Wilma Chinn Woo, co-owner of an iconic International District restaurant and lounge that served as a second home to Asian American activists during the 1970s and ’80s, died peacefully at her Seattle home at the age of 91 on January 26.
Known fondly as “Auntie” Wilma by locals, Woo was a fixture behind the bar at the Quong Tuck Co. Restaurant, which she operated with her husband Dan “Danny” G. Woo, a property owner and noted Chinese American leader, who passed away in 1987.
Woo is survived by her children, Trina, Curtis, Teresa and Clint; her sister Frances Lee, her sister-in-law Linda Chinn, and many nieces and nephews.
In 1975, the Woos donated a plot of land on the Main Street hillside for development of the Danny Woo Community Garden, providing a space for elderly residents to grow their own vegetables and remain physically active. Today, the steeply terraced garden provides 88 plots that are tended by about 65 elderly Asian Americans.
The Quong Tuck—known by regular patrons as “QT”—was located in the 1910 hotel that is now home to the Wing Luke Museum. It operated from 1977 to 1985 as the only restaurant in the International District serving American cuisine.
The Quong Tuck Co. Restaurant served as a watering hole and de facto meeting space for a generation of Asian American activists who initiated efforts to build affordable housing, create bilingual social services and protect deteriorating historic structures from the wrecking ball.
Susie Chin, the first paid employee at International Community Health Services (ICHS), recalled that she helped staff the front desk at ICHS when the demand for medical services was swelled by the arrival of the first wave of Southeast Asian refugees following the end of the Vietnam War.
“It was so stressful,” Chin said. “We would open the door in the morning and there would be 30 immigrants lined up outside. But we were already completely booked. It was non-stop. I didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom.”
After work, Chin said, she would head directly to Quong Tuck to unwind and grab a bite to eat. “That’s where I learned to drink hard liquor,” she recalled, laughing. “I would have Wild Turkey straight up. I didn’t even bother to go home because there were always community meetings in the evening, too.”
Tim Otani, one of the QT regulars, said he spent “many days and nights” at the Woo establishment, which he regarded as “a home away from home.” He said Auntie Wilma “served as the person who always welcomed you back ‘home.’ It was like the TV show Cheers, a place where everyone knew your name.”
Michael Flor, another regular, noted that the Quong Tuck operated in the era before cell phones: “People knew to never call us at our homes and instead called us at QT. Many of us can probably still hear Wilma yell our names that we had a phone call.”
“She was mom to everybody,” her daughter Teresa Woo said. Teresa and her brother Curtis both worked alongside their parents in the restaurant.
Prior to the Quong Tuck Co. Restaurant, the Woos owned and operated the New Chinatown Restaurant, the largest nightclub in the area, from 1940 to 1975. Wilma served as the bartender at the New Chinatown, learning on the job.
“The musicians who performed at the New Chinatown remembered two things,” said Teresa. “The shrimp fried rice and the steep stairs. You didn’t want to trip down those stairs when you were drunk. That was where mom learned conversational Cantonese, picking it up from the waitresses.”
Flor said he first met Auntie Wilma at the New Chinatown in the early 1970s. “I often—maybe too often—went to the new Chinatown on weeknights after studies at the University of Washington,” Flor said. “Wilma would make me martinis—blame her for starting me down that road as she made great martinis—and we would talk and laugh. Wilma had the greatest laugh.”
Flor recalled visiting QT and talking to Wilma after eating at a post-funeral banquet in Chinatown. “She asked me how it was,” he said. “I told her about being served the fattiest cha siu [barbecued pork] that I ever had. She immediately burst out laughing. After taking about five minutes to compose herself, she explained that it was side pork, and in Chinese tradition, it was served at memorials to give someone a rich luxurious taste on their tongue. Years would go by and just mentioning it to her would bring out a laugh from her.”
Laura Wong-Whitebear said she and her brother, the late Bernie Whitebear, founder of United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, spent many evenings with other activists such as Bob Santos at QT. Laura would order the pork chops; Bernie the short ribs. Wong-Whitebear said QT was famous for its apple pie.
“One day, Bernie came into QT with the Native American actor Will Sampson, who starred in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ I think he was here attending the pow-wow. He was so tall that he was taller than us even when he was sitting down. He pulled out a piece of paper and sketched a picture of a Native person. Just like that, in no time.”
After the Quong Tuck closed, Auntie Wilma turned to babysitting and knitting. She designed and knitted custom Christmas stockings for her extended family, which included special QT patrons. Wilma raised money for Donnie Chin and the International District Emergency Center (IDEC) by knitting miniature Seattle Seahawks and UW Huskies stockings.
“Wilma was a great supporter of the community,” Sue Taoka said. “Many evenings, Wilma would sit behind the QT bar with her band of volunteer knitters on the drinking side of the bar knitting Christmas socks to raise funds for IDEC.”
Taoka also recalled with great fondness Wilma’s quiet presence at annual summer pig roast in the Danny Woo Community Garden, “calmly keeping the participants in an orderly food line,” not an easy task with the eager presence of many community elders at the free event.
Trina Woo said it was her mom’s “youthful spirit” that transformed QT into a community gathering place that still reverberates with warm memories. “Mom was ever the ready listener and cheering section as well as ensuring everyone was well fed,” she said.
Teresa Woo said that after her mom passed away last month, she was greeted everywhere with hugs from people of all walks of life, from grocery store employees to parking lot attendants. “That’s some kind of powerful connection for a woman who never wanted to be in the spotlight,” she said.