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Originally published Thursday, June 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Obituary

Ruby Chow, first Asian American on King County Council, dead at 87

Ruby Chow was instantly recognizable, a larger-than-life character whose strong-willed activism earned her the title of matriarch of Seattle's...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ruby Chow was instantly recognizable, a larger-than-life character whose strong-willed activism earned her the title of matriarch of Seattle's Chinese community.

The former King County councilwoman bridged cultural chasms separating the city's Asians and whites so Asians could share equitably in Seattle's spoils. She spotted injustices, spoke her mind and faced down those she considered responsible — paying little mind to whether she offended them.

Mrs. Chow, 87, died Wednesday at her Seward Park home with her family by her side. She had congestive heart failure and had suffered a major stroke four years ago.

"I don't know what our community is going to do without her," said Betty Lau, a Franklin High School teacher who strives to emulate the values of her mentor. "She has protected the interests of the community for so long. There is no one else like her."

She was the first Asian American on the King County Council, elected in 1973 and served three terms before retiring in 1985, and the first woman elected president of a local chapter of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, an international organization that advocates for Chinese immigrants.

"She broke through glass ceilings before anyone knew about glass ceilings," said her daughter, Cheryl Chow, who followed her mother's example into public service, first as a City Council member and now as president of the Seattle School Board.

Mrs. Chow was easy to spot in a crowd because of her trademark beehive hairdo.

"She never had that hair so she could look taller, although people always thought she was taller than she really was," Cheryl Chow said. "But I think people still would have thought that, even without the hair."

Born on a Seattle fishing dock, Mrs. Chow was the eldest daughter in a family of 10 children, eventually dropping out of high school during the Depression to help support her siblings and mother.

The family was so poor that Mrs. Chow's brothers would knock on the back doors of Chinatown restaurants and ask for leftover food. Mrs. Chow's mother worked three jobs but never complained.

"That's exactly the way my mom was, too," Cheryl Chow said.

Ruby Chow never forgot how her mother was shunned because her family was poor — and how a few community members offered aid. As a young woman in New York, she was moved by a speech in which Madame Chiang Kai-shek asked for help for her suffering people.

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"My mom made a promise to herself if she ever was in a position to help others, she would," Cheryl Chow said.

In 1948, Mrs. Chow and her husband, Ping, opened Ruby Chow's restaurant on Broadway and Jefferson Street, the first Chinese restaurant in Seattle outside Chinatown. Ping, who spoke little English, was the cook while the loquacious Mrs. Chow played hostess.

"Some people in the Chinese community laughed at her and told her she would never make it up there," Cheryl Chow said.

The restaurant evolved into a hangout for CEOs, politicians and journalists. Through the restaurant, Mrs. Chow played ambassador, demystifying the Chinese community and making the culture more widely accepted in predominantly white Seattle.

"People either loved her or they didn't," said Mona Locke, who met Mrs. Chow soon after husband Gary announced his candidacy for governor. "But regardless, they respected her because they understood that she was led by her heart, compassion and conviction."

Invitations have been mailed for the dedication of the Ping and Ruby Chow & Family Gathering Space & Learning Studio in the new Wing Luke Asian Museum that opened last weekend. Mrs. Chow helped raise money that created the museum in the 1960s and was a longtime donor.

In 1952, she founded the Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, in which many generations of girls — including Lau — matured into women.

Gary Grant, whose time on the County Council intersected with Mrs. Chow's, said she opened doors for all women and all minorities in all aspects of politics and government.

"I don't look upon this as a passing of an era, but rather that she was the beginning of a new age of women being looked upon as equals in political life, and as leaders," he said.

Mrs. Chow had detractors who viewed her unflinching advocacy for the Chinese community as insulting to other Asian Americans. Mrs. Chow fought against using "International District" instead of "Chinatown" to identify Seattle's Asian business district.

"She saw it as the erasing of a people's identity," Lau said. "Asians have spent so many years teaching people that not all Asians are alike, so to call this neighborhood the International District made no sense to her. We are Chinatown. We are Japantown. We are Little Saigon."

Despite criticism that Mrs. Chow cared only about the Chinese community, her advocacy for immigrants spanned all communities. She lobbied the Seattle School District for a bilingual-education program that's still active today.

"She really defended the program over the years," Lau said. "No matter how busy she was, she went to the school-board meetings and spoke up for the kids."

Lau said Mrs. Chow faced down then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske after learning the program was moving to a school that had been shut down because the building was substandard.

"She asked him, 'If that school is not good enough for kids born here, then it's not good enough for immigrants and refugees.' And he backed down."

And when Mrs. Chow heard the city was going to put another tennis center in the North End, she successfully lobbied to locate it in the South End, which had none. She also compelled Metro to build more bus shelters for South End riders.

She also had a humorous streak, her daughter said.

"Just the other day I was saying to her, 'Dad is really stubborn.' She opened her eyes and replied, 'It took you this long to figure that out?' "

Mrs. Chow carried her emotions the Chinese way, Cheryl Chow said. She wasn't a hugger and smiling did not come naturally to her, but her actions spoke her love.

And Mrs. Chow loved no one more than her husband of almost 70 years, Ping, who is now 92.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Chow is survived by five children: Edward Jr., of Washington, D.C.; Shelton, of Seattle; Cheryl, of Seattle; Brien, of Renton; and Mark, of Seattle; brothers William Sing Mar, of the Eastside, and Roy Sing Mar, of Seattle; sister Mary Mar Pang, of the Eastside; six grandsons, three granddaughters and three great-grandsons.

A public service will be noon Wednesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Memorials to Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, P.O. Box 28832, Seattle 98118.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com. Staff reporter Jack Broom contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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