“Well, Bob, the International Examiner’s giving me a lifetime achievement award. It’s kind of embarrassing, these awards, but they think they can raise money,” Ron Chew said, characteristically downplaying his worthiness.
“Look at the record. You’ve got a successful $23 million campaign,” I reminded him. “And don’t forget, I was the first one to use your name. Remember the Ron Chew Legacy Fund for the IE to buy equipment? Everybody thought you were dying.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Ron said.
“I told them you weren’t, but it’s better to honor someone when they’re alive than when they’re dead,” I said.
It worked. We got a lot of donations. But the biggest was about $50. Most were in the $10 range. $23 million—you don’t get there with $10 donations, that’s for sure.
I had heard about Ron Chew in the 1980s when I was working in Los Angeles at the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper for the Japanese American Citizens League. The Pacific Citizen had a subscription for the IE and I was impressed by the quality of the articles, good editing, and look of the paper. It also had a great following all over the country.
I had a column in the Pacific Citizen which was often funny, satirical, angry, you know, whatever came into my mind when I had some space to fill. Then it became a regular column, and it became (depending on your view) a beacon of truth, straight talk, diced out with a little humor, or just a bunch of stupid ramblings from an arrogant sansei jerk. Which I wasn’t. Sansei, I mean.
Ron obviously thought I was the former rather than the latter, because when I moved to Seattle, he invited me to lunch with the staff while we discussed what he wanted. He felt at the time that I could inject some much-needed humor and a little more life into the paper.
We were at the Ying Hei Restaurant, and Ron to my surprise began ordering for everyone.
“Ron thinks we take too long trying to figure out what we want, so he just tells us what to order,” Serena Louie told me.
Ron told Ken Mochizuki that he should get the “lo fan special,” which loosely translated means, “white folks special.”
“Wow, what kind of dish is that?” I asked.
Everyone bursted out laughing. “You just have to wait and see what they bring out,” Serena said.
Soon the waitress brought out the dishes. And Ken showed me his dish. “This is it, Bob,” Ken said. “The lo fan special—squid and cauliflower on rice.”
This is going to be easy, I thought, I could just record the lunchtime discussions and write them down and have my columns done in no time.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. But as anyone who works with Ron finds out quickly that beneath that quirkiness and seemingly lighthearted, friendly approach to the world and his community, is a serious revolutionary spirit. And that made it a little more fun for me because we were on the same page, in terms of what we wanted to accomplish.
Ron knows there are a lot of stories in our community that need to be told. Stories by us, people in the community. After leaving the IE, Ron has continued to tell our community (individual and collective) stories while working at the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, the Chinese Oral History Project, International Community Health Services, and, of course, the Ron Chew Legacy II, the Wing Luke Museum of Asian Pacific American Experience.
And I found myself studying what he does, and trying to codify it, one, because it was interesting to me, and, two, because I thought I could get a grant for him—community-organizing grant for a historical museum. It was a very creative piece, I thought, because I was exploring the notion of “community inreach” as opposed to community “outreach.”
We didn’t get the grant, but Ron liked what I had written and he encouraged me to do more writing on community organizing and community stories.
We have to keep supporting our institutions, which tell our history from our experience. Already this year, we have seen attempts to question whether race and civil rights played a part in Vincent Chin’s murder, model minority myths being brought up again via Tiger Mom, and Filipino American workers’ partnership with Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers being erased.
For me personally, the International Examiner staff was a great group to work with to learn what was going on in the community. And being friends with Ron opened a lot of doors for me. So did other members of the IE staff and others I met on that first day of the “lo fan special.” Older (or is it “elder”?) IE former staff members, including Ron, still meet monthly to talk about “stuff” old and new.
Things have changed. I haven’t noticed him trying to dictate what everyone should eat.
Of course, we now order family style. And Ying Hei is no longer. But it’s still better to honor people when they’re alive than when they’re dead.