Gerry Low-Sabado, the voice of her 19th-century Chinese ancestors of the Monterey Bay region and the woman who worked tirelessly to educate and remind others of the crucial contributions of Chinese people in California, died on Tuesday, Sept. 7, at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area after a brief battle with cancer. She was 71.
Low-Sabado was a fifth-generation descendant of the fishermen from Southern China who shipwrecked on Point Lobos in 1851, and the great-granddaughter of Quock Mui, the first documented Chinese woman born in the Monterey Bay Area in 1859. She grew up in Monterey and attended Monterey Peninsula College. In her career she worked as a preschool teacher and child care center director.
In 1853, the fishermen established a village at Point Alones in Pacific Grove, next to where the Hopkins Marine Station sits today. The village was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1906, and the Chinese families who scattered remained silent about it.
Low-Sabado herself was in the dark until she uncovered her family’s stories later in life. “How could I be born in 1949 in Monterey and not know anything about Chinese history there?” Low-Sabado said in an interview in 2017. “I had no idea there was a Chinese village there and it burned down." Despite growing up in Monterey, she said, "I didn't know anything about that." Her mother, aunts, grandmother and great-grandmother all worked in the canneries of Monterey. Their home was where Wave Street Studios is now located.
Low-Sabado became passionate about sharing her family’s stories and the contributions of Chinese-Americans to the region with the community at large. “Don’t let people sweep our stories under the carpet,” she told the Weekly in a story about the recent rise of anti-Asian hate and the county’s past that ran in May.
She helped found the Walk of Remembrance in Pacific Grove that ran every May for 10 years. The walk takes participants from Lovers Point to a plaque on a large rock by the marine station that commemorates the fishing village. An inset picture of her great-grandfather is part of the display.
Low-Sabado also worked to bring about changes to the Feast of Lanterns, an annual pageant in Pacific Grove created by white residents that appropriated Chinese dress and symbols. She took exception to the character of a Chinese man as the villain, “especially in the town where the Chinese fishing village burned down,” she told the Weekly in 2019.
The Feast’s board listened to her concerns in 2008, but did nothing to change the pageant. Low-Sabado remained hopeful that over time change would be possible, even though she admitted it was difficult feeling for many years as if she were the only one who wanted change. “People weren’t open, so it’s been a struggle,” she said.
“I’ve been trying to bring about change through kindness,” she said. It was a theme she followed throughout her life since teaching kindness to children as director of the child care center.
In 2016 over a series of conversations, Low-Sabado developed a friendship with Kaye Coleman, a former member of the Feast of Lanterns Royal Court who as an adult joined the board and became its president. Coleman became convinced the pageant had to be rewritten and all cultural appropriations removed. Small changes were made in the script at first, then in 2019 the board agreed to rewrite it entirely.
Although Low-Sabado did feel as if she was alone in the early years of her activism, in recent years her work became recognized locally as well as nationally. In 2016 she was awarded the Ralph B. Atkinson Civil Liberties Award by the ACLU of Northern California.
In 2019 she was invited to be a part of an installation at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City to recognize her work with the Walk for Remembrance. A video of the first walk played on a loop as part of the exhibit entitled “Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History.” Low-Sabado was there for the opening in October 2019; the show ran until March of this year.
Her work was far from done when Low-Sabado was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain tumor, in August. She announced the diagnosis to friends on her Facebook page on Aug. 13. She underwent surgery in Redwood City five days later, but her condition after the surgery, combined with underlying conditions, meant she was not a good candidate for further treatments.
She chose to go home to be surrounded by family where she died peacefully on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Memorial services are pending. There are potential plans to celebrate her life during the Walk of Remembrance next spring.
In her last post to friends, Low-Sabado gave them a charge to continue the work that she began.
“I have cherished your allyship, friendship and support you have given me throughout the years and I want you all to continue to ‘make good trouble’ and strive for ‘Change with Kindness.’”
Update: A memorial service is taking place 11am, Friday, Sept. 17, for immediate family and invited guests at Mission Mortuary in Monterey but anyone may attend via livestream: client.tribucast.com/tcid/2136667446 (Link becomes active when the service begins.)
Those who wish to share memories, photos or express condolences can do so at kudoboard.com/boards/gyibgYsv/gerrylowsabado.
The family announced that donations may be made in Low-Sabado’s memory to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, or the Gerry Low-Sabado Memorial Scholarship Fund.