Tribute to Tom
IN A MOVING TRIBUTE, hours before Tom Fat died, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts said he wished he had a chance to hug his close friend one more time. Roberts could have been speaking for hundreds of people who had come to know Thomas N. Fat as mentor, leader and, above all, friend. Restaurateur, businessman and adviser to countless leaders in San Diego’s Asian Pacific Islander community, Fat, who died at 66 after a short bout with cancer, has left a void that will be difficult to fill.
“I think of him as a giant in the community. It’s a terrible loss to the Asian Pacific Islander community and San Diego as a whole,” says Yen Tu, community relations manager for Viejas and former executive director of the Asian Business Association of San Diego.
Tom was close to some of California’s most influential figures in politics and government, yet he moved with equal ease among the dozens of individuals he had come to know through their involvement with San Diego’s Asian Pacific Islander community——which saw him as its heart, soul and, in some ways, its conscience.
As a business and community leader, he served or chaired numerous organizations, boards and task forces, including the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, Super Bowl Host Committee, San Diego Restaurant Association, San Diego Foundation, San Diego Film Commission, Little Italy Association and Asian Business Association, which he helped found. He was also instrumental in expanding the Kyoto Laureate Symposium Series, held here annually.
But of all the things that mattered most in Tom Fat’s life, San Diego’s Asian Pacific Islander community came first. Hearing Fat was ill, Dan Hom, who had run for Chula Vista City Council in 2004, reached Fat by phone less than a month before he died.
“Is there anything I can do?” Hom asked.
“Take care of the Asian community,” Tom replied.
Years earlier, Hom, who had served as a planning commissioner for Chula Vista, heeded the same advice Fat had given many young Asians: Get involved in the community; get involved in politics. That’s the only way to have your voice heard.
“To think that we must go on without him——our ‘Godfather’——is surreal,” says businessman Bryan Min, who ran for a seat on the San Diego Port Commission at Tom’s urging. “I attribute my involvement in both the San Diego County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Convention Center Corporation to him.”
Fat once told an interviewer: “I have learned, through the years, that I am my father’s son. He had an immense influence over everything I’ve done.” Foremost was giving back to the community, which Fat had done since coming to San Diego in 1976 to expand his family’s business.
In 1939, Tom’s father took over a decrepit, run-down restaurant a block from the Capitol Building in Sacramento and turned it into Frank Fat’s, a California institution and a gathering place for California politicians.
“In those days, as an Asian, you were limited as to what you could do,” Tom once said. “You could own a restaurant, a small grocery store or a laundry. That’s what Asians did.”
IN 1976, TOM WAS ASKED to check out opportunities in San Diego. That same year, he met his future wife, Jenny, an interior designer, artist and model, and convinced her to pose for some ads for a new restaurant. “I think he just wanted to date me,” she said.
Three years later, China Camp, combining traditional Chinese cuisine with the Western-style field cooking of the old-time railroad workers, opened——along with Fat City Bar & Café. Both helped energize the downtown restaurant scene.
A few years ago, Fat, in partnership with Viejas Enterprises, opened a second China Camp at the Indian casino, while Fat City was redesigned as a steakhouse. Just like Frank Fat’s Sacramento restaurant, Fat City Steakhouse has become a meeting place for local leaders.
Dave Nuffer, a retired public relations executive and former board member of the Asian Business Association, prompted Tom to take a role in civic activity, including extending the influence of downtown’s Centre City Development Corporation to cover the area around his restaurant. That led to his spearheading the revival of Little Italy, primarily along India Street, between Beech Street and Grape Street.
Tom was fully aware of the role of politics and how important it was for Asian-Americans to, in his words, “become players.” And while he was often the center of political fund-raising activities, few were aware of his party affiliation. Businessman Robert Ito recalls how Fat rallied Asian-Americans from both parties during the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego to host a reception at Fat City.
“He had to convince a lot of Asian Democrats this was the right thing to do——to show the greater community Asians were united——regardless of whether you wore a ‘D’ or ‘R’ on your forehead,” Ito says.
FAT’S BACKGROUND was as diverse as his accomplishments. He was a graduate of the University of California Berkeley, where he earned a business degree and a law degree from Hastings College of the Law. He served three years in the U.S. Army as a captain before earning a master’s degree in taxation law from the University of San Diego. After practicing law four years in Los Angeles, he moved back to Sacramento in 1972 to take a major role in expanding the family business. Today, the Fat City chain runs 13 restaurants.
Class, business acumen, leadership, vision——Tom Fat will be remembered for all of these things. To many, he will also be remembered for his dapper attire, cowboy boots, ingratiating smile and flowing white hair. In a room with hundreds, you couldn’t help but spot him. But it was his smile that drew you to him.
At a ceremony outside the County Administration Building in mid-May, Monica Fat Brun, accepting a proclamation honoring her father, told how he urged her and the family to stay involved with San Diego. “Even now,” she said, “he is talking and dreaming about San Diego. He particularly loves the Asian- American community.” That afternoon, her father died.
“Tom Fat was one of my heroes,” says San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, calling him “a tireless advocate for the people and city of San Diego. He never stopped working for our communities, and he did it with unbridled enthusiasm and love.”
Just before Fat’s death, proclamations came from the California Senate, State Assembly, San Diego County and the city of San Diego, adding to the many accolades he had already received. State Senator Leland Yee, in San Diego meeting with Asian and Pacific Islander leaders when Tom died, mentioned how their two families were related. “It seems like only yesterday that Frank and Mary Fat passed away, and now the son has passed away. My family is heartbroken,” says Yee.
“I just don’t know what to do when he’s not here,” says Dan Hom. And then he did know: “I want to go to his restaurant, sit there and have a glass of wine——to be around something that was a dream to him, something that he created.”
Len Novarro is the editor and publisher of Asia: The Journal of Culture & Commerce.