A Local Life: Aurora Dy Tan
Mastering the Art of Business, From the Philippines to the U.S. By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page C11
If Aurora Dy Tan had been born in another time and place, she might have become an artist instead of a businesswoman. Born at dawn in a small town in Catanduanes, the Philippines, she was named for the Roman goddess of the sunrise. Her talents as a sculptor blossomed when she helped out at her father's restaurant and catering business; she often carved centerpieces of animals and flowers out of chilled butter. Later in life, after she moved to the United States, she made 'countless' teddy bears for sick children, her family said. And even in retirement, sitting on her living room couch while engaged in family conversations, she would carve small figures out of soap. A bust of the comic strip character Sluggo still sits on a shelf in her Fairfax County living room. But Tan, born into an entrepreneurial Chinese family, pursued a career in business, working her way through school, war and immigration. She died at age 77 on Sept. 22 at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington of pancreatic and gallbladder cancer.
Her parents, who owned two department stores in the Philippines, opened a Chinese restaurant while she was a girl, and she became her father's assistant, tagging along as he bought supplies, working with him in the kitchen and learning about the business world from the inside. She was 14 when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and she was drafted into the Women's Auxiliary Corps of the Philippine guerrilla forces. She worked as a nurse behind the front lines during the long occupation. After the war, she immersed herself in education, finishing high school and enrolling at Far Eastern University in Manila, despite societal disapproval at the idea of a young woman who attended college and lived on her own. Never one to sit still, Tan tutored others after school to have money to send home for her younger siblings.
One rainy day in 1951, a young journalist with the Chinese Commercial News, the top Chinese business paper in Manila, dropped in at her apartment, following a friend of hers who sought shelter from the storm. Johnny Chin-hian Tan was smitten; every other day, he showed up at her door to invite her out on an excursion, he said, and after three weeks, he proposed. 'She was a smart woman, independent, very hardworking,' her husband said last month on a similarly rainy morning. 'She was supporting herself and sending money home to her family. She was a very responsible person . . . and she was very beautiful.'
While her husband worked at the newspaper, Tan started a Manila dress shop called Milady's and became a wedding consultant. She sold all her jewelry, except her wedding ring, to buy her first sewing machine, said her daughter, Evelyn Tan Powers.
Soon, two sisters and a cousin moved in while they attended college, and the busy home teemed with dress-shop employees, dress designers, embroiderers, beauticians, sales agents and domestic staff, Powers said. The lessons Tan learned in those early days saw her through many future business ventures, from dress shop to beauty salon, clothing factory, real estate and, with her siblings, auto battery factory.
During Ferdinand Marcos's tenure as president, Johnny Chin-hian Tan was imprisoned for seven months for practicing journalism, he said. Upon his release, the couple ran a real estate brokerage and decided to move to the United States to help care for their autistic grandson. In 1983, she arrived, and her husband followed a year later.
At age 67, she started an at-home day-care service, the Village Kiddie Care, full of 'a happy little army of babies and toddlers' who called Tan 'Auntie Mama' and her husband 'Uncle Papa,' Powers said. She turned her entire living room over to the children, said Marcie Williams, who sent two of her children to Tan and whose blond daughter insisted that she was really Chinese. 'She put the alphabet up on the wall, she took out the furniture and had all the toys. They designed this kitchen, well, really a storefront, [with] a little cash register and shopping carts,' Williams said. 'It didn't take long for it to be apparent to me that they were really good with the kids. . . . She would have the kids learn the alphabet, practice their handwriting. They all knew their letters and numbers. She was so proud of the kids accomplishing anything.'
When Tan realized how prevalent the Spanish language was in the Washington area, she enrolled in Spanish classes at Northern Virginia Community College and received straight A's. She learned how to use the Internet after she was 70, haunted health and book Web sites and e-mailed friends and younger relatives around the world. She was proud of having voted in her first U.S. presidential election in 2000 and was looking forward to her second presidential vote this year.
She died the day before her absentee ballot arrived.
This is my online tribute:
Retired businesswoman Aurora Dy Tan, 77, died Sept. 22 of pancreatic and gallbladder cancer at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va. She moved to the United States in 1983 (her husband, Johnny Chin-hian Tan followed a year later) and settled in the south Alexandria area of Fairfax County to live with her son, daughter and grandchild.
In 1994, after more than a decade of volunteer work (she made countless teddy bears for sick children in area hospitals) while helping to raise her autistic grandchild, Aurora decided at age 66 to open a day-care business in her South Alexandria home. Running a business was nothing new to her. Before coming to the United States, she had successfully operated a dress shop called Milady’s, a beauty salon, a clothing factory and real-estate brokerage (the last of which was in partnership with her husband, Johnny Chin-hian Tan) in the Chinatown section of Manila. She and her siblings also owned and operated a factory that manufactured automotive batteries.
Aurora and Johnny’s day-care business, The Village Kiddie Care, became the second home of a happy little army of babies and toddlers in Alexandria, all of whom “graduated” to regular schools confidently knowing how to read and write. She doted on her little “pupils” and kept in touch with them after she closed down the business in 2002, seeing them during holidays and attending their school performances, and dancing and piano recitals. The children returned that love in full, addressing Aurora and Johnny as “Auntie Mama” and “Uncle Papa.”
Aurora came by her poetic first name because she was born at dawn in a small town in Catanduanes, Philippines. Aurora is Latin for “dawn.” Her ethnic Chinese parents owned two department stores in their hometown. When her father opened a Chinese eatery called Oriental Restaurant, she became his assistant. She had natural talent for sculpture, and her father’s catered banquets often featured a centerpiece consisting of an animal or flower that had been hand-carved by Aurora in chilled butter. That experience of running a restaurant launched her on a lifetime of entrepreneurship.
When the Japanese army invaded the Philippines around the early 1940s, Aurora, her aunt Ellen and older sister Rosario were drafted into the Women’s Auxiliary Corps of the Philippine guerilla forces who were fighting on the side of the Americans. Only 14 at the time, Aurora worked as a nurse behind the frontlines.
After World War II ended, she left her small provincial town for Manila, where she worked her way through her last year of high school and then insisted on continuing on to college even though society in the 1950s looked askance at higher education for women. Extra money earned from after-hours tutoring allowed her to send money home to help support her younger siblings in the countryside.
One day in 1951, a young journalist with the Chinese Commercial News (Manila’s top business newspaper for the Chinese community) named Johnny Chin-hian Tan was trying to find refuge from a summer rainstorm in Manila’s Chinatown with his friend, Bin Sing. “I know someone around here,” Bin Sing suddenly said, “Let’s drop in to see her.” Ever since then, it seemed that virtually every time Aurora opened the door, Johnny was standing there.
They were married in 1952. A couple of years later, she graduated from Far Eastern University in Manila with a degree in English and philosophy. Aurora never hesitated to give her relatives a helping hand. Two sisters (Daisy and Remy) and a cousin (Chebing) lived with Aurora and Johnny during the entire duration of their college careers. Their home was a busy one. At any given moment, the house teemed with dressmakers, designers, embroiderers, beauticians, sales agents and other domestic staff. It was a great environment in which to raise two business-minded children, Edwin and Evelyn.
A strong believer in doing good for society, Aurora tried to walk the Race for the Cure (to support breast cancer research) three years ago but did not complete the race because age had already slowed her down considerably. One of Aurora’s proudest moments was voting in 2000 in a U.S. presidential election for the first time. She was disappointed at the result but did not give up on the democratic process. This year, because she considered herself a true friend of working people, she told everyone who would listen that she was going to vote for John Kerry. The last movie she ever saw was Fahrenheit 911. Unfortunately, she died before her absentee ballot arrived in the mail.
Her thirst for learning never abated. When she realized that Spanish was the unofficial second language in the Washington area, she decided at age 65 to learn it. She became a straight-A student in Spanish at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College. In her 70s, she learned how to use the Internet, became a regular at health and book websites, and gleefully e-mailed friends and younger relatives all over the world.
Aurora was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2004 after returning from an Asian vacation. Unfortunately the cancer was caught too late and was inoperable. She underwent chemotherapy for two months but became very jaundiced and had to be hospitalized on Sept. 8. True to form, while in the hospital she insisted on doing as much as she could for herself. “I can do it myself,” she kept saying. She thanked the nurses for the littlest things and apologized for what she felt were unpleasant tasks they had to do for her. When she could barely speak she was still reminding her children to write thank-you notes for the flowers and cards she received. The doctors marveled at the size of her entourage. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” one oncologist exclaimed. In typical Asian fashion, various members of her immediate family (which by now included a sister, Remy, who flew in from the Philippines to help care for her) were with her around the clock at the hospital.
Despite a biliary drainage procedure on Monday, Sept. 13, to relieve her jaundice, her liver continued to fail. On Wednesday, Sept. 22, she quietly stopped breathing while her son was swabbing her dry lips with water at around 11:30 a.m. The doctors say she was in no pain.
Aurora Tan is survived by her husband of 52 years, Johnny
her son Edwin, a Marlo Furniture manager; her daughter Evelyn, a
journalist; her son-in-law Paul Powers, an internet entrepreneur; and her
grandson, Rudin, who works for a bakery in Virginia. She is also survived
by her sisters Rosario, Daisy, Mia and Remy, brothers Tas and Roy, and
many in-laws and great-nieces and great-nephews.