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An old photo of James S.C. Chao, chairman of Foremost Group, and his family members. Pictured second from right is Elaine Chao, the current US Secretary of Transportation. photos provided to china daily

A look at the life of James S.C. Chao, the man who worked his way up from a seafarer to the chairman of a shipping group

The story of James S.C. Chao, the chairman of international shipping and finance company Foremost Group, is a remarkable tale of how one can forge for himself a successful career despite living in a troubled era.

The Chinese American was recently in Shanghai to visit his alma mater, Shanghai Maritime University, and promote the Chinese version of his biography Fearless Against the Wind.

"I regard obstacles in life as opportunities and the foundation of success," said Chao, who is the father of the current United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

"With hard work and a desire to learn, one can achieve progress in life no matter when it is."

Born in 1927 in a small rural village in Shanghai"s Jiading district, the 90-year-old has amassed an impressive collection of accolades throughout the decades, including the Outstanding American by Choice Award, the Professional Society Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award and being inducted into the International Maritime Hall of Fame at the United Nations in 2004.

Chao grew up in a humble household with strict parents who emphasized the importance of being loyal, filial and disciplined. The foundation to his character was also molded by the state the country was in at that point in time. When he was just 4 years old, the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) broke out. This was followed by a civil war that raged on for about four years.

Seeing countless refugees flee from their homes during this tumultuous period, said Chao, had a profound impact on his life.

"That was when I understood the meaning of national calamity and humiliation. This motivated me to study harder. I didn"t care about how much money I would earn. I just wanted to be a good person who could take care of my family and do something for our country," he wrote in his book.

Driven by this desire to provide his parents a comfortable life, Chao aspired to be a sailor as the profession offered good pay and a chance for him to learn valuable skills. In 1946, he enrolled in the navigation school at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The school was later merged with Shanghai Maritime University.

Following the conclusion of his undergraduate studies in May 1949, Chao was sent for training onboard the Taiping Ferry. This was when the civil war threw a spanner in the works - the port in Shanghai was blockaded after the vessel departed, preventing Chao from returning home to his parents.

"I had to stay on the ferry for seven months, after which it headed to Taiwan where I set up a new life. I finished my tasks early every day and helped solve the problems of other people. It was better to learn than to be idle," he recalled.

In Taiwan, Chao rapidly rose the ranks to become one of the youngest ocean-going ship captains. He was only 29. But his rise continued after he met a British officer when his vessel docked at the port of Singapore which was then an English colony.

"The officer at the port was surprised at how well I managed the operations of my ferry that he suggested I pursue higher education and "do better". That was when I realized that while the captain is the highest position in a ship, my career and future could be filled with many more options if I furthered my studies," he said.

In 1958, Chao set sail for the United States where he achieved the highest score ever recorded at the Master Mariner Examination. This feat, he said, marked the turning point of his career. After learning of his results, the US government sponsored Chao"s postgraduate study on water traffic management at Columbia University.

Following graduation, Chao found a job at the New York Merchants Representative Office and supplemented his income with part-time jobs at a shipping company and a restaurant.

He also found time to study for a master"s degree in management at St. John"s University, Queens, in 1964. That same year, he and five ship dealers from Hong Kong founded Foremost Group in New York.

"At the beginning, we worked in a small rented office and we had to meet our customers at a table covered by a nice tablecloth in the sitting room," said Chao.

The company would go on to win a long-term shipping waybill from the US Agriculture and Forestry Department which boosted its profits and reputation. Foremost Group also managed to secure the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as one of their clients.

In 1987, despite the world shipping industry being in a slump, Chao signed a contract with China"s Jiangnan Shipyard of Shanghai to buy two 64,000-ton Panamanian bulk carriers, marking the first time Chinese-made bulk carriers entered the US market.

In 2002, the Foremost Group signed a major 10-year contract with the Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding to order 175,000-ton large bulk cargo ships.

To give back to society, Chao and his late wife Ruth Mulan Chu Chao set up a number of charitable initiatives, including the Shanghai Mulan Education Foundation, which have in turn awarded thousands of scholarships to students in the US and China.

The Chao family also donated $40 million to the Harvard Business School for the construction of the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center and the establishment of the Ruth Mulan Chu and James Si-Cheng Chao Family Fellowship Fund in 2012.

During the book promotion event at Shanghai Maritime University, Chao dedicated his achievements to his family and reiterated his determination to help society.

"I"m grateful for my parents, wife, six daughters, mentors and friends, without whom I would not be so motivated and successful," he said.

"Most importantly, I thank the Lord for my physical and mental health, which enables me to continue to do more for my family and society."

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