Bob Santos, feisty defender of the Chinatown International District, has never left home

Bob Santos, the Asian-American community's elder statesman and enduring rabble-rouser, is 68 now, and he has the white hair to prove his toils. He is so beloved in Seattle's Filipino community and among other Asian-American supporters that they refer to him as "Uncle Bob." But don't be fooled by Santos' cuddly nickname.

Santos, the son of the late Filipino lightweight boxer Sockin' Sammy Santos, retains the sharp tongue, swift feet and gift for gesture that have made him one of the Chinatown International District's fiercest advocates.

"I always tell people we're at the junction that connects the San Diego Freeway and the Massachusetts Turnpike," Santos says of the two highways that intersect at the Chinatown ID — Interstates 5 and 90.

When asked if he believes the Chinatown ID will be consumed by spreading sports stadiums and office buildings, short, spry Santos nearly leaps from his chair, throws an arm in the air and booms defiantly, "Not while I'm still standing!" Then Santos cracks a sly smile, his eyes twinkle and he's Uncle Bob again.

To Santos, with all due respect to the proud Fremont neighborhood, the Chinatown ID may as well be the center of the universe. And he decided long ago that it needs round-the-clock protection. Judging by the title of his newly published memoir, "Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs!: Memoirs of a Savvy Asian American Activist" (International Examiner Press), Santos believes he fits the bill.

Santos' heart has never left these narrow streets, and neither has the rest of him. He's a fixture in the dining halls, lounges and tea rooms.

On weekends, his father raised him in tiny Room 306 of the old NP Hotel, just around the corner from the beautifully restored Panama Hotel tea room on South Main Street, his current hangout.

He is attached not only to the neighborhood's places and personalities, but something harder to hold onto — its character.

Santos gained prominence 30 years ago as an activist who could walk that thin line between being a provocateur and peacemaker. With a famously salty tongue tempered by a gentleman's graciousness, he helped secure affordable housing, child-care services and social outlets for the elderly in the neighborhood.

Even in the sometimes factious Chinatown International District, where there's no agreement on the future of its aging buildings, its survival as an ethnic enclave or its very name, Santos seems to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of those who know him.

"He is perhaps one of the few in the ID who can call upon hundreds of people for a demonstration," says Assunta Ng, publisher of the Northwest Asian Weekly and Chinese Post. "He has this magic. People believe in him."

Although theoretically in retirement, Santos serves as executive director of the neighborhood improvement association Inter-Im, a group he also headed in the 1970s at the height of his community activism.

Whether the threat is encroaching downtown development — such as the Kingdome 30 years ago and fast-food restaurants today — Santos has been out front.

"You have to hit the streets," says a wide-eyed Santos. "It's a constant struggle to stay alive down here."

And while some might argue that Santos holds special charms, his longtime friend and frequent partner-in-protest, Roberto Maestas, doesn't think so.

"It has nothing to do with charisma," said Maestas, executive director of the Latino community organization El Centro de la Raza. "Bob and I share a lot of characteristics that are not mysterious in any way. Somehow, we learned the best way to be is to love people unconditionally and to find the best way to contribute to their well-being."

Abrasive tactics

Uncle Bob may have lots of love to give, but when it comes to his causes, he doesn't mince words — especially expletives. And his more abrasive tactics often work, much to his own surprise at times.

In the late 1970s, Santos solicited local banks for donations of $1,000 each to help fund a much-needed child-care center in the Chinatown International District. An executive at Seafirst was a particularly tough sell.

"After 10 minutes of grilling, I stopped him and said, 'Sir, we are only requesting a lousy $1,000, so why don't you just stick these questions up your ass,' " Santos recounts in the book. " 'While we're at it, we'll withdraw the Inter-Im account and we'll see that every elderly resident in the community withdraws their savings account from your bank. ... Oh, yeah, then we'll picket and boycott your bank — daily.' I hung up the phone, wondering if I had screwed up.

"Two days later, Norm Rice, a Rainier Bank corporate official and later mayor of Seattle, took me to lunch and handed me an envelope with a check for $1,500. 'Hey, Bob,' he said. 'Heard you had a little run-in with Seafirst.' "

The Seafirst official called a week later, asking Santos to stop by the bank and pick up a check.

Santos, however, doesn't take sole credit for positive changes in the neighborhood. Without the corps of activists who've helped watch over the district, he acknowledges, the Chinatown ID would have met its demise a long time ago.

Santos also has tried to build bridges with other communities fighting similar battles. Maestas said that one of Santos' most important achievements was helping establish the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County, a panel of community leaders (including Maestas, Santos, King County Councilman Larry Gossett and the late Native American activist Bernie Whitebear) that tracked legislation affecting people of color.

But the Chinatown International District may be a special case.

While other downtown neighborhoods such as Belltown and Pioneer Square lure urban dwellers and tourists with upscale restaurants, stores and galleries, Santos is fighting for a different destiny in the Chinatown ID, one shaped primarily by the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Filipinos and other Asian Americans who live and do business there.

Santos, a regional officer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development until last year, said he has traveled to Asian-American districts in San Francisco and elsewhere to learn what kinds of development to discourage in Seattle.

No to McDonald's

"We saw that ethnic people in those cities were being displaced," Santos said, his voice rising.

"The thinking was that tourism would save urban districts. Here, we still say, ... 'We don't want that to happen.' We're gonna preserve our neighborhood for the people who built it."

When Santos and a group of Asian-American activists met with McDonald's officials seeking to open a restaurant at Fifth Avenue South and South Jackson Street several years ago, Santos let them have it.

He dismissed the chain's argument that it has a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown with a characteristic expletive. Santos believed the real reason for the company's interest was to serve the workers at Paul Allen's neighboring Opus business complex, not Chinatown ID residents, merchants and visitors. McDonald's backed off.

"Growth should come from within," Santos said, still fuming. "We're the ones who should dictate that growth, not McDonald's."

As neighborhood protector, Santos' nemesis, indeed the bane of many residents and business owners in the Chinatown International District, was not a person but a thing — the now-demolished Kingdome.

The stadium's development came to symbolize the clash of Asian-neighborhood and sports-oriented interests in the early 1970s.

During one anti-stadium demonstration, the clever phrase, "Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs!" first appeared on a picket sign.

While Asian-American students demonstrated, Santos and others attended countless hearings and won government funds to mitigate the stadium's impact on the neighborhood. That experience turned out to be a crucial lesson in diplomacy for Santos that continues to serve him well.

"What has been truly very consistent about Bob is that he remains a very powerful and influential voice for residents of the International District and the broader Asian-American community," said Washington Mutual public affairs executive Tim Otani, who met Santos as a student activist in the '70s. "I was quite taken by that as a student, how someone could be so passionate about the community's needs."

Santos' wife, state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, was taken by his devotion, too.

"He's trying to save history, and he's trying to save a way of life," she said.

"It's really grounded in his sense of who he is and who is responsible for creating the man that Uncle Bob Santos became," she said, referring to the elders of the district.

But is Santos' civil-rights-era activism the right way to address the Chinatown International District's 21st-century problems?

'We can't live in the '70s'

"He's very effective at lobbying government officials and standing up for the poor and elderly," said newspaper publisher Ng. "But there needs to be a balance, because the community is not just the poor and elderly. We need new blood. But young Asian Americans have a negative view of the ID as dirty, old, not safe."

Ng added, "I like his courage. I like his direct approach. But sometimes, we can't just live in the '70s." Santos says his work today is focused on the future — but with conditions.

Although he fought the encroachment by McDonald's, he stood behind the well-known Moriguchi family when they recently expanded their Uwajimaya grocery as part of a new business/residential complex.

His group, Inter-Im, is working to purchase and renovate the old Milwaukee Hotel and turn it into affordable housing. He's also working, sometimes contentiously, with owners of several dilapidated buildings around Seventh Avenue and King Street.

Santos says the buildings are in urgent need of repair. Ng and others in the community say it's not as easy for private citizens to upgrade their property as it is for groups backed by public grants and loans, such as Inter-Im.

In quieter moments, even Santos must acknowledge the challenges ahead for his neighborhood.

The Kingdome's gone, but ...

"As I continue to face west toward the encroachment of the new wave of development, I feel we are being slowly inched aside, and it doesn't feel good," Santos says at end of his memoir. "Gee, maybe the Dome wasn't bad after all."

Not that Santos has many regrets.

"It was a fun thing," he said, thinking back, "kicking ass and doing something for the community."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or