golden heart stopped beating
Your tired hands were rested, then
your breath slipped quietly away
Today God broke our hearts
But He only takes the best.
Farewell Dad, Rest in the eternal light – until we meet.

By Warren Woo

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