Growing up in China and Hong Kong during World War II and the Communist Revolution, Saint Mary’s business professor Diana Wu experienced a chaotic childhood.
“I still remember when I was four seeing a half-naked woman dying on the street in Hong Kong during a food shortage,” Wu says. “The only thing that saved me was a small pocket dictionary. I would always bring it with me and read it.”
Air raid sirens permeate her memories of early childhood, much of which was spent in bomb shelters. One morning, her family fled their residence in Hong Kong moments before a Japanese bomb destroyed it. That prompted the first of several migrations, culminating with a teenage Wu’s solo journey to San Francisco in 1958.
In the early 1960s, Wu moved to New York City, where she earned an MBA from New York University and met her husband, George. The couple moved back to the Bay Area, and Wu worked as an accountant in Berkeley before earning a doctorate in organizational psychology from the Wright Institute.
She started teaching at Saint Mary’s in 1981 and was the first woman and first minority to lead the Business Administration Department, which she chaired from 1986 to 1989. She has taught all the core courses in the School of Economics and Business Administration and was one of the first business school professors to teach in the Seminar Program.
In her academic work, Wu has researched women’s organizations in Communist China, which led her to write a series for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her 1997 book, Asian Pacific Americans in the Workplace, builds on Wu’s interviews with hundreds of Asians from different ethnic groups in different jobs across the country.
Wu has remained a keen observer of China and the Chinese-American community that has forged connections across the Pacific Rim. She was one of the first “Overseas Chinese” to visit her hometown of Shanghai after Deng Xiaoping initiated an opening of the People’s Republic in the late 70s. In 1984, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Wu to give lectures in several Chinese cities on American business management.
When Wu returns to Shanghai now, it’s hard for her to recognize the place. Former bomb-pocked streets now pulse with entrepreneurial energy and are full of kiosks with shiny electronic gadgets and designer clothes.
“Things are changing so fast it’s beyond my imagination. Last year, I met one young woman with four cell phones!” she says. “It used to be that in most parts of China, there was one telephone for the whole street.”
Wu’s ties to her native country have increased as several family members have moved back, including her 96-year-old mother and two of her three Berkeley-born children. Her son, Dan, has starred in films opposite Jackie Chan.
“He’s a Hong Kong movie star, so he’s only known by 1.5 billion people,” she jokes.
She was last in China during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As for whether to cheer for China or the U.S., she resolved any potential dilemma by focusing on a Saint Mary’s Olympic hero.
“I rooted for Patrick Mills,” she says with a smile.