A remembrance of Ruby Chow’s extraordinary life
By Betty Lau
Northwest Asian Weekly
Ruby Gum Seung Mar Chow passed away at her home in Seattle on June 4, just two days short of her 88th birthday.
Ruby was born on June 6, 1920, back in the days when the earliest “Chinatown” was the docks of Seattle’s waterfront. Her father, Jim Sing Mar, was dock foreman.
When he died, he left behind a widow and 10 children. Ruby was third and eldest of the daughters. Because of the Depression years, the family was left destitute. Ruby had to leave school to work to support her family. Hearing of job opportunities in New York, she moved across the country to work as a waitress.
It was in New York that she met the dashing Cantonese opera star, Ping Chow. They fell in love, married and moved back to Seattle, where they opened Ruby Chow’s Restaurant. They lived above the restaurant in order to keep an eye on their five children while they worked. Ruby quickly became the “the hostess with the mostess” as the restaurant garnered praise and increasingly well-off, well-connected patrons. She started the first Chinese frozen food business, starred with her husband on their own Chinese cooking show and appeared as frequent guests on two others.
On a visit to Hong Kong, she saw the suffering of the opera troupes that had fled China after 1949. She organized care packages for them, and in return, they later made Seattle a venue for Cantonese opera performances that drew audiences from Vancouver, British Columbia, to San Francisco, Calif. Seattle Chinatown became a major center of Cantonese opera.
A lifetime devotee to the democratic ideals of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, she staunchly supported and ceaselessly promoted the Republic of China. For nearly 40 years, she organized the annual Double Ten parade in Chinatown and the Double Ten dinner.
She also sponsored a Chinese-themed float in Seafair, founded the famed Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team and the Chinatown Dragon Team.
When she saw immigrant youths getting into trouble because they couldn’t communicate in English, she worked with police to defuse situations by helping the youths get jobs and education. To that end, in 1974, she prevailed on the Seattle Schools superintendent to start the bilingual program, a sheltered English program to help newly arrived immigrants and refugees learn English as quickly as possible to be able to move into mainstream classes.
After the founding of the program, she continued to make sure it continued the mission of helping immigrants and refugees learn English, speaking at school board meetings and calling on various superintendents as necessary. When a former superintendent tried to move bilingual students into a sub-standard building, she made an appointment and marched into his office, all business.
He apologized and said, “I hope you don’t mind waiting; I have a crisis to deal with.”
“And I’m you’re next one,” she retorted.
She also had the city health manual translated into Chinese; initiated and planned the annual elders’ banquet, the annual Lunar New Year banquet, which every governor since 1964 has attended; facilitated local corneal transplant research; worked with other community leaders to put up the first community bulletin board in 1965 and to hang 119 large red lanterns across King Street; opened Chinese New Year events to the general public; obtained funding for students to learn lion dancing in Seattle Public Schools; arranged for cultural dance teachers to come from Taiwan to teach the community’s children without charge; and led many other community projects.
She had a health clinic for the residents of Chinatown and Japantown moved from Pioneer Square to Chinatown, to be closer to its patients. And from being frequently called on to be an interpreter, she persuaded a local hospital to start a language bank. At the behest of the mayor, she met with federal officials to fund the first low-income buildings in Chinatown and Japantown.
The event that definitively marked her position as community matriarch was the 1973 police raid on a family association celebrating Chinese New Year. She pointed out to the mayor that even children and the elderly had been picked up and taken away in the raid. After the chief of police admitted that Caucasians would never have been treated that way, all persons were released, and the mayor issued a public apology for the debacle.
She ran for the King County Council in 1973 and served for three terms. While on the council, she decided government needed to be compassionate and took on the issues of those without an advocate. She sponsored the first airport noise study, had bus shelters installed in low income neighborhoods, instituted a pleasure boat tax, put together an affirmative action plan, persuaded the city council to locate its second tennis center in the south end and fought off conversion of the old immigration building into a prison.
She also fiercely defended the right of communities to retain their community names: Chinatown and Japantown versus an amorphous International District. In the spirit of compromise, however, she agreed on behalf of the community to accept the Chinatown International District designation, which became a city ordinance in 1999.
Betty Lau is an ELD/ESL teacher and department chair at Franklin High School and directs two grants for Chinese language programs for the school district.