Chai, as he is known to family and friends, was born in Bangkok, Thailand. In 1968, he immigrated to the United States, at the age of 17, to study photography. After studying in Silver Spring, MD, he settled in Jersey City, NJ. He worked tirelessly in the restaurant industry and at the famous New York City Greenwich Village jazz club, Sweet Basil, for over 20 years. He worked his way up at the club, from day bartender to waiter to general manager, a role he had for more than 10 years. Chai retired from Sweet Basil in 2001 to focus on raising his youngest son. In recent years, never one to be idle, Chai returned to work as a food service worker at the Marine Corps Community Services’s Child Development Center in Quantico, Virginia. Tragically, he contracted the SARS-COVID virus from a coworker. Before moving to Fairfax, VA, Chai had also lived in Texas and Georgia, where his wife held various academic positions.
In 1975, he married Rose, with whom he had three sons—Victor, Craig, and Keith. Rose passed away of cancer in 1990. In 1996, he married Christina, whom he met at Sweet Basil and with whom he had one son, Derek. He enjoyed time with his sons and was an active participant in their lives, always eager to help build a deck, share a recipe or cooking tip, give advice, or get together for a beer.
Chai was loved by his family and friends for his kindness, humility, cheerful and witty humor, and generosity. He had a unique outlook on life that enriched everyone who had the opportunity to view the world alongside him. Chai was a master of the non-specific point (“Y’oh, it’s over there,” while waving his finger generally in at least two opposing directions). He was adored for his malapropisms and mispronunciations, which he often employed to incredibly humorous effect. He dedicated himself to taking care of those around him, bringing comfort to his family, and being a positive force in people’s lives.
Being known for his tireless work ethic, his physical toughness, and exacting nature, Chai was a DIY-er before it was a thing. He worked long days at the club and worked nights renovating his first home, learning as he went along. He would later share these skills with his adult sons, to whom he passed his plumbing and electrical skills and, occasionally, his tools. He was an outstanding cook, not only in his native Thai and Chinese cuisines, but also Italian (his meatballs were renowned), French, Moroccan, and New American cooking. He studied photography in his youth and was recognized for his darkroom skills. He was a consummate explorer and lover of culture and cultural diversity; he particularly loved Paris, France, a city to which he often returned with his wife. Chai loved music and had an eclectic range of musical tastes, from Chopin and Bach (he loved piano concertos most) to jazz greats such as McCoy Tyner and Kenny Barron. He was just as likely to listen to B.B. King and Norah Jones as to the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen; Andrea Bocelli and the Three Tenors as to Ottmar Liebert and Enrique Iglesias; Celine Dion and Francis Cabrel as to Green Day, Pink!, and Bon Jovi. Jazz, Blues, Classical, Opera, Rock, World Music — no musical genre or artist was out of his scope. He loved music as a way to connect with people of all backgrounds.
Chai made a large cadre of life-long friends at Sweet Basil, including coworkers and regular customers. He was quick to help staff in need, made Sweet Basil among the first restaurant/bars to offer health insurance to employees (long before the Affordable Care Act of 2010), and was respected for his honesty and advocacy among musicians and artists, including Doc Cheatam (who passed away in 1997), Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, David Murray, Ron Carter, John Hicks, and the late poet Amiri Baraka.
Chai is survived by his adoring wife, Christina; four sons, Victor (and his wife Arminda), Craig (and his wife Dina), Keith (and his wife Marisa), and Derek; four grandchildren, Bradford and Griffin (Victor) and Amanu and Amelíe (Craig); three brothers (Cho, Chuang, and Alex), two sisters (Potch and Pat), his father (Siew Choong To), and many nieces and nephews. He is predeceased by first wife, Rose, and his mother, Tang Sailuan.