Members of San Francisco’s Asian American community, political leaders spanning decades and legal professionals from across the region gathered Wednesday afternoon at City Hall to honor the late Judge Harry Low, the first Asian American to sit on the bench in Northern California.
Low died at the age of 90 on Dec. 9, 2021.
Born in Oakdale, CA, Low moved to the Bay Area during college and graduated from UC Berkeley’s School of Law. After 10 years at the state Attorney General’s Office, Low was appointed to San Francisco’s Municipal Court in 1967 by Gov. Pat Brown, breaking the glass ceiling for Asian Americans in the city’s judicial system.
Dale Minami, a prominent Asian American civil rights attorney, praised the “remarkable force” of Low’s representation, which led to a sense of belonging for local Asian lawyers.
“The greatest gift (from Low) for us all is the confidence that we belong,” Minami said. “We as minority attorneys belong as attorneys to the city.”
Minami called Low a pioneer who will always be remembered for uplifting and mentoring the next generation of lawyers, as well as supporting the Asian American Bar Association.
Aside from serving on the bench, Low was also a member of the Calamari Club, a highly exclusive lunch club in the city.
“He became the kingfish (of the club), which is a big deal,” said former Congressman and state legislator John Burton, a close friend and colleague of Low’s at the Attorney General’s Office. He noted that Low presence in the elite club helped open doors and break down stereotypes.
“When we were growing up, the only way a citizen of Chinese ancestry would get into Calamari Club would be washing dishes in the kitchen,” Burton said.
But even though Low rose to prominence, he never forgot about the Chinese immigrant community. He was an active member of the Fa Yuen Chong Sen Benevolent Association in Chinatown and served as the group’s legal advisor starting in the 1970s.
Lawrence Kong, president of the association, said that Low guided the organization through many tough situations and challenges, as most associations were traditionally run by monolingual immigrants. Low supported many of the association’s events, such as the Chinese New Year festival, Qing Ming festival, association anniversary events, and yearly scholarship presentations.
“His dedication to the family association was inspirational to fellow members,” Kong said.
Mayor London Breed and former San Francisco mayors, supervisors, judges, and other leaders showed up at Wednesday’s memorial to pay tribute and express their appreciation to the Low family.
Allan Low, the youngest son of the late judge, told The Standard that he was surprised by the overwhelming support the family has received, and hearing about the positive influence his father had on people.
“It’s an emotional moment about how many lives he’s touched, how many doors he’s opened, how many people he helped,” Allan Low said.Han Li can be reached at [email protected].