On April 22, 2020, the world lost a kind, gentle soul: Sui-Ming CHEN—wife, sister, mother, grandma, and renowned ceramic and glass artist, master teacher, and mentor.
Ming was the beloved wife of the late Hsin-Teh Chen and the adored big sister of Jack Chang (Sophia); devoted mother of daughters Elizabeth (Michael Kwong) and Hui-Ying (Ta-Wei Fu) and son Kenneth (Samara Umschweis); doting grandma of Melanie Kwong (Jean-François Bussières), Jennifer Kwong (Daniel Turcotte), Angela Fu (David Khalil), Julia Fu (Christian Malalis), Jenna Fu (Kevin Chan), and Frederick and Pearl Chen.
Ming was born in Swatow, China to Kiok-Sun Hsu and Yak-Loong Chang. When she was two, she and her mother sailed aboard the Japanese steamship Hakozaki Maru from Shanghai to Paris, where they were met by her father. They then traveled to London, England, where he had established an import-export business with his brother in Shanghai. Ming’s brother Jack was born three years later; sadly, their mother died two years after his birth. The two children were moved to an orphanage, then to a series of private homes owned by various members of the Plummer family. Ming’s trademark toughness and determination started to build at a cruelly early age.
Ming’s artistic talent manifested itself early. When in elementary school, she painted Christmas cards, inspired by the designs and borders that adorned her Bible. She had dreams of attending art college; regrettably, in keeping with the laws of the time, her formal education ended when she was 14. She went to work as a seamstress in a haberdashery, then as a switchboard operator for Jacksons of Piccadilly (known for introducing the famous Earl Grey Tea), where she met the occasional celebrity, notably her idol David Niven.
In her late teens, Ming met Hsin-Teh (Teddy) Chen, who worked for the Chinese Embassy’s naval attaché. They married in London, where their first daughter Elizabeth was born, and moved to the United States when she was a year old. Teddy found work as a photographer at the new international peace and security organization, the United Nations, headquartered in New York City. When their apartment in Flushing, New York, became inadequate, they bought a small house in the innovative postwar suburban development on Long Island called Levittown. Their second daughter, Hui-Ying, and son Kenneth were both born in New York.
While navigating the challenges of family life, work, a new country, and American English, Ming and Teddy cultivated an impressive garden with an array of produce, but mostly tomatoes. As a sign of the entrepreneur she was to become, Ming soon started selling their superb tomatoes around the neighbourhood. She became a welcome sight, and her customers started watching for the small, hardworking woman pulling a little red wagon laden with two little girls and ripe, red tomatoes.
In the early Levittown years, Ming began to seek ways to realize her dream of a career in the arts. She started taking ceramic lessons and applying her innate artistic abilities to decorating clay pieces. She became immersed in and knowledgeable about the wealth of techniques, tools, and increasingly plentiful products for the hobby market. Before long, she began to share her passion with interested friends and neighbours. Opening a home-based ceramic studio complete with hands-on lessons followed. She sold everything required for making pieces from start to finish. She taught several evenings a week, then started exhibiting in regional and national competitions, winning countless exhibit and teaching awards. Her designs and techniques were featured in national ceramic trade and hobby magazines, and she published several books of her own designs.
As her children became more independent, she started to teach out of town, travelling widely across the United States, then abroad. She was appointed Educational Director of the National Ceramic Manufacturers Association, then later founded and ran the Ceramic Art Institute (CAI) for nearly twenty-five years. The Institute offered the only independent teacher certification program in the world, and earned its students college credits. In its heyday, CAI had a roster of fourteen Master Teachers, who delivered the program in the United States, Canada, and Australia. For years, the Institute’s hallmark event—its annual Teacher’s Forum—drew more than 100 participants from around the world. It is no exaggeration to say that Ming taught, mentored, and befriended hundreds of likeminded artists. Her name became synonymous with integrity, hard work, insatiable curiosity, and the finest in artistic expression in ceramics and glass. The Ming Award was created in her honour to recognize excellence in ceramic art.
After Teddy retired, he and Ming moved from New York to California. There, she continued her work with CAI and converted her business to mail-order only. Well ahead of her time, she expanded the teacher certification program to include remote learning, and developed a course in judging: how to assess entries for the quality of work, while looking for indicators that might identify gifted teachers of the future.
Her grandchildren remember Ming as the coolest and most thoughtful grandma. Though busy travelling for CAI, she always made time to send them postcards and gifts in keeping with their interests: cookbooks and recipes, craft supplies, and office essentials like embossers and bottles of white-out. How many can say that their preferred heirloom is a cookie dough scoop, an industrial-grade stapler, or a wooden pencil box? A gadget lover and early adopter by nature, Ming was among the first to own a microwave, a photocopier, a laminator, and a dehydrator for making fruit leather. She embraced crazes with her well-known “That’s bonnie!” and made her own kombucha and chocolate-covered mashed potatoes (!) before most of us had even heard of them. She took an active interest in every grandchild’s development and was fiercely proud of their accomplishments. The older grandchildren cherish summer vacations in California, especially their grandparents’ pool, hot tub, and garden, as well as the countless fun projects on the deck with ceramic, paper, and other media. For them, California is synonymous with Grandma and Grandpa and will always hold a special place in their hearts.
Ming rarely missed an episode of Jeopardy or How It’s Made and made tapes of the latter to share with friends and family. An ardent Il Divo fan, she possessed all their CDs and even attended one of their concerts in Ottawa. She was devoted to HM Queen Elizabeth II: meeting her at Rideau Hall in Ottawa was one of the highlights of her life. In her last few weeks, she particularly enjoyed reading books on the queen’s wardrobe and reign.
After Teddy suddenly became very ill and the upkeep of their large home became too much, they emigrated to Canada to be near their elder daughter Elizabeth. Ever the introvert, Ming nevertheless missed her close friends and other children who lived in the US, especially after Teddy died. After fifteen years in Elizabeth’s care, she left her Canadian life behind and moved to Delaware to be near daughter Hui-Ying and closer to son Kenneth and her younger grandchildren.
Even in her new assisted-living quarters, Ming continued to experiment with small projects in glass and paper. She never forgot a birthday or anniversary, and until the end was one of Lee Valley Tools and Liberty Orchard’s (aplets and cotlets) best customers. Her many ceramic and glass gifts and meticulously made birthday cards are souvenirs that lucky recipients will always treasure. It’s hard to believe that she dried and pressed every one of the hundreds of tiny exquisite flowers that adorned her cards.
Ming passed away shortly after testing positive for the Covid-19 virus. While her passing is sad for all who knew and loved her, her memory will live on. The family will be forever grateful to Victoria Lamptey and Dorothy Sapomaah of Grace Miracle Home Care for their devoted, loving service. After the lockdown at Ming’s residence, these two heroic women risked their own health and put their lives on hold to tend Ming around the clock. When family were not permitted to be with her, they cared for her in 24-hour shifts. Victoria was with Ming to the end, and helped ease her transition to the next world.
We will always remember Ming for the kindness, gentleness, fearlessness, generosity, thoughtfulness, work ethic, curiosity, resilience, class, and candour that she personified every day of her life. All make for a wonderful legacy and a tough act for her family to follow.
Ming and Teddy were actively involved in founding the Long Island Lutheran High School; Teddy donated his photographic services to document the school’s early years. Hui-Ying and Kenneth count themselves among its alumni; Hui-Ying and Ta-Wei were married at the LuHi chapel. Although a celebration of life cannot be held at this time, please consider donating to the school, where a scholarship in the visual arts has been established in Ming’s name. Please visit https://luhi.myschoolapp.com/page/support-luhi/make-a-gift?siteId=1287&ssl=1. Under Tribute Gift, check “This gift is in honor, memory, or support of someone.” Select Memorial, then enter Sui-Ming Chen. It is not necessary to provide notification information, as the school is tracking donations and notifying the family as they come in.