The following is a forward written by Ron Chew from “Uncle” Bob Santos’ book, ‘Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs—Memoirs of a Savvy Asian Asian American Activist.’ The book was published by the International Examiner in 2002.
Every neighborhood has its roster of local heroes. The mention of a hero’s name prompts a cocked ear and summons a round of stories, some true, some half-true and some wholly legend. More often than not, it’s nice to hear from the heroes themselves—for what they remember and what they choose to reveal. Heroes—especially those tested in the fires of social activism—can inspire us to believe in the possibility of changing things for the better.
Bob Santos is a hero in an urban hamlet called the International District, an Asian neighborhood along the southern edge of downtown Seattle. For reasons unknown, the District is the only location in the continental United States where the various Asian settlers—Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese—settled together and built one community. Perhaps it’s because the Asian Pacific population in Washington state is relatively small—less than six percent of the total population—that we’ve found ways to cohabit peacefully for generations. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a model for “pan-Asian cooperation” in the United States.
In the 1970s and 80s, as executive director of the International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im), Bob Santos provided the vision and inspiration to move this neighborhood—the “I.D.”—from the brink of physical decay and neglect to rebirth, galvanizing a multi-ethnic coalition of elderly residents, small shopkeepers and idealistic students to restore vacant buildings, construct new housing, develop social service agencies, and create a dynamic new sense of community. Later, in the early 1990s, he helped conceive the International District Village Square project—a remarkable public-private partnership combining apartment units, offices, social services, and retail businesses.
In his book, Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs, he describes what happened, from his choice vantage point, as leader of a powerful grassroots movement, folding wonderful little stories around a vibrant cast of local characters and events. For those who lived through this eventful era, this book replays fond memories: moments of humor, merry-making, trouble-making confrontation, negotiation, anger, surprise, elation, sadness, fear, and pride. This book illuminates pieces of the unexplained past for outsiders who may look with curiosity or puzzlement at how the community came to acquire its distinctive complexion and personality.
Santos also tells about his childhood days in the modest Chinatown hotel room with his father, a famous local boxer; his participation in the drive for racial equality in Seattle in the 1960s; and his rise to political worlds beyond Seattle as a congressional aide and, later, as an official for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For those who don’t know “Uncle Bob” Santos—and it’s rare to find anyone in Seattle who hasn’t made his acquaintance—a brief description is in order. Uncle Bob is insatiably social—as likely to be spotted in a local karaoke bar as at a political rally or a Seattle City Council hearing. He’s an irrepressible ham—clowning and joking if you give him even a sliver of an opening. He’ll put forth an incredibly corny word pun—”Get it?”—followed with an impish grin, a chuckle, then “Just kidding.” Over the years, Bob’s ability to poke fun has allowed him to build legions of allies, melt down barriers and develop the credibility to bargain with those in seats of power.
I first met Bob in 1973, shortly after he became director of Inter*Im. I was a reporter for the University of Washington Daily, gathering information for a story about the potential impact of a stadium on the International District. I remember entering a non-descript building on South Jackson Street—one of the main thoroughfares running through the heart of the I.D.—and climbing a flight of stairs to meet him. As I came up, he was seated in an office chair at a desk, dressed in a pullover sweater and khaki work slacks. I caught him in mid-sentence, cussing loudly into a phone receiver, “What kind of bullshit is that?” He punctuated the rest of his conversation with other even more pungent phrases and hung up. Then, in one easy motion, he swiveled in my direction, stood up—changing his demeanor almost instantly from ornery to sweet and inviting. “Hey guy!” he said to me, extending his hand. “What’s up? Are you from the U-Dub? Have a seat, guy.” I was, needless to say, somewhat startled. That was my introduction to Bob Santos.
I never did learn the source of his anger—whether it was, perhaps, an insensitive public official or a former ally with whom he had just had a testy spat—but over the years I’ve had other opportunities to see the fiery side of his personality. Uncle Bob has never been one to hold his tongue or kiss up to someone he didn’t like, despite his congeniality and patience at building political coalitions.
Through the late 1980s, working as editor and reporter for the International Examiner, I saw Uncle Bob in action, usually in front of a gathering of elderly residents at the cramped International Drop-In Center on Weller Street or at the scruffy cannery union hall on South Main Street. He would exhort the residents to sign petitions and stand up for their rights: “No one can force you out of your homes,” he would say in a firm voice. “But we need all of you and your friends to pack the City Council hearing and let the officials know that they’ve got to act on behalf of your interests.” Uncle Bob’s words, delivered with fire and a down-home touch, would rouse the irrepressible seniors—like Al Masigat, Leo Lorenzo, Sam Figueros or Mrs. Chin—to come to the microphone to share a personal story about their struggle to retain an affordable apartment and stay in the place they cherished as home.
In times of great stress, heroes are steadying influences, too. After the shocking murders of young cannery union leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in 1981, Uncle Bob calmed the grieving community and hastened the justice efforts by the simple—yet courageous—act of stepping up to the media microphones and onto the witness stand in court. His visibility, in a time of great paralyzing fear, made others more confident about coming forward and testifying about what they knew. Over the past four decades, in situation after situation, he’s stepped forward to speak out, helping bring credibility to credible causes and giving voice to the disenfranchised.
For the record, Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs had its sputtering beginnings about 15 years ago, during a time when both Uncle Bob and I were International District neighbors, living in separate “market-rate” hotels restored with City support. Gary Iwamoto—a long-time I.D. activist and writer—and I met several times at Uncle Bob’s modest apartment, trying to steer Uncle Bob to create his autobiography. This first effort didn’t get beyond a couple of chapters, a quick victim of our inability to make time.
The project—”The Book” we sheepishly called it—sat on the shelf and was resuscitated in the past year, as Uncle Bob—in between jobs—carved out blocks of time at the computer to writer, aided by Gary Iwamoto, serving as researcher, fact-checker, editor and general co-collaborator. Iwamoto and Uncle Bob are kindred spirits, sharing their great passion for I.D. and social justice causes, not to mention a shameless penchant for corny humor.
A word of explanation about the title of this book. Hum bow is a Chinese term for a barbecue pork bun. It’s a term used by Chinese Americans in Seattle who speak Toisanese, the dialect of the early settlers, and by others who know and appreciate down-home Chinese lunch cuisine. “Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs” was a slogan coined in the early 1970s—appearing often on protest signs, expressing opposition to the development of a large sports stadium on the western fringe of the International District. It was adopted as a rallying cry by Uncle Bob and others who feared that large-scale projects would threaten the beloved mom-and-pop restaurants in the area.
“Things are a lot easier now,” Uncle Bob said to me recently, commenting on the difference between today and the 1970s, when Inter*Im was first making its mark as an advocate of neighborhood improvement. By a twist of fate, as we were talking, Uncle Bob had been coaxed to return as director of Inter*Im, working out of the same storefront space in the N.P. Hotel where he got started, his desk in the exact same spot it occupied 30 years ago, downstairs from his dad’s old apartment, now remodeled. “A lot of people didn’t really care for the activists back in the old days. But we learned how to work the system. Some of us moved into positions where we could make a difference. And we got a lot of things done and built. That’s a legacy that we can look back on with pride, something for the next generation to build on.”
Here, within these pages, is Uncle Bob’s legacy—a story that belongs to all of us, given back to us in his own words. As we read from Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs, we laugh, marvel and revisit a triumphant era—not so long ago—when our community was reborn under a shared vision made possible by great leadership.