By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s easy and challenging to write about Uncle Bob Santos, the legend — partly because he’s fascinating, with so many gut-wrenching stories. He was full of ambition, not for himself, but for the community. He dreamed often and succeeded in achieving big goals — his fingerprints are all over the International District (ID), including nine buildings for affordable housing, which he was directly or indirectly responsible for.
Santos died last Saturday at the age of 82, after staying five weeks in the hospital.
Who would have led protests at the age of 81, holding a bullhorn, firing off words with followers echoing him with enthusiasm? Santos instigated two protests last year after the death of community hero Donnie Chin, founder of the International District Emergency Center. Chin was killed in the crossfire of two rival gangs in the ID. The protests were targeting King’s Hookah Bar on 8th Ave. S. and S. Weller, half a block from where Chin was killed. The protests aimed at shutting down the bar.
But Santos didn’t just protest without warning. He shared his wish at an ID community meeting after Chin’s death. He and State Sen. Bob Hasegawa even met with the bar’s owner, and made him understand where the community was coming from. That’s Bob’s way of bridge building and problem-solving.
Who had the ears of the past five Seattle mayors? Uncle Bob was an adviser to the past five mayors. No one in the ID has that kind of clout.
Who would turn down powerful jobs? To stay in the community, Santos declined an administrative post to run a Washington state agency in 2001, and an offer to direct the Seattle Office of Neighborhoods in 2002.
Who would have come out of retirement multiple times to go back to work at Inter*Im, the organization he founded, to help businesses and residents foster a better ID? This year, he worked two days a week at the Inter*Im.
Santos enjoyed controversies
The last thing Santos wanted was to exclude himself out of controversies. Santos was one of the few people I know who thrive in controversies. It simply illustrated his fighting spirit. He wouldn’t stay silent in the face of accusations or attacks, such as the issue of the name “Chinatown International District.” Should the name Chinatown be a part of it, or before ID, or after ID, when naming the library or the Sound Transit station?
Some naysayers were from the Chinese community.
For past three-plus decades, the Asian Weekly has witnessed both good and bad in the community, and no one has done as much as Bob for the community — ID Village Square featuring affordable housing and programs for seniors, and a community center, public library, day care, clinic, and the Danny Woo Garden.
Part of his magic had to do with his charm, sense of social justice, and ability to raise millions of dollars and connect the dots. He often challenged himself, “What else can I do?”
“Bob did a lot for the community,” said Harry Chan, owner of Tai Tung Restaurant. “It’s hard to find someone like Bob. He fought for the community all the time. Look around all those buildings for affordable housing (in the ID). It’s his doing.”
As to criticism towards Santos, Chan said, “You can’t please everybody.”
A media darling
Media hates to hear “no comment” or “don’t quote me.” A number of Asian Americans are often hesitant to speak their mind, no matter how angry they are, or how strongly they believe in something. The fear of retaliation could be one of the reasons. But it could be our culture. Asian Americans were taught not to rock the boat. Keep quiet and be cautious. Not Uncle Bob.
I called him up for quotes in Asian Weekly stories and he never disappointed. Nor would he say, “Let me think about it.”
Everything he said, was right on. His statements were powerful, precise, honest, and above all, quotable.
Unlike some who give you juicy details, then say, “Don’t quote me.”
In late 2007, then-governor Christine Gregoire didn’t appoint the Asian community’s favorite contender, Mary Yu, to replace a retiring Washington Supreme Court Justice, and several community leaders were furious. Yet none of them would go on the record. Some finally sent the Asian Weekly a letter to the editor, complaining about the appointment of a white candidate. No one dared to sign the letter except Uncle Bob. He was happy to be the lone signer — the only one to put his name out there. Uncle Bob’s mind was fearless. He didn’t worry about who said what about him and what if — he just did what was right for the community.
More than karaoke at Bush Garden
“I was the matchmaker for Sharon (Santos’ wife) and Bob,” said Joan Seko, former owner of the restaurant. Both were karaoke regulars at Bush Garden. They liked each other initially, and Santos let Seko read their palms — Seko concluded that Sharon and Bob were compatible.
Since last Saturday, Santos’ singing pals have been dropping by Bush Garden every night for karaoke, dedicating songs to Santos. Elvis and Frank Sinatra were among his favorites.
Few people knew of Santos’ talent as a singer before karaoke became popular, said Karen Sakata, owner of Bush Garden. Bush was the first in the country to provide karaoke service in the late 1980s, and Santos became a regular customer since then.
As a state representative, Sharon is probably too busy to join us for karaoke, Seko said.
Several years ago, we honored Sharon at the Women of Color Empowered luncheon. I was not surprised that Uncle Bob came, but surprised that he came with flowers. The guy had his romantic side.
Uncle Bob was proud of Sharon’s work in the legislature and community, but he was frustrated because she doesn’t share her success with the community. She is chair of the education committee in the legislature and other national organizations. “She doesn’t tell people (of her contributions). I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you let me promote you?’” Sharon wouldn’t let him.
It bothered Santos that the Seattle Times endorsed Sharon’s opponent last time. This year, the Times endorsed Sharon before Bob’s death. He would be so proud. He must have felt, “Here at last!”
For the past decade, Uncle Bob spoke to students of the Asian Weekly’s Summer Youth Leadership Program (SYLP) at the Danny Woo Garden, which he founded. “Uncle Bob was one of the most memorable and impactful speakers for SYLP,” said Marvin Eng, past SYLP coordinator. “He would inspire and challenge the students to be agents of change and to step up as the next generation of leaders. Through his rich storytelling, we got glimpses of his work as an activist and his heart for people.”
In 2012, the Asian Weekly celebrated its 30th anniversary. Uncle Bob sang and I am glad we taped the whole program. I have to conclude that he’s a wonderful performer with a great sense of rhythm and a melodious voice. “I practiced for your event,” he said.
Uncle Bob, thank you for everything, especially for inspiring us to make a difference in the community.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.