Born on a Fish Dock
Ruby Chow was born on June 6, 1920, with a midwife on a Seattle fish dock, as Mar Seung Gum. Hospital births for Chinese were rare at the time. Her father was Jim Sing Mar, from China’s Guangdong province, who, like thousands of other Chinese, had immigrated to build America’s western railroads. He later managed the San Juan Fishing and Canning Company dock on the Seattle waterfront, where the Seattle Aquarium is now located. Chinese dockworkers and their bosses often lived on the docks, considered the first Chinatown. His wife was Wong See, who came from China via Canada, and bore seven sons and three daughters, with Ruby the oldest girl. The family moved to 2nd Avenue and Washington Street, core of the second Chinatown, and later to Seattle's third Chinatown, centered on King Street. One sister, Mary, went on to marry Harry Pang and the Pangs developed a successful business in frozen Chinese food, which Ruby had started. A third sister, Elsie, of Bellevue, died on January 1, 2007. Harry Pang died in 2004. An arson fire in 1995, set by the Pangs’ adopted son, Martin Pang, destroyed the Pangs’ warehouse and killed four Seattle firefighters.
Jim Mar died in 1932, when Ruby was 12, leaving See a widow at 36, at the bottom of the Great Depression. It was a survivalist life for millions of Americans, but more so for Chinese, who still lived in the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. See sold lottery tickets and the boys scavenged leftovers from the back doors of restaurants, but Ruby remembered her as a “spunky woman” (Estes) who “never complained.” Ruby also remembered “one or two people who helped out my mom, including the mother of [Superior Court Judge] Warren Chan. If it wasn’t for those people, the family probably would not have survived, so my mom felt she had to give back” (C. Chow).
Ruby attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, Washington Junior High, and Garfield and Franklin high schools, but dropped out at 16 to work and help support the family, as a waitress and a Dollar Store salesgirl. Wong See died in 1939.
Womanhood and Motherhood
When she was 17, Ruby moved to New York and, during a brief marriage, bore two sons: Edward, born in 1939, and Shelton, born in 1940. She again worked as a waitress, this time at a gay bar called the Howdy Club, an experience which left her with considerable empathy for the gay community. In New York she also met Ping Chow, born in Canton and a member of a Chinese opera company of some renown. The opera company was stranded in New York at the outbreak of World War II and Ping joined the U.S. Army. He served one year, doing mostly KP, and was honorably discharged when it was discovered his English was too minimal for further training. Ruby spoke but could not write Chinese, so she “had to learn to write [it] to communicate with my father,” son Brien Chow said.
Ruby and Ping married, moved to Seattle in 1943, and found jobs in a Chinatown restaurant, the Hong Kong. As an enticement to keep them there, the owner gave Ping a few shares of the company. Ruby again waitressed, and she built a regular clientele, including Caucasians, who trusted her culinary instincts. But there was more. “Ruby Chow kept their secrets, remembered their names, never said a bad word about Chinatown or the Chinese, and never asked for a pay-back” (Chin).
In 1948, Ruby and Ping bought an old mansion that had been converted to a restaurant with boarding rooms upstairs, at Broadway and Jefferson, a mostly black neighborhood.
They opened Ruby Chow’s Restaurant, the first Chinese restaurant outside Chinatown -- though only a few blocks outside. Ping cooked -- Cantonese -- and Ruby, then 28, was hostess and everything else. Ping had adopted Ruby’s two boys and the Chows had three more children: Cheryl, born in 1946; Brien, born in 1951, and Mark, born in 1953. The family lived above the restaurant and the work ethic for the children was imbued early: vacuuming around age 8 or 9, on dishes around 11, then on to bussing and waiting tables.
“My mom is tough and she had high expectations, which is not abnormal," said Cheryl Chow. "She told us always that there would be advantages and disadvantages to being Ruby Chow’s daughter or son. I found a lot more advantages. She was a wonderful role model, and continues to be” (C. Chow). Betty Lau, English teacher at Franklin High and a long-time friend of Cheryl's writes, “It was the first upscale Chinese restaurant. There were large, full-color pictures of Ping in his operatic regalia, the Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology, and a huge, golden, multi-armed Guan Yin [the Buddhist bodhisattva or enlightened being of compassion]” (Lau). Heretofore, Seattle’s Chinese restaurants were mostly cafés. Cheryl recalled that the Chinese community “laughed at my mom and gave her maybe three months. But she was bilingual, very gregarious, and dad was very gracious, with a sense of humor” (C. Chow).
Ruby’s clientele followed her from the Hong Kong. The new restaurant was “an overnight success” (Estes), and became a magnet for celebrities. “Newspapers regularly front-paged snaps of dignitaries, governors, mayors, and consul generals walking up the steps toward … Ruby Chow’s restaurant” (Chin). Charles Dunsire, a onetime Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, remembered Ruby’s annual, invitation-only, holiday bashes as standing-room-only, must-go events for the region’s movers and shakers, from the governor on down. It also was a popular watering hole for public officials, reporters, and the political industry in general. “I had a room in the back where they had a lot of privacy” (deLuna). "It was also really the Democratic party club house for King County,” said author and historian Walt Crowley (KIRO-TV).
And Ruby’s experience at the Howdy Club left her at ease with Seattle’s gay community. When the Dorian Group, a gay organization, asked Ruby if she had a problem with hosting a gay banquet, she disarmingly asked: “Do you use American money?” (C. Chow).
A continuing file of young Chinese also passed through the restaurant, needing some help or a job. In 1959, one of them was Bruce Lee (1940-1973), an American-born actor-martial artist and self-absorbed troublemaker living with his family in Hong Kong. Lee’s father, a member of the Hong Kong Cantonese Opera Company and an old friend of Ping Chow, asked Ping to take in his boy, and the Chows did. Ruby gave him a room above the restaurant, but she had no time for his posturing and put him to work in the restaurant, “so there was bad blood between Bruce and Ruby right from the start” (Chin).
Another needy youth who passed briefly through Ruby’s orbit, but with less success, was Benjamin Ng, a troubled boy later convicted for his role in the February 18, 1983, massacre at the Wah Mee gambling club in Chinatown, in which 13 people were killed. Ng was sentenced to life in prison and the gang leader, Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, once sentenced to die, is now also serving life in prison.
Revolution in Chinatown
In 1949, with the restaurant already expanded and booming, Ruby Chow turned her energies to problems that had been accumulating in the Chinese community, and its relations with the outside world. Its elderly male leadership, she believed, was ignoring the community’s burgeoning social needs -- for the young, the elderly, the poor, and the new wave of immigrants. In 1943, as an acknowledgment of China’s alliance in World War II, Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), had helped engineer repeal of the much-amended and still-in-effect Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Hundreds of immigrants, including many refugees, poured into the Pacific Northwest. Ruby was highly visible, bilingual, accessible, and people began seeking her help: Northwest Airlines with a refugee girl from Shanghai; immigrants needing help for health-card tests; Seattle police and area hospitals with interpretation problems (after which she suggested a language bank).
But though Ruby may have enjoyed first-name status with her uptown customers, relations between Chinatown and the community at large were still infected by racism, ignorance, and fear. “She went to the board of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association and said, ‘We need a PR committee to help people understand what Chinese culture is all about, that all Asians are not the same, that Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos have separate and distinct cultures -- to not be afraid.’ The Chong Wa board said, ‘Fine. You be the chairman’” (Lau).
So Ruby and Ping started a campaign to demystify Chinese culture, inviting the general public to Chinese New Year celebrations and other community events, publicizing positive images of Chinatown. She and Ping promoted Chinese cooking, appearing on KING-TV’s “KING’s Queen” show with Bea Donovan (1908-1991), with KOMO-TV’s kitchen queen Katherine Wise (Ruth White Fratt) (1907-1995), and published a cookbooklet featuring the restaurant’s most popular recipes. They also hosted their own Chinese cooking show for two years on KSTW-TV.
In 1952, Ruby Chow helped a girl's group called the Chi-ettes form the Chinese Community Girls Drill Team. Ruby wanted to encourage girls from 11 to 21 to develop social skills and self-esteem -- and add some Chinese flavor to Seattle’s annual Seafair Torchlight Parade. Such cultural activities were traditionally limited to males, but Ruby convinced the Chong Wa to sponsor the team. “It’s a very chauvinistic culture, and this gave the girls an opportunity for a supervised activity outside their homes” (C. Chow). The drill team became a Chinatown institution that has won top honors in the Seafair parade and appeared at major venues throughout the country, including at the Pasadena Rose Festival, the nation’s capital, and in Taiwan. Three generations of Chinese girls have passed through the team.
Ruby accelerated integration of the Seafair Queen contest by cajoling the committee to expand minority participation. She lobbied a Pacific Northwest Bell executive, a regular restaurant customer, to hire operators of color at the heretofore mostly white monopoly. She pressed local governments and schools to add people of color to their boards and commissions, all without fanfare or expectation of payback. For her civic efforts, Ruby received a prestigious Matrix Table Award in 1956, the first of many acknowledgments of her public service.
Ruby also gathered some like-minded citizens to form the Chinese Parents Service Organization (CPSO), to raise funds for the drill team and other public services. These “Young Turks” (in the words of historian/journalist Doug Chin) also took on the tongs (Chinese fraternal societies) and family associations that ran the Seattle chapter of Chong Wa, headquartered on Taiwan. In 1957, Ruby Chow was elected to the Washington (Seattle) Chong Wa board, the first woman in the world to sit on a Chong Wa governing board. In 1975, she became the first woman in the world elected president of a Chong Wa chapter.
Upsetting the Status Quo
It was not easy. According to Douglas Eglington, once Ruby Chow’s administrative assistant and now a King County policy analyst, “There was always the fact that she was a woman in the culture, which caused a lot of friction. There were some generational issues, the dynamic tension between the Taiwan people and mainland people, language things -- she had to navigate all of that” (Eglington).
Ruby also was active in the "Asian political renaissance," (Lau) before running for office herself. When Wing Luke (1925-1965) ran for a Seattle City Council in 1962, Chong Wa rejected his request for support, claiming political neutrality. So he turned to Ruby, who encouraged Chinese restaurants and a fortune-cookie factory to distribute cookies stuffed with Confucian-like aphorisms from Wing Luke. Luke became the first Asian American elected to a major political office in the continental United States. When Luke ran, according to Cheryl Chow, “Many Chinese were still on green cards and couldn’t vote. [Ruby] said, ‘You can’t vote, but you can give money.’ She was the Ruby Chow money machine” (C. Chow).
Luke was followed by Liem Tuai (1925-2003) on the Seattle City Council, Superior Court Judge Warren Chan (b. 1923), King County Executive and Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950), state Representative Art Wang of Tacoma, Ruby herself, and two of her children, Mark, who was elected a King County District Court Judge, and Cheryl, a two-term Seattle City Councilwoman and Seattle School Board member and president. Other Asians -- Filipino and Filipina, Chinese, and Japanese -- followed. Seattle Times columnist Terry Mcdermott attributed Gary Locke’s success to “Ruby Chow … without whose efforts Locke’s career would have been unthinkable.”
If the Chinese community was in tumult during the 1960s, so was Seattle and the country at large. Seattle had its own Vietnam War and civil-rights protests, racial riots, all compounded by the “Boeing bust” of the early 1970s. And Chinese community activism was no longer enough for Ruby. In 1971, King County Executive John Spellman (b. 1926) appointed her to the county Board of Equalization and Appeals. “I had known her,” Spellman said. “She was a leader in the community. I had eaten at her fine establishment, and I knew a lot of people who knew Ruby. She did a good job. I didn’t ask her political party when I appointed her” (Spellman). Former aide Douglas Eglington said, “It was her first brush with government. I think that kind of whetted her appetite.”
Her appetite was further whetted in 1973, when Seattle police raided an illegal Chinese gambling club on Chinese New Year and arrested 75 people, including elderly women and children, on gambling charges. The next day, Ruby visited Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) and asked him, "What the hell do you think you’re doing?" (de Luna, Lau). She wondered out loud how Caucasians in a similar situation would be treated. Mayor Uhlman summoned the police chief who told them that the arrested people would just be given a ticket. The children and elderly were released and Ruby Chow collected money to bail out the remaining detainees.
In 1973, her children grown, Ruby decided to run for the King County Council 5th District seat being vacated by Republican John T. O’Brien. The district is a multi-ethnic, rich-to-poor, mostly liberal polyglot, including part of downtown, Chinatown, Japantown, the International District, Capitol Hill, the Central District, Madison Park, Madrona, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, and Seward Park. But she was apolitical, unsure about which party she preferred, and made no secret of her doubts, even button-holing Seattle Post-Intelligencer courthouse reporter Charles Dunsire. He pointed out the socio-political makeup of the district and logically suggested “Democrat.” The office of Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) “sent a campaign worker named Ted Bundy to convince her to go GOP” (Rhodes). (Bundy [1946-1989] turned out to be a serial killer and was executed in Florida in 1989.) Chow later said, “I felt that I belonged in the Democratic Party because it is more people-oriented. I discovered I had been a Democrat all my life and hadn’t realized it” (Estes).
The campaign was a family affair. Daughter Cheryl, sons Edward, Brien, and Mark, as well as Ed’s wife, Marge, all had active roles. Ping was supportive. “I back her up” (View Northwest). “Ruby likes to help people; that’s why I pushed her to get elected to the Council” (Wolverton). Ruby defeated African American activist Walter Hubbard Jr. (1924-2007) by 220 votes to capture the seat and became the first Asian American elected to the King County Council. She ran for re-election in 1977 and narrowly defeated Garcia Massingale, another African American activist, and she won again in 1981 when Massingale and Ron Sims (b. 1948) split the black vote. Each time, The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer endorsed one of Ruby’s opponents. Sims would go on to earn a King County Council seat in the 1986 election, the first African American elected to county government in the state, and become King County Executive in 1996.
Ruby Chow’s County Council tenure focused on her needy constituents rather than on countywide growth-management issues that dominated much of the council’s agenda. When she found that her district had the highest Metro bus ridership but fewer bus shelters than the upscale Magnolia and Laurelhurst neighborhoods, she successfully lobbied for more shelters and better service. She persuaded the Seattle City Council to build a tennis center in the south end, rather than add a second one in the north end. She and a couple of supporters lobbied Seattle School Superintendent Lauren Troxel to institute a bilingual program to accelerate English proficiency and acculturation for immigrant children.
“She was one of the first people of color in county government,” said former aide Doug Eglington. “She began to raise the consciousness of county government in terms of the needs of people of color and other human rights issues -- human services and health needs, drug and alcohol services, low-income housing, the first affirmative action. She did a lot assisting immigrants.” As a member of the state Jail Commission, she was instrumental in obtaining nearly $70 million in state funds for a new county jail. She also was a dogged supporter of a tax on pleasure boats, which finally passed. “[I]n a sense she has been a politician most of her life -- the old-fashioned Chicago-type politician who looks after the needs of his constituents" (Estes). In recognition of her efforts, her constituents had a park named after her: Ruby Chow Park in Georgetown.
She was short in stature, perhaps five feet, with a “well-gardened and cultivated creation of hair” (Chin). She may have come from a male-dominated culture, but she had no trouble with high-profile. When the county proposed converting the old federal Immigration and Naturalization Building on the Chinatown International District’s southwest fringe into a work-release facility, the community was outraged and, therefore, so was Ruby. She flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Senator Magnuson, taking one of Ping’s famous roast ducks with her on the plane. What Eglington called “roast duck diplomacy” apparently worked: The work-release plan was quickly shelved.
But she came from a different arena than her fellow council members. Historian Frank Chin writes, “Her style on the council, in a public show, is not as effective as it is in its natural habit, the personal face-to-face, the bar, the restaurant, the banquet … . There is a lot of Ma Barker about Ruby” (Chin). Paul Woo, a Chow supporter, said during the 1981 campaign: “Ruby is the type of person who’s hard to get to know. You either love her or hate her. There’s no middle ground” (Suffia).
Politics and Personalities
Nowhere was the absence of middle ground more evident than in her relationship with Councilwoman Bernice Stern (1916-2007). “Personality clash is a fair thing to say. It would have been hard to have them in the same room. Ironically, they had a lot of the same interests” (Eglington). Indeed, they shared similar and strong social-service aspirations, long histories of community service, as well as a stubborn streak. Their animosities surfaced in 1977 when Stern was seeking chairwomanship of the council and Ruby made it clear she had the votes to stop her. Stern was elected for 1978, however, and Chow was chairwoman for 1979. “Magnuson talked about show horses and work horses. Ruby definitely was a work horse” (Eglington).
She was a work horse on one issue in particular, the identity of “Chinatown,” which she guarded jealously and zealously. In 1951, Seattle Mayor William F. Devin proclaimed the area immediately south of downtown as the “International Center, to reflect the mix of “citizens of Negro, Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine ancestry” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). The name evolved into “International District,” but for Ruby it was: “‘Chinatown,” she corrected, ‘always Chinatown’” (Watson). Her insistence on Chinese hegemony sometimes pitted her against city hall, blacks, and other Asian minorities -- Japanese, Koreans, Southeast Asians, and Filipinos -- in battles over priorities (and names) for urban renewal, social service, and historic preservation projects in the neighborhood.
Intramural squabbling was a natural state for the relatively young County Council, often among Democrats. Republican King County Executive Spellman recalled: “They would come in individually and air their grievances. Far be it for me to take advantage of that,” though that is exactly what he did. He and his staff simply enacted a list of executive orders to reform and streamline county government, assuming they had the power to do this. But Spellman said, “I got along with Ruby very well. She was conservative in her own way. In those days, you got along with people regardless of their party.”
In the Chinese community’s schism between supporters of mainland or “Communist” China and supporters of Taiwan or “Nationalist” China, Ruby and Ping Chow were outspoken nationalists and Ruby regularly identified Taiwan as “free China.” In February 1979, both Ruby and Spellman were “notably absent” when other local dignitaries gathered to welcome visiting Chinese Vice President Teng Hsiao-ping [Deng Xiaoping] (MacLeod). Ruby made no excuses for her boycott, but Spellman’s office diplomatically begged off with a “scheduling conflict.” Spellman said later: “My brother had been killed in Korea. It took a while for me to get over that.”
During Ruby’s 1981 campaign, some of her critics in the Chinese community formed the Alliance of Chinese Associations, to support Ron Sims and defeat Ruby. Of her critics, she said: “My conscience is clear and I do what I can and if they don’t like it, that’s tough” (Modie). According to Betty Lau, “Ruby never needed those ‘critics’ to accomplish any of her goals, and they resent her for that” (Lau).
After the Council
In November 1984, Ruby announced that her third County Council term would be her last. “‘I think 12 years in one spot is enough,’ she said” (Coughlin). The Chows leased Ruby Chow’s Restaurant in 1979 and retired from the business. The location is now the Minor and James Clinic parking lot.
With her son, Brien, Ruby later formed a company, R.B. Specialties, Inc., initially consulting on affirmative-action programs for firms doing business with King County.
Ruby Chow passed on to her children her activism, along with her compulsion for community service. “As far as I can remember, giving back to the community, that’s been her whole life” (B. Chow). Edward worked on the 1976 presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), served in the Vietnam War and went on to a career with the Veteran’s Administration in Washington, D.C. Now retired, he is still active in veteran’s affairs. Shelton, now retired, was a school teacher. Cheryl became an educator; ran for Ruby’s County Council seat in 1985 and lost; served on the Seattle City Council from 1990 to 1997, ran for a state legislative seat and lost, was elected to the Seattle School Board in 2005 and named president of the Seattle School Board in December 2006. She is director of customized programs for the Girl Scouts Totem Council. Brien has been involved in affirmative-action endeavors and is a small-business owner. Mark is a King County District Judge.
In March 1996, Ruby suffered an angina attack, but a few weeks later, on April 30, she was in the middle of Chong Wa’s Elders Party, as she had been for 32 years, with more than 600 seniors gathered for the event. “‘When we started, we used to cook it all ourselves,’ Ruby reminisced” (Godden). In October 2004, Ruby suffered a massive stroke, but recovered. She and Ping, both retired, lived in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood. Ruby Chow died on June 4, 2008.