Ron Chew’s guiding philosophy could be summed up this way: Each of us has value and our stories matter.
Chew, a longtime Chinatown International District-based journalist, museum director and community leader, has made telling those stories his life’s work.
After the killing of his dear friend Donnie Chin in 2015 and the subsequent deaths of a number of other legendary Seattle Asian American activists and organizers, Chew, 67, had the gutting realization that with one passing after another, the history of the Chinatown International District was being lost.
He decided it was time to write his memoir.
Reading his new book, “My Unforgotten Seattle,” was like having my own childhood threads of memory of the Chinatown International District woven together into a more complete tapestry.
In addition to personally significant places and events he recounts in detail — like dim sum at the King Cafe and the annual Chinatown ID pig roast — the many “aunties” and “uncles” who helped raise me feature prominently in the book’s nearly 700 pages.
Some of the most illustrative and poignant chapters deal with his childhood growing up on Beacon Hill as the son of Chinese immigrants. Unable to speak or read well in English, Chew struggled mightily in school, petrified by teachers’ questions he didn’t understand and ultimately at one point hiding in the bathroom to escape.
With no bilingual support for Chinese speakers, Chew recalled a day when his Chinese-speaking mother came to pick him up from Beacon Hill Elementary School and administrators told him to let her know that she was only allowed to speak English in the school. After that he tried to leave school early to avoid the humiliation he experienced. As Chew said, under those circumstances, “It’s a fine line between who makes it and who doesn’t.”
The Asian American experience Chew grew up with bore no resemblance to the model minority myth he would learn about later. His parents worked in grueling, low-wage jobs: his father as a waiter at the Hong Kong Restaurant for often 14 hours a day, his mother working two jobs as a garment worker and then coming home to make dinner late in the evening. There was no sick leave, vacation or benefits.
“The community I grew up in was not a moneyed community,” Chew said. “There were very few doctors or lawyers or professionals.”
As Chew grew up, his natural curiosity and burgeoning love of reading and writing blossomed into a passion for journalism. In the 1970s, as a reporter and later the editor of Seattle’s pan-Asian American nonprofit newspaper the International Examiner, Chew had a front-row seat to the dynamic changes of the era. Among many other issues, student activists and community organizers protested against multinational chains moving into the Chinatown International District and for better conditions for Alaskan cannery workers.
In 1991, despite knowing nothing about running a museum, Chew became the executive director of Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian Museum. Transferring the same philosophy he brought to journalism to the museum, Chew had the radical idea that the museum should not be centered around rarefied Asian art pieces, but should elevate the stories of regular people.
His vision was initially met with skepticism, but Chew persisted. Under his leadership, the museum modeled an inclusivity that resulted in groundbreaking exhibits on the Japanese American incarceration that featured a full-scale replica of a barrack that housed imprisoned families; an exhibit on the first 100 years of the Chinese American community; an exhibit on the experiences of Asian American garment workers like his mother, and many others. Chew’s “community response exhibition model” brought the community into the process, and let community experts and stories drive the content.
After leading a $23 million capital campaign to build a new Wing Luke Museum in a much larger space, Chew left his position. In addition to community work he also serves now as the director of the International Community Health Services Foundation.
History, as Chew says in what he calls his “humble, hyperlocal” memoir, “is built on the precarious foundation of what is remembered, acknowledged and disclosed.”
“Everybody has a story,” Chew said. “Once you know another person’s true story, it changes your life because you develop some empathy and it makes you a better person.”
Through his work and his memoir, Chew has built a foundation of historical memory for Seattle that will live on.