From Shoeshine Boy To Shining Star

Dr. Lawrence Tseu is a dentist, renowned philanthropist, regent at the University of Oxford and much more, but at heart he remains a humble guy with

Susan Sunderland
Wednesday - March 12, 2008
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Dr. Tseu with a patient:
Dr. Tseu with a patient: ‘I’ve been drilling, filling and billing’ for 44 years

It’s unlikely that young Lawrence K.W. Tseu, shoeshine boy on Bethel

Street in the 1940s, could have imagined his state of life today. Living an impoverished childhood in Kalihi, his 10-cents-a-shine income supported a humble existence.

“I made a living on my knees,” he says.

On Wednesday, March 12, as he accepts the Legacy Philanthropic Award from the Music Foundation of Hawaii, Tseu comes full circle in a rags-to-riches story that belies his modest beginnings. Tseu, 75, says his drive to succeed is partly inherited and partly developed by life experiences.

That shoeshine kid today is a successful and prominent dentist with a chain of credentials after his name: BSc (Bachelor of Science), DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery), FAGD (Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry).


“Just call me Larry,” he says modestly.

But we can’t ignore the letters of distinction. He’s earned them and deserves respect for the honors and titles he’s garnered over the years. If we could award him one more, it would be Ph.D., “Doctor of Philanthropy.”

The charming gentleman with an ever-present smile doesn’t flaunt being a philanthropist and might even be uncomfortable with that label. But it is what it is and frankly, the whole concept of philanthropy is quite topical these days.

So we put Dr. Tseu through a rare chat session - talking about himself - in order to flesh out the soul of a philanthropist.

As a devoted husband, father of six, grandfather of 13, nationally recognized dentist, scholar, patron and generous supporter of the arts, education and human welfare, he is a role model for our time. Yet it is a time when role models and heroes who are exemplary in all facets of life are in short supply.

A believer in educational opportunities
A believer in educational opportunities, Dr. Tseu was honored by the Miss Hawaii Scholarship pageant - escorted here by Miss Hawaii Teen USA Serena Karnagy and Miss Hawaii USA Chanel Wise

Of his children, two are medical doctors, two dentists, one an attorney, and one a dental hygienist and educator.

Follow the path of this model citizen and see if it resonates with your own quest for meaning and identity in life.

For youngsters, his story is aspirational. For adults, it is inspirational.

Tseu was born in Hong Kong of good stock. His father, Joseph Tseu, was born in Hawaii and educated at New York and Columbia universities in business. His mother, Lillian Tseu, was from a wealthy family in Shanghai. When Tseu was 3 years old, the family moved to Hawaii, where his father started the Island’s first rattan business, importing materials from the Philippines. Their fortune turned to financial disaster during the war when he lost his suppliers. The clan, with five young children, was bankrupt and moved to the slums of Kalihi.

Born in Hong Kong, Dr. Tseu came to Hawaii as a boy
Born in Hong Kong, Dr. Tseu came to Hawaii as a boy

Life was a struggle, but they found a way to survive through hard times and build character and personal values in the process.

Tseu says, “In the old days, there was no such thing as student loans, and very few schools could afford to give scholarships. Us poor guys had to work for it.”

A combination of odd jobs and money from the GI Bill (Air Force) enabled Tseu to pay his own way through school, from the fifth grade at St. Louis to his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University to dental school at Northwestern University.

Being poor turned out to be a great motivator. Living by handouts and hand-me-downs inspired Tseu to change.

Tseu inherited philanthropic values from his paternal grandfather, Tet Min Tseu, a missionary from China who partnered with the Damon family to establish the Palolo Chinese Home in 1896.


From his father, Tseu derived a good business sense and a work ethic to succeed against all odds. His mother instilled in her children the virtues of grace, poise and gentleness.

While acquiring dentistry skills in college, Tseu was reminded by his father to “study for knowledge, not for grades.”

“They don’t put grades on a diploma,” he was told.

But Tseu got impressive grades, extensive knowledge and the prestige of being named one of Northwestern’s top 10 alumni. It was a validation of all

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