Soul of Seattle Soul of Seattle Soul of Seattle

With the city changing rapidly, Ron Chew set out to write about
one of its beloved communities. It’s a story only he could tell.

By Hannelore Sudermann | Photos by Tim Matsui | March 2021

Early each morning around 5 o’clock, Ron Chew steps out of his Beacon Hill home and sets off on a long run. Over the course of an hour or two, he jogs through the neighborhoods where he grew up and went to school, where he covered news stories as a reporter and where he raised his two children. Chew’s lean, 67-year-old frame is a familiar sight, and whether they know him or not, people wave as they drive by.

It was on a few of these long, contemplative runs a few years ago that Chew, a journalist and former director of the Wing Luke Museum, mulled plans to write his own history of Seattle. The city was changing—at a rapid pace. The Asian and Pacific Islander and African American neighbors who lived near him over decades were leaving the area, and young professionals were moving in and renovating. “The world I knew was nearly gone,” he says.

History is built on a fragile foundation of memory, records and stories, says Chew. The history he wanted to write would strengthen the foundation, particularly for understanding Seattle’s diverse communities. “Often, especially in communities of color, you don’t always have a sense of where your place is,” he says.

Chew thought of his dear friend Donnie Chin, who founded the International District Emergency Center and gave years of support to the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Chin was killed in the crossfire of rival gangs one early morning in 2015. Within a year, three more community pillars, Bob Santos (known to the community as Uncle Bob), Ruth Woo (Auntie Ruth) and Charles Z. Smith, ’55, (the first African American and first person of color on the Washington State Supreme Court) had died, and Chew felt the profound loss of all of them. With Chin’s unsolved murder and the other deaths lingering for him, he knew it was time tell their history as he knew it.

Chew uses his personal history as scaffolding for the story of Seattle—from early Chinese immigration over a century ago to Black Lives Matter protests this past summer.

In our midst are a few incredible people who witness events, take notes, keep journals and hoard letters. They sit across from us at restaurant tables recording our stories, or on our front steps interviewing our elders. If we’re lucky, they bring it all together for the rest of us before it disappears into time. Chew is one of those people. Just a few pages into his biography, “My Unforgotten Seattle,” you realize you’re not just reading his own family story. You’re given a view into Seattle’s long-standing Asian and Pacific Islander communities—communities that most regional histories mention only in a fleeting chapter. Chew takes his readers to the Chinatown-International District, the businesses and community service organizations, the people he encountered and learned from. He tells of the ordinary people he saw do extraordinary things.

“Ron Chew has captured the heart and soul of Seattle’s International District and the noble struggle of immigrant families and their American-born children as they claim their place in a society that isn’t always welcoming,” writes Jamie Ford, the author of the bestseller “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” in a review of Chew’s autobiography. “It’s a very important book. I was fascinated, mesmerized. I gained a deeper understanding of my family and my own search for identity.”

Chew uses his personal history as scaffolding for the story of Seattle—from early Chinese immigration over a century ago to Black Lives Matter protests this past summer. As he details his grandfather’s arrival in Seattle in 1911, he shares a family secret. By falsely establishing himself as born in the U.S., his grandfather was able to open the way West for his sons. At the same time, under a pall of this falsehood, his parents lived in fear of immigration authorities.

Chew’s father left China at 13, joining his own father and brothers in Seattle in 1930. He lived in the back of a laundry, attended school and eventually opened his own laundry downtown. He returned to China in 1937 to wed Chew’s mother, a marriage arranged by their families. By 1948, Chew’s family was partners in Campus Laundry in the U District. The work of cleaning, ironing and mending clothes was grueling. His father eventually left the laundry to work as a waiter in the Hong Kong Restaurant in Chinatown, a job that placed him at the center of the community. Chew’s mother came to Seattle in 1950, and soon they were a family. Once Chew and his three siblings were all in elementary school, his mother became a garment worker, often working two jobs to help support the family in Seattle as well as family in China.

Chew settles in with a book in his backyard retreat, a one-room structure built with recycled materials and containing a few precious heirlooms from old Seattle.

Chew’s childhood ranged between Chinatown and Beacon Hill. Because his home culture and language was so different than what he encountered at elementary school, Chew had a rough start. Still, at his core, he was a collector of stories. At 11, he started his own handwritten newspaper in his parents’ basement. As a teen in the 1960s, he began to realize the significance of the events unfolding around him.

He was a freshman at Franklin High School when UW students Carl Miller and Larry Gossett, ’71, led a sit-in there for Black student rights in 1968. Coming to the UW a few years later was another awakening. Chew felt like he was breaking free from the modest, cautious home of his parents, finding what seemed to be “a forested retreat in another city.” He studied literature, communications, history, women’s studies, math and astronomy.

He kept a journal through college, recording his experiences and discussions with classmates and friends. “I was able to preserve those remnants of conversations and relationships,” he says. “Being a reporter, I had some sense that I valued those relationships. I saved them. Years later [while working on the book], I had footprints that I could follow back in time.” He wrote for The Daily and for the Chinatown/ID-based International Examiner, covering politics, activism, and the visits to the UW and Seattle of public figures including Jane Fonda, Ken Kesey, Eugene McCarthy and Cesar Chavez.

Despite his talents and hard work, Chew left campus before earning his degree. He details the episode in his book. It was the toughest chapter to write, he says. At age 20, despite his childhood habits of hiding from attention, he publicly stood up to racism. “It was a very spirited time, a very idealistic time,” says Chew. The matter stemmed from his application to be news editor of the student-run Daily. As an experienced staff member who had helped with editing and training new reporters, he thought he was an excellent candidate. But the editor-in-chief offered the post to other students—white—who hadn’t applied for the job. “I thought I deserved at least the courtesy of an interview,” Chew says.

Fueled by frustration and with a view to other examples of discrimination at the paper, Chew filed a complaint with the UW human rights office. He noted that people of color at The Daily rarely advanced beyond the position of reporter. Six months later, an investigator from the office issued a report validating Chew’s grievance and noting that the student newspaper didn’t have clear hiring guidelines, job descriptions or minimum qualifications. She recommended the newspaper provide back pay to Chew and that the board that advised The Daily be diversified.

The advisory board pushed back, urging the UW president to reject the settlement. News of Chew’s complaint and the board’s response played out across the city in Seattle’s newspapers and TV stations. Among Chew’s detractors was a respected UW faculty member. His supporters included fellow Daily reporters and local activists. Ultimately, the vice provost for student affairs issued a settlement that included $1,200 in back pay for Chew and a demand that the Student Publications Board improve The Daily’s hiring practices.

I thought, let’s figure out how we can be of service exploring issues that are responding to a community need. When you do that, something new emerges. It’s magical.

Ron Chew

Though his complaint had succeeded, Chew was weary from the experience and eager to move on. In 1975, he left the UW a few credits short of a degree and lacking a reporting requirement. The school wouldn’t consider his work for the International Examiner, a nonprofit Asian American community paper, as meeting the requirement. “It was the kind of thing I never talked about,” Chew says. But he put it behind him so as to not be consumed by anger and self-doubt. “Remember, I was a 20-year-old kid fighting a system and wondering: Where am I headed?” It wasn’t a crusade, he says, just an accumulation of everything he had learned about civil rights and the need for change.

With his own injustice behind him, Chew turned his energies to covering injustices in his community. He became friends with Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, ’75, second-generation Filipino Americans working to improve conditions and address racism in Alaska canneries. With Chew’s help, Viernes produced a newspaper series for the International Examiner about the history of cannery workers. The two agreed that the work could one day become a book. But in 1981, Viernes and Domingo were assassinated by Filipino gang members who profited from the corruption the activists were trying to undo. Later it was discovered that the crime was tied to dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Chew covered the murders, all the while mourning the loss of his friends. In 2012, he wrote “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism.” The book includes the Viernes history of Alaska canneries.

While at the International Examiner, Chew explored other causes, including community health care, garment workers’ rights, and the “Gang of Four,” a powerful cross-cultural partnership with Latino, Black, Filipino and Native American leaders to push Seattle toward greater racial and social equity. The “Four” were UW alumni Roberto Maestas, ’66, (who had been Chew’s Spanish teacher at Franklin) and Larry Gossett, as well as community activists Bob Santos and Bernie Whitebear.

His penchant for collecting and sharing stories, and for revealing truths, served him further when he was recruited to serve as director of the Wing Luke Museum in 1991. Wing Chong Luke, ’52, ’54, a UW Law grad, was the first Asian American to hold elected office in Washington. He served on the Seattle City Council from 1962 until his death in a plane crash in 1965. The following year, his family and friends founded the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience.

Chew’s take on the director’s job was to engage community members in the exhibits, exploring the stories of their experiences. The first major exhibit commemorated the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which forced thousands of Japanese Americans into prison camps. It included a re-creation of a concentration camp barrack. Many people brought their own families’ stories to the project, which turned out to be a great success. “The community needed a place to deal with an issue that had been simmering for so many years,” Chew says. “People had not shared their pain, their loss. The civil liberties issue behind it had been pushed under the rug.”

Connie So, a teaching professor in UW’s American Ethnic Studies Department, helped the Wing Luke team develop exhibits, starting with the Japanese internment experience. What Chew does in his book, he did in the exhibits—sharing specific stories that illuminate a common experience, So says. “Everyone’s stories are really different, but there are common patterns and historical trends,” she says. “We enjoy listening to people who are not the leaders. A lot of times those stories are not being included in our histories, and those are more important.”

Chew’s approach was disconcerting to some. “It was a notion of museums as story-based rather than object-based institutions,” he says. “I thought, let’s figure out how we can be of service exploring issues that are responding to a community need. When you do that, something new emerges. It’s magical.” He was able to do it, he says, because the museum’s team shared the vision. Another exhibit explored Seattle’s sewing industry. The project documented new voices, including his mother’s, and provided a subject for the community to come together around.

“He invented community-based scholarship. That is really important for both here and nationally,” says Mayumi Tsutakawa, ’72, ’76, a writer and former executive director of the King County Arts Commission and the Historic Preservation Program. She is also the daughter of famed sculptor George Tsutakawa, ’37, ’50, who taught art at the UW for 34 years. Chew and Mayumi Tsutakawa grew up in the same neighborhoods and attended the same schools a few years apart. At the time Chew became director of the Wing, most museums were run by curators who took a distant, scholarly approach. Chew, by contrast, “was full-bore dedicated to the idea of community-curated exhibitions,” Tsutakawa says.

Chew’s most ambitious project was moving the museum from its storefront location to a renovated full city block. When Chew joined The Wing, it had a $150,000 budget and was $50,000 in debt. Through grants to strengthen the organization, Chew and his team developed a budget of $500,000-$700,000 a year. Even with those numbers, launching a $23 million capital campaign to build a new museum seemed audacious to his board, Chew says. “I think they thought I was crazy. But if the vision is strong and people are with you, you will find the dollars.”

Chew’s reputation as a leading museum director spread beyond the West. In 2001, President Clinton appointed him to the National Council for the Humanities. And he received the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award three years later.

The vision for the museum was a success. Blending his management work with new fundraising efforts, Chew stayed busy for several years. By the time of the groundbreaking for the new Wing in 2007, he was ready to move on. Since then, he held a part-time position as a scholar in residence in the UW museology program, teaching fundraising and developing community-based exhibitions. He consulted for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the development of its new visitors center. And he served as executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation. Finally, he formed his own communications firm to support cultural work and write community histories.

The Asian and Pacific Islander community response to Chew has ranged from interest—as he undertook novel projects to tell community stories—to deep respect. In 1997, a group of American Ethnic Studies students marched on the president’s office to protest administrative cuts ending the contracts of certain faculty, including Connie So. The students agreed to leave the office if Chew would come to campus and speak on their behalf. “Ron was to them a natural person they all wanted to gravitate toward,” says So. “They knew of his human rights complaint as a student and saw him as a man of principle. I guess he went in there and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on, do you want to leave?’ And they did.”

A familiar early-morning sight, Chew heads off on his daily two-hour run. He started the habit as a single parent of two seeking some time alone. Now that his children are grown, he uses his run time for reflection. “It activates your brain cells,” he says.

In 2002, Chew’s friends wanted to recognize him through the UW for his contributions as a journalist and cultural leader. Cynthia Del Rosario, ’94, ’96, and her aunt, Bettie Luke, Wing Luke’s sister, took the lead. Enlisting the help of the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, they sought to right a decades-old wrong. They found a supporter in then-Communication Department Chair Jerry Baldasty, ’72, ’78.

In Baldasty’s view, Chew had fulfilled the reporting requirement three decades earlier. “The International Examiner is an incredible example of the value of community journalism,” says Baldasty. “Of course, we would want our students to work for a newspaper like that one.” He gladly conferred the missing credits so Chew could earn his degree. At a small ceremony in Baldasty’s office, Chew signed his graduate diploma card, tears in his eyes. Then he walked across the hall to The Daily and signed his name on the wall where so many other editors and writers had left their own marks.

“There are few people in journalism in this city and this country who I admire more than Ron Chew,” says Baldasty. “What he has accomplished at the International Examiner and throughout his career has made our city a better place. I consider myself really lucky that I was able to help address this problem. You don’t get many opportunities to do exactly the right thing.” Later that week, the UW Multicultural Alumni Partnership gave Chew the Distinguished Alumnus Award. And a few years later, he was inducted into the UW School of Communication Hall of Fame.

Who tells the history of the Pacific Northwest? Murray Morgan, ’37, like Chew, was a journalist, activist and author. From the 1940s to the 1990s, Morgan wrote of the South Puget Sound communities he grew up around and deeply understood. And Tim Egan, ’81, Chew’s fellow Daily reporter and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, dips into his hometown understanding of the Northwest to explain the region to readers of The New York Times.

But when it comes to the story of people of color in the Pacific Northwest specifically, we often get it from a distance, says So. Who better to write a history of our community? adds Tsutakawa. “Ron has a mind and memory that is just unstoppable,” she says. And he has a profound dedication to Seattle’s Asian American community that at each of life’s junctions he returned to serve.

Ron Chew is the recipient of the 2021 Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award. You can attend the virtual celebration on Friday, May 14 by going here