Though Billy Chin would become renowned for his skill at running restaurants, business was achingly slow in 1963 when he began managing the China Pearl in Boston’s Chinatown.
“In the first three months, we almost failed,” he told the Globe in 1996, adding that at one point the restaurant was so still and quiet inside that a passerby mistook it for a funeral home — “very bad luck.”
Working 17 hours a day every day as just about everything — host, waiter, dishwasher, janitor — he turned the China Pearl into an enduring destination for those in the neighborhood, Boston business leaders, and political power brokers from City Hall and Beacon Hill.
A legendary restaurateur and civic activist who elevated Chinatown’s identity in Greater Boston and was known as Uncle Bill, Mr. Chin was 92 when he died Nov. 26. He lived in Brookline and his health had been failing.
A prodigious fund-raiser, he was instrumental in getting the money together to build South Cove Manor, the state’s first care center designed to meet the needs of elderly Asian residents.
Known in Chinatown for his gregariousness as he greeted those milling along sidewalks, Mr. Chin would spot local business owners “and he would corral them and convince them to contribute,” said Helen Chin Schlichte, a cofounder and president emerita of South Cove Manor.
One day Mr. Chin sought out the limousine carrying An Wang, the wealthy cofounder of Wang Laboratories.
“I am pretty naughty,” Mr. Chin recalled in a 1993 Globe interview. “I stood at the side of the limo and Mrs. Wang asked me, ‘How is it going Billy,’ and I say, ‘Not too good; we need money for the nursing home.’ Finally, An Wang sent me a personal check for $10,000.”
“But that’s nothing,” Mr. Chin added. “I gave $30,000.”
The anecdote, relatives and friends say, illustrates his humor, magnanimity, and willingness to do what was needed to help Chinatown.
“Bill was very, very generous in addition to being a very good businessperson,” Schlichte said. “He was just a wonderful person for the community.”
Politically astute, Mr. Chin knew how Chinatown could gain more clout.
“We did a lot of political things,” said his brother, Frank of Boston. “My brother Bill’s biggest accomplishment was that he brought the Chinese community into the mainstream of American society because of his participation in the political system.”
From 1970 to ‘77, Frank said, the brothers increased the Asian voter registration rolls more than tenfold as they went door to door in Chinatown, Brighton, the South End, and West Roxbury, encouraging residents to register.
“He tried to utilize what he had to bring Chinatown into the mainstream,” said Mr. Chin’s sister Amy Chin Guen of Boston.
In the 1993 interview, Mr. Chin recalled that when elections rolled around, “people ask us, ‘Uncle Billy, Uncle Frank, who should we vote for?’ We did not put a gun to them or twist their arms. We vote for whoever will do most for the Chinese community.”
Mr. Chin “had the ability to connect to the downtown Boston business community, and he made it his business to try to make Chinatown a better place,” said John P. Hamill, retired chairman of Sovereign Bank’s New England division and a regular diner at the China Pearl for Chinese New Year, when he was among the friends, business leaders, and politicians Mr. Chin invited to the restaurant.
“He was a remarkable man,” said Hamill, a former president of Fleet Bank of Massachusetts and Shawmut Corp. “I think Billy Chin always had that outlook that created the feeling that he wanted to make sure that he didn’t have a community that was insular, but one that was part of the larger community — not just Boston, but beyond that.”
Billy Yoke Soon Chin was born on Aug. 19, 1929, on the third floor of his father’s herbalist business on Oxford Street in Chinatown.
Mr. Chin’s father, Wah Chin, had followed his own father into the herbalist trade. Then Mr. Chin’s father and mother, Len Thieu Wong, died when their six children were young. The siblings went to China to live with their father’s first wife, Ngan Heung Moy, who raised them.
“We call her a saint,” Amy said. “That’s how good she was.”
In the years after World War II, the Chin siblings returned to the United States, living at first in a cold-water apartment on Oxford Street.
“We came to the hard time,” Mr. Chin said in 1996, “but that’s what made me so strong.”
Along with finishing his schooling and receiving an associate’s degree in business from Burdett College, Mr. Chin served in the Army alongside his new friend William Bulger, who would go on to be state Senate president and president of the University of Massachusetts.
“At Fort Dix, we were on a night march,” Bulger told the Globe in 1996. “It was deadly cold and a lot of the guys were dropping out. But Bill Chin kept going, even though he was so small and his backpack was bigger than he was. He taught me a rule: ‘Even if I think, Maybe I can’t make it all the way, I can take one more step.’ We both made it through that night.”
In the late 1950s, Mr. Chin married Josephine Lee, a children’s clothing and shoe designer, who worked in the garment district.
After turning the China Pearl into a success, Mr. Chin and his business partners opened other Chinese restaurants and food establishments in Greater Boston — 18 at the peak, before he began divesting his business interests.
“He became a major employer in the community and could be seen many afternoons on Chinatown street corners, which had become an extension of his office,” wrote Nancy Lo, who is working on the “Chinatown Stories” oral history project, in a tribute for the Sampan newspaper.
Though he enthusiastically helped others, Mr. Chin “was a very private person,” Schlichte said, “yet he knew everybody in town and had this respect and friendship from so many people from every walk of life.”
Mr. Chin also used his political and economic reach to sponsor families — including those of many of his employees — to come to the United States from China, Lo wrote.
“There are hundreds of Chinatown families who were helped by Uncle Bill, through employment, low-income housing, or social programs,” Lo wrote, adding that along with being instrumental in raising funds for the South Cove Manor, Mr. Chin raised funds for “many other community organizations.”
In addition to his wife, Josephine; his brother, Frank; and his sister Amy, Mr. Chin leaves his son, Brady of Venice, Calif.; his daughter, Joliana Kurtz of Trophy Club, Texas; another sister, Rose Chin Len of Salem, N.H.; and two grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 9:45 a.m. Saturday in J.S. Waterman-Langone Chapel in Boston.
“We have been together from kids to now,” Frank said of his brother. “I’m going to miss his friendship, his laugh.”
Frank and Amy said that as their brother’s health slipped, he was “slowly fading.”
“I got telephone calls from a lot of people,” Amy said, “and they said, ‘Are you sad?’ I said, ‘No, I’m very happy he’s in God’s hands now.’ "
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.