By Assunta Ng
A parade of “who’s who,”— including a governor, mayor, and 19 judges from both Supreme Court to Municipal Court—gathered at South Seattle College to pay their last respects to Judge Warren Chan July 3.
Chan died on June 15 at the age of 92.
“A man of ‘firsts,’” said Hon. Gary Locke. Chan was the first Chinese American graduate of the University of Washington Law School in 1950, and editor of the Law Review. He was also the first Chinese American judge in America, when in 1956 he was appointed judge pro-temp on the Seattle Municipal Court.
He was also the “First Asian-American elected judge in the State of Washington, when he was elected to the King County Superior Court in 1968, an election in which he trounced his opponent, a prominent descendant of one of Seattle’s pioneering families,” said Locke.
As a pioneer, Chan’s journey was full of tribulations and discriminations. When he graduated from the University of Washington’s law school, the dean told him that he was not ready to be a lawyer, even though he graduated fourth in his class. He soon found out that most law firms wouldn’t even call him back after a job interview.
How did Chan conquer his obstacles?
It was courage, said Chan’s son, James. “Most people just dream and think, not doing anything,” “He took something unconventional in this world and made it conventional.”
When Chan ran for judge, the Chinese population in Seattle was barely over 5000, about three percent.
Many members of the Chinese community were “silent” and “non-involved,” according to former mayor Wes Uhlman, Chan’s former law partner. But the Chinese restaurateurs supported Chan, and implemented a winning strategy.
Harry Chan (not related to Judge Chan), owner of the Tai Tung Restaurant, recalled his brother Tommy Quan Chan, who ran the restaurant at the time, served their customers fortune cookies with an enclosed fortune that announced “Vote for Chan.”
“My election was a community success,” said Chan in an interview with the Asian Weekly in 1999, “not a personal success.”
Judge Chan’s extraordinary contributions included the establishment of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. “That museum wouldn’t be here without Judge Chan,” said former Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland.
It was Seattle City Councilman Wing Luke’s idea to preserve the heritage of the Chinese-American immigration experience. Luke died in a plane crash.
“Chan championed the idea… (by calling) a meeting of (Luke’s) family, friends and associates to determine how to distribute the remaining search funds for the missing plane,” said Ire Chan also filed articles of incorporation for the museum, organized a board and fund-raised, according to Ireland. He became its first president.
Chan and his wife Nobie were instrumental in establishing South Seattle College as the site for the Seattle Chinese Garden, for helping formulate the concept of how the Garden could be a tribute to Seattle’s Pacific Rim location as a gateway to Asia, according to Jim Dawson, former president of the Seattle Chinese Garden Society.
With a donation of $200,000, the Chans created the Warren and Nobie Chan Education Center at the Garden, and in effect, a gathering place to honor citizens of Chinese and Asian heritage.
Though the word “mentoring” had not quite surfaced in the 70s, Chan had often practiced it with young lawyers.
When Locke was a King County prosecutor, he remembered after trials, Chan would share with him improvement advice.
Chan often took the time to talk to young lawyers, and helped them, according to the Hon. Michael J. Fox.
“Warren and (his wife) Nobie Chan have both been strong contributors to South Seattle College,” said Gary Oertli, president of South Seattle College. “Judge Chan’s work with the Chinese Garden and Nobie’s incredible work at South as a Dean and a college trustee… Both are incredible role models for our students.”
In Chan’s days, few ethnic minorities were in elected office or high- level government positions. “If a person of color developed a bad reputation, it made it so much harder for another person of color to attain a similar position,” said Locke.
But Chan’s reputation as a fair, wise, and well-prepared judge, made it easier for others “to shatter the glass ceiling,” said Locke.
Consequently, Chan had opened doors for many Asian American judges, including Dean Lum, Marianne Spearman, Linda Lau, John Chun, Samuel Chung; Court of Appeals Judge Linda Lau; Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, and many others in the last two decades.
The risk Chan took to run for judge in 1968, has not only changed the course of Washington state’s Asian American history, but shaped his legacy by inspiring the next generation of lawyers to strive for visibility and excellence, and aim at the highest court of America.
The iconic photo
They called themselves “Gang of Five” of the Chinese community. At Chan’s service, Ireland asked the Chan family to hand out a photo of five icons of the Chinese community to guests. The photo consisted of the late King County Councilmember Ruby Chow, engineer Ark Chin, Judge Chan, architect Ben Woo and Seattle Councilman Wing Luke. Chan was the last surviving member of the clan, who passed away at the age of 92. (Three died in their 80s, and Luke died when he was 43 in a plane clash in 1965.)
Daughter April Chan Hale read her an account of Judge Chan’s personal history. She mentioned an award he received in 1999 as an Asian American Pioneer from the former governor Gary Locke. That was the Northwest Asian Weekly Pioneer Award event which honored nine Asian American pioneers, and Chan was one of the honorees.
The Asian Weekly is proud to have honored all four of the icons in the community, Chow and Woo in 1997 as pioneers; and Ark Chin in 2000 as a top contributor to the Asian community. (end)