by Glenn Nelson
The whole thing just kind of snowballed on Ron Chew — the book writing and the running. One day revealed to him a rapturous synergy. He realized that the running — the moving — jarred things in his brain: memories, organization, solutions.
Down the home stretch of completing his book, Chew vowed to run 10 miles. Every morning. Every day, until his book was finished. One day he surmised that 10 miles was so close to a half marathon, he increased his mileage. And then he determined he should do them at a swifter pace.
Every morning, Chew pounded out 14–18 miles, got home and pounded out his manuscript for 30–45 minutes, made breakfast, got his kids ready for school and himself for work. He rinsed and repeated until he’d ended up with the draft of his phone-book-sized tome, My Unforgotten Seattle — 700 pages of text divided into 72 easily digestible chapters. The center of the book contains 56 pages of photos that are like the yearbook of a generation Chew does not want us to forget.
A lot of running, a lot of writing, and a lot of living went into the memoir-lensed history of Chew’s disappearing city. The book is remarkable for the extraordinary things he chronicles about the seemingly ordinary people who made that history. And the names — some familiar to all, but even more familiar to only a few — piled up just like the miles did.
Chew, 67, delivers a metaphorical shrug about the significance of it all.
“We don’t know what’s possible,” he said in an interview conducted remotely — like nearly everything else during the pandemic, “unless we try.”
Cue up Sly and the Family Stone for the soundtrack of Chew’s homage to his unforgettable Seattle.
Chew tried a lot of things over the decades, he says, without much prior contemplation. “I’m not the type who over-analyzes anything,” he said. A door would open, and he’d walk through to see what happened.
A competitive fury roiled within his otherwise quiet persona, however, and Chew rose to many occasions. None was more audacious than transitioning from community journalist, for which he had plenty of training, to executive director of a museum, for which he had none. Over 17 years, he re-imagined the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience, helping transform it into an institution that is internationally renowned for its community-based approach to curation and exhibits. He opened his tenure by saving the museum with an exhibit about World War II Japanese American incarceration that earned several prestigious awards.
Chew’s crowning glory at the museum was proposing and executing a $23 million capital campaign. The feat saved the East Kong Yick building in the heart of the Chinatown International District (CID) from gentrifiers to become the present, shining jewel of a location for the Wing. For a curtain call, Chew left his position and eventually settled into his current role as director of the foundation for International Community Health Services, also in the CID.
It was, for Chew, a typically silent mic drop.
Back in what seems like another lifetime, he was a Chinese American communications major who took on the University of Washington, accusing it of racial discrimination. Chew had applied for an editor position in 1975 with the Daily student newspaper and did not receive an interview. White students who didn’t even apply for the post received interviews and offers. The episode violated the meritocracy so prevalent in Chinese and other Asian cultures. It also conjured up for Chew the dignity with which his father, a restaurant worker, had endured so many indignities, many of them race-based.
Chew prevailed in his dispute with the University, but it left him without a degree and therefore confined to a hyperlocal level of journalism. He’d had bigger dreams, and some would say he was condemned to his fate.
But I’m not one of those. Neither is he.
Chew and I have lived parallel lives. We both grew up during a similar era on Beacon Hill, sons of an immigrant mother. We traveled in intersecting circles and worked our way — hard — through college. We both became Asian American journalists, though I went mainstream and traveled the world for my stories, while Chew practiced his craft largely on a concrete island isolated from the rest of Seattle by railroad tracks and the I-90 and I-5 freeways.
Between the two of us, I’d say Chew emerged the richer, because he lived and worked among our own people and shared their cultures and passions. Starting with his 13 years at the International Examiner, he was both an eyewitness to and a participant in so many events that shaped not only his neighborhood but the civil rights movements and racial history of this city, region and arguably, the country.
The CID was a natural landing spot for Chew. His father worked at the Hong Kong Restaurant, where Chew also bussed tables. The pan-Asian American neighborhood served as an anchor, a hub for his overflowing network, and the gateway to Chew’s significant pan-Asian American endeavors and accomplishments.
“It came down to where I could be of service and where I could have a life, a career,” Chew said. “And it came back down to the place where I bussed dishes for years. It just happened. I didn’t really think about it.”
He added: “You can’t be a community journalist without being an advocacy journalist. It’s a good place to be, because as an Asian American, a Person of Color, you can’t be silent about things. Nothing is neutral.”
It was a decidedly non-neutral moment — the still-unsolved killing of his close friend Donnie Chin in 2015 — that moved Chew to begin preserving the greatness he witnessed in so many otherwise everyday people. He’d already lost a best friend to violence. Gene Viernes, a local labor activist, was murdered in 1981 in retaliation for organizing against Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Distanced from the heartbreak years later, Chew finished an account, started by Viernes, of Filipino American labor activism. The day after the release of Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes was celebrated at the Wing, Chew writes that he sat alone in his car in an empty Chinatown parking lot and wept. The passage is a rare — though limited — glimpse into Chew’s emotional timbre. In fact, he writes more sentimentally about Lily Yamada, an apartment-building neighbor and Hiroshima survivor, than he does about his fallen friends Chin and Viernes.
“In the journey that I’ve had, I’ve had to be a little removed from things,” Chew said. “Even the U-Dub Daily thing, I tried not to let it consume me. Because racism eats you up, eats you alive. You can’t move to another place, and you destroy yourself. To survive, I’ve created this distance. And it comes through in my voice. The writing of the book was healing for me, but first I had to peel off a lot of layers.”
In My Unforgotten Seattle, the layers peel away with metronomic steadiness and clarity, each treated with egalitarian attention, none better or lesser than the other and each splattered with detail but not judgment or romanticism. Nearly everyone the author ever encountered has a story and most are presented in the memoir with at least an appreciable snapshot documenting their existence. His prose is spare and unpretentious, but unrelenting. Ron Chew writes like he lives. And how he runs. He makes it all count.
Glenn Nelson is a Japanese American journalist who founded trailposse.com and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race.
Featured image is a detail of the book cover for “My Unforgotten Seattle” (original image courtesy of the International Examiner).