A living legend, trailblazer, role model, civic activist and Chinese community pioneer, Ruby Chow dropped out of high school, opened up the first Chinese restaurant outside of Seattle’s Chinatown, and became a powerful public official who upset the status quo.
Ruby was born on the fish dock where her father worked and lived. In 1920, hospital births for Chinese were a rarity. Her father, who came to the U.S. to work on the railroads, had become manager of the San Juan Fishing and Canning Company dock. Her mother bore seven children, and they moved around and lived in Seattle’s early Chinatowns. In the midst of the Great Depression, Ruby’s father died; Ruby was just twelve years old. Ruby attended Garfield and Franklin high schools, but dropped out at 16 to work and help support the family. She worked as a waitress and a Dollar Store salesgirl. In 1939, her mother passed away as well.
At seventeen, Ruby moved to New York. She waited tables again, 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 met Ping Chow, born in Canton and a member of a famous Chinese opera company. At the onset of World War II, Ping joined the U.S. Army. He served one year, doing mostly KP. Ruby learned how to write Chinese to communicate with him. They married and moved to Seattle in 1943, and worked at the Hong Kong restaurant in Chinatown. Ruby waitressed and built up a strong rapport with her regular customers.
In 1948, Ruby and Ping bought an old mansion in the First Hill district, and converted it into a restaurant. Ruby Chow’s was the first upscale Chinese restaurant; Ping cooked and Ruby was hostess. In 1959, Bruce Lee briefly lived and worked at there as a busboy, but Ruby found him rather arrogant and disagreeable. Ruby Chow’s Restaurant was a landmark that attracted politicians and celebrities, including Sidney Poitier. Her clientele followed her from the Hong Kong, and the restaurant was an immediate success. When a gay organization asked Ruby if she had a problem with hosting a banquet for them, she disarmingly asked, “Do you use American money?”
A natural leader, Ruby decided to tackle the issues facing the Chinese community. Senator Warren Magnuson has helped to repeal the still evident Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but the influx of immigrants and refugees presented growing social needs. Chinatown and the community at large were still infected by racism, ignorance, and fear. Ruby was well-established, bilingual, and easily reached, and thusly she became a voice for the Chinese community. When she approached the Chong Wa Benevolent Association about the Chinese community’s need for a public relations committee, they agreed—and made her the chairwoman of the board. Ruby was the world’s first female board member, and eventually, president, of a Chong Wa Benevolent Society chapter. In a typically male-dominant culture, this shook up a lot of reservations within the Chinese community.
Ruby and Ping worked to demystify Chinese culture, inviting the public to Chinese New Year celebrations and publicizing a positive image of Chinatown. They hosted their own cooking shows, appeared on local news stations, and even published a cookbook. Ruby persuaded the Chong Wa Society to sponsor a Girls Drill Team to participate in the Seafair Torchlight Parade, which won top honors in the Seafair parade and began to tour the country. Ruby pressed for local governments, schools, even the regional telephone company to begin to hire people of color. She rallied behind Wing Luke when he ran for City Council in 1962; when he won, he was the first Asian American to be elected to a major political office in the continental United States. His appointment opened up the gates for Asian Americans to hold political office.
In 1973, Ruby herself decided to run for the King County Council. The first Asian American member of the King County Council, Ruby served three terms on the King County Council before retiring in 1985. 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. Even after her twelve years on City Council, she continued to bolster Chinese community service, fighting for civil rights and equality, aiding immigrants, and improving Sino-American relations.
Ruby Chow died on June 4, 2008. The Ruby Chow Park in Georgetown is named in her honor.
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