The unparalleled Ruby Chow.

talk about the history of Seattle, and the same names tend to circulate: Denny, Maynard, Yesler, Terry. But in a city where nearly 17 percent of the population identifies as Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native Hawaiian, whatever happened to the likes of Santos, Lee, Luke, and Chow? From ChinatownInternational District activists to the founders of the city's first pho shop, these trailblazers should never be lost in the annals of history.

Activist and Gang of Four member Bob Santos.

Bob Santos

Seattle’s Chinatown–International District largely exists today thanks to the advocacy of Bob Santos, one of the city's most prominent Filipino American activists and a member of the Gang of Four. Santos grew up in Chinatown and led the charge during the '60s and '70s to preserve and bolster the neighborhood in the face of gentrification, cultural evisceration, and displacement. He and other Asian American activists protested the construction of the Kingdome, secured funding for a community health clinic, championed low-income housing, and fought to preserve small businesses and rehabilitate the neighborhood. In 1972, Santos took on the role of executive director at the International District Improvement Association, today known as InterIm CDA. He and other members of the Gang of Four later co-founded the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County, with Santos eventually overseeing the Seattle CID Preservation Authority and serving as the regional director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. His legacy lives on in the pages of his 224-page autobiography Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs! Memoirs of a Savvy Asian American Activist—and in the 126-unit affordable housing project called Uncle Bob’s Place, expected to open this December in C–ID. —TMG

Rev. Jean Kim

Some things never fall out of fashion. Rev. Dr. Jean Kim donned the same outfit for nearly two decades: a purple shirt printed with the same slogan, “End Homelessness for All People.” Known as Seattle’s Mother to the Homeless, Kim was a relentless advocate for unhoused people. Born in North Korea in 1935, Kim and her family escaped to South Korea in 1946 and spent time without a stable home or basic necessities before emigrating to the U.S. in 1970. She went on to earn a master's degree in social work and a doctorate in ministry, eventually founding or co-founding more than 10 local and national humanitarian organizations and authoring over a dozen books–one of which includes 106 concepts and ideas essential for combating the systemic issues behind modern homelessness. Church of Mary Magdalene, a non-denominational church Kim started, functions akin to a support group for women looking for help processing abuse, homelessness, and life struggles. It eventually became part of programming for Mary's Place. Today, Mary Magdalene continues Kim's legacy to serve the community with free meals, showers, education, and support. —TMG

Wing Luke and his mother in 1962.

Wing Luke

The hard-fought honor of being Seattle City Council’s first non-white member—and the first Asian elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest—belongs to Wing Luke. Born near Guangzhou, China, Luke emigrated to Seattle at the age of six, where his parents ran a laundry and grocery store. His future career in politics was evident from a young age. To win over classmates who bullied him for being Chinese, Luke drew comic strips, which became popular and eventually gained him acceptance. He was later elected to be student body president at Roosevelt High School. After earning a bronze medal and six combat stars during World War II, Luke returned to Seattle to earn his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Washington. Then in 1962, he pursued an open Seattle City Council seat, recruiting one thousand volunteers and combatting a racist smear campaign that accused him of having communist ties. Luke won by a decisive 30,000 votes. In office, he advocated for the codification of civil rights for all minorities, championed urban renewal, and fought for historic preservation. He also helped pass an open-housing ordinance that outlawed real estate discrimination in Seattle. Just as his political career was gaining momentum, Luke’s life came to a tragic end at the age of 40, when the plane he was in crashed over the Cascade Mountains. One year after his death in 1966, the Wing Luke Museum was established in Chinatown–International District as an epicenter of Asian Pacific American history and culture. Luke's trailblazing spirit continues to impact local lives to this day as the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division, established in 2016, investigates and enforces civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. —TMG

Carlos Bulosan

During his two-and-a-half decades in Seattle, this Philippines-born activist and writer made waves big enough to catch the attention of the FBI. Carlos Bulosan moved to Seattle in 1930 and would spend the next 20 years chronicling the Filipino American experience by way of poems, novels, short stories, plays, and personal correspondence. His work provides a window into the social and economic aftermath of the American and Spanish occupation of the Philippines. Bulosan, like many Filipino immigrants, worked migratory cannery jobs that spanned the West Coast as far as Alaska. In between, he found time to write, becoming a best-selling novelist during World War II with his semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical novel America Is in the Heart. Bulosan also carved out time to advocate for low-wage workers facing unhealthy working conditions and rampant racial discrimination, becoming intimately involved with the cannery workers' union and left-wing labor and literary circles. These causes, deemed radical and potentially communist, are what landed him on the FBI’s radar. After Bulosan died in 1956 from bronchopneumonia, friends and supporters rallied to collect his manuscripts from around the country, now preserved in the University of Washington’s Special Collections—TMG

Bruce Lee gave Wing Chun demonstrations throughout Seattle, spreading the gospel of kung fu.

Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee revolutionized martial arts with the development of Jeet Kune Do, and paved the way for Asian representation in Hollywood with his highly acclaimed film Enter the Dragon. Although Lee died at the age of 32, before the film’s release, it posthumously skyrocketed him into action star lore, with an impact that resonates nearly 50 years later (see: The Paper Tigers). Lee was born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, where he studied various forms of martial arts as a boy, including the kung fu style Wing Chun. He moved to the U.S. when he was 18, eventually settling in Seattle, where he lived above and worked at a First Hill restaurant run by his father's colleague, Ping Chow, and his wife, Ruby (yes, that Ruby Chow). It was there, in a parking garage across the street, where Lee began his first martial arts school. He taught Jun Fan Gung-Fu (an early iteration of Jeet Kune Do), his interpretation of the Wing Chun style he had learned in his youth. His school bounced around from that now-iconic First Hill locale to a basement studio in Chinatown–International District (now the Ho Ho Restaurant), then a spot on University Avenue. In 1963 while giving a demonstration at Garfield High School, he met his future wife, Linda. Lee would go on to play the role of Kato in The Green Hornet television series, but later returned to Hong Kong after several frustrating years being relegated to supporting roles, largely due to his ethnicity. He found success in Asia with movies The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, which eventually landed him creative control of Way of the Dragon. After his sudden death in 1973, Lee was buried in Lake View Cemetery alongside his son, Brandon, who also passed away at a tragically young age. —AK

Goon Dip (seated, right) with his family in 1910.

Image: MOHAI

Goon Dip

How influential was Goon Dip? Let's just say there’s a mountain in Alaska named after him. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Goon established himself as a businessperson, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and diplomat at a time when anti-Asian racism was at full tilt—the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882. Born around 1862 in the Guangdong Province of China, Goon worked as a houseboy and laborer in Portland, eventually becoming a merchant and labor contractor for riverboat and cannery workers in the Pacific Northwest. The Chinese government took notice and appointed him as an honorary consul for Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. Goon's influence stretches beyond business—Seattle's Chinatown was literally razed to the ground during the Jackson Street Regrade of 1907–1910, displacing the burgeoning Chinese community that had sprung up around South Washington Street. In the aftermath, Goon created the Kong Yick Investment Company, a group of 170 prominent Chinese businesspeople. With no monetary backing from banks, they constructed the East and West Kong Yick Buildings, the first components of the present day Chinatown–International District. The buildings played a crucial role in fostering community and commerce, and the East Kong Yick Building is now home to Wing Luke Museum. —AK

Theresa Cat Vu and Augustine Nien Pham

If you love pho, thank Theresa Cat Vu and Augustine Nien Pham, founders of Pho Bac Sup Shop, the city’s first pho restaurant. The husband-and-wife duo opened the eatery in 1982, in an iconic red boat on South Jackson Street, a year after arriving in the U.S. It started as a sandwich shop, but after hearing so many Vietnamese customers pine for pho, they decided to pivot. By offering a little slice of home, the couple fostered a new community for the growing Vietnamese population, and inadvertently introduced new devotees to the dish. The OG boat is temporarily closed, but just across the parking lot is the new Pho Bac iteration opened by Vu and Pham's kids Yenvy, Khoa, and Quynh-Vy Pham (Khoa passed away suddenly in 2021). There are also two other Pho Bac locations in Mount Baker and the Denny Regrade. —AK

Artist George Tsutakawa in front of his Naramore Fountain at Sixth and Seneca.

George Tsutakawa

George Tsutakawa was to sculptural fountains as Alexander Calder was to kinetic mobiles: a master in his medium. Born in Seattle in 1910 (he was named after George Washington, with whom he shared a birthday), Tsutakawa spent much of his adolescence in Japan but returned to the U.S. at the age of 16. He went on to earn his undergraduate degree in fine arts at the University of Washington, studying under French sculptor Dudley Pratt and the renowned Ukrainian artist Alexander Archipenko. After a stint in the army during World War II—the rest of his family was incarcerated at concentration camps—Tsutakawa returned to UW to earn his master's degree, later joining the faculty in the Schools of Architecture and Art. He gained recognition in the ensuing decades for his Northwest School style—carvings, sculptures, and prints full of Pacific Northwest symbolism and nature motifs. One of his first well-known commissions was a sculpture for the fine dining restaurant Canlis (today, it's still the door handle), but he made his name in bronze, stainless steel, and aluminum, crafting more than 70 public fountains throughout Seattle and as far away as Japan and Canada. —AC

Takayuki Takasow

To describe Takayuki Takasow as "self-taught” would be a huge understatement. Born and raised in Japan, Takasow moved to Seattle in 1909 at the age of 22. In 1911, he became the first person to build and fly an airplane in the city—five years before Boeing’s Model 1 took flight. He became something of a local celebrity, designing and building four airplanes entirely from scratch. The Seattle Daily Times often wrote about his flying pursuits, praising him as “fully competent to vie with the best of the American aviators.” Thousands came to watch his exhibitions; it was the first time many of them had ever witnessed an airplane take flight. In 1913, Takasow became the 219th licensed pilot in the U.S., but moved back to Japan in April 1914 to fight against Germany in World War I. After the war ended, he gave up flying to start a family in Japan, but according to one of his daughters, he recounted his time in Seattle fondly, saying, “I have two native lands: Japan and Seattle.” —AK

Ruby Chow (in a dark coat) was the first Asian American elected to the King County Council.

Ruby Chow

Cheryl Chow once described her mother like this: "My mom is tough and she had high expectations, which is not abnormal." It figures for the diminutive woman who became known for her iconic beehive hairdo, frank personality, and trailblazing career in local politics. Born in 1920 on a Seattle fishing dock, Ruby Chow was a high school dropout who eventually ran an eponymous Chinese restaurant on First Hill with her husband, Ping. They'd later take in a friend's son who had just moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong: Bruce Lee. (Lee bused tables at Ruby Chow's and opened his martial arts school across the street.) Then in 1962, Chow leveraged her place in the city's community by campaigning for an upstart politician by the name of Wing Luke. She slipped pieces of paper with "It's wise to vote for Wing Luke" into her restaurant's fortune cookies. It worked, with Luke winning by 30,000 votes. Eleven years later, Chow herself became an elected official as the first Asian American on the King County Council, serving three terms and advocating for immigrants and the Asian community. —AC

James Sakamoto

In the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment before and during World War II, James Sakamoto made it his life's work to advocate for the rights of thousands of nisei like himself. He famously testified before congress at the age of 17 about an upcoming revision to U.S. immigration law, telling elected members that he "wanted to be more American than Japanese." It became his mantle. In 1928, Sakamoto founded the Japanese American Courier, a newspaper covering Japanese American affairs, and two years after that, he helped establish the Japanese American Citizens' League. It was the first national organization of its kind for the nisei community. His fight for citizenship causes came to an abrupt halt with the war. Sakamoto and JACL's emphasis on the American way of life and their appeasement tactics, cooperating with the government, didn't go over well with the interned. After the war ended, he quietly bowed out of activism. Though his legacy is complicated, Sakamoto is remembered today as one of the early champions of Asian American rights. —AC

Joseph Kekuku

Joseph Kekuku's time in Seattle was brief but memorable. Born on O'ahu in 1874, Kekuku accidentally hit a rusty railroad bolt against the strings of his guitar, serendipitously inventing the steel guitar. He perfected the instrument and sound, then traveled the mainland to share the music of Hawai'i. During a stop in Seattle for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, Kekuku so enthralled the crowd with the ethereal sounds of his instrument that he was inundated with requests for lessons. Others, like local instrument maker Chris Knutsen, took different inspiration, shifting to make guitars fit for steeling after the exposition. Kekuku later moved to Los Angeles—one of his students there, Myrtle Stumpf, wrote the first instructional booklet for the instrument—and eventually settled in Chicago, where he ran a music school. A statue of him playing a steel guitar sits at the Polynesian Cultural Center on O'ahu today. —AC

Share
Show Comments