Saturday night, I was in my kitchen making a drink for a friend. She asked me, “Alia, who’s Uncle Bob?” I looked up, smiling and and quickly tried to decide where to begin explaining to her what the Seattle legend/activist had done for the Chinatown International District neighborhood.
“Well, Uncle Bob is this amazing activist…”
“It says here that he died,” she said quietly.
I left the drink on the kitchen counter and yanked my friend’s phone from her hand. There it was, a brief article from a local newspaper.
“Uncle” Bob Santos, a highly influential Filipino American activist, died Saturday at 82 years old, after several weeks of hospitalization. A rush of sweet memories of him made me smile and my heart heavy.
In the next 24 hours, I slipped in and out of acceptance and disbelief that he is no longer here. One thing became crystal clear: the Seattle I have been taking for granted was nurtured and shaped by the activisms of Uncle Bob. His marches, protest signs, arrests, initiatives and collaborations with hundreds of other activists made Seattle a more just city.
Decades before I walked the halls of Seattle Central College in 2013, Uncle Bob participated in protests organized by a black labor union leader, Tyree Scott, who then was executive director of United Construction Workers Association. They demanded the increase in hiring of workers of color for construction jobs at the college and surrounding areas. During that chaotic and important summer of 1972, a picture of Scott and Uncle Bob being taken away by the Seattle Police Department appeared in The Seattle Times.
Fast forward to spring 2016, to the history class “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the Pacific Northwest” — one of the last classes I took as an undergrad student in University of Washington. Uncle Bob recalled that arrest in front of more than 40 students, half of whom were probably awake for the first time all quarter.
He described the few hours of jail time he shared with Scott and others, who seemed to be ready to stay in the cells and challenge the “system.” Uncle Bob, with his wife and children waiting, stormed out of there as soon as possible and not caring at how “uncool” this decision probably was.
“Man, I was nervous,” he said.
As director of International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im), Uncle Bob helped bring improvements to the neighborhood that we still enjoy today.
Months ago, my ex-boyfriend and I claimed a bench in the Danny Woo Community Garden. It was “our” spot for a few months where we drew, wrote poems, and enjoyed a view of the Bush Hotel, King Street Station and the mountains. We didn’t get to thank Uncle Bob for landing a pretty ridiculous deal with local businessman Danny Woo almost 40 years ago to turn the vacant land into a community garden.
He recalled this exchange in his book Hum Bows not Hot Dogs:
I approached Danny one day at his restaurant about using this property for a community garden. He listened intently, puffing on a pipe as I told him how much we wanted to build a vegetable garden for the elderly and how we wanted to acquire the land on a long-term lease. “How much you can afford?” he asked.
“Well, you know Danny, we are a non-profit agency.”
“And Bob, you know I’m a businessman.”
“We could probably afford $1 a year.” He almost choked on his pipe. Danny told me he’d have to think about that.
In his 30-year leadership at Inter*Im and as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown International District, he made sure the neighborhood provided affordable housing; maintained relationships between activists, business owners and government agencies; and inspired generations of Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders. Before I finally sat down and started writing this obituary, I watched Hollis Wong-Wear remind attendees of the first annual Chinatown International District Block Party that the lot under Interstate 5, on South King Street, in which they “turned up” that evening exists because of Uncle Bob, too.
Not only will he be remembered for the pivotal role he played in the betterment of our community, Uncle Bob will be remembered for his karaoke nights on Tuesdays at Bush Garden. After his visits to my history class, he would try to get the students to go with him. For all the serious revitalization efforts he’s led in Chinatown International District, Uncle Bob was a funny, animated guy who stressed to me and others the importance to let loose a little in midst of difficult work that we do for the community.
Uncle Bob was born in 1934. He grew up in Chinatown where Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants lived among one another. He witnessed the drastic changes of the neighborhood from when the Japanese community vanished and sent to internment camps in the early 1940s, to when the construction of I-5 divided and shrunk the neighborhood, to when McDonald’s tried to build a branch there in 2000.
He had seen it all, and he will no doubt continue to watch over Chinatown International District from up in heaven, possibly while dancing and singing to Frank Sinatra.
More information about Bob Santos at the International Examiner.