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Friday, January 12, 2024


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She Dreamt What Would Have Been, Before Coming to The U.S., ‘the Impossible Dream’; It Came True


By Sherri Okamoto


Amy Tan’s best-selling novel “The Joy Luck Club” explores the mother-daughter relationships between the main characters, as influenced by immigration, cultural conflict and generational shifts. These same elements played a major role in shaping the life of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ruth Ann Kwan.

Kwan grew up in Hong Kong in the 1960s. “Back in those days, there wasn’t a lot of freedom to go out and roam on your own,” Kwan recalls. “My life was really centered around my family.”

Kwan’s father had “multiple wives, or one wife and multiple concubines, depending on how you look at it,” Kwan says. Many successful men often had concubines until the practice was outlawed when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. Kwan’s father was 20 years older than her mother, who had been married off as a teenager to pay for her maternal grandfather’s gambling debts.

“My mother came from a small village, and she had only a second-grade education,” Kwan says. “Growing up, she had little to strive for,” and the dream for such little girls was just “having a roof over her head, and having enough to eat.”

As a child, Kwan says, she “didn’t really have a dream on what to be” when she grew up. Much like her mother, she was “just living in the confines of what I was given,” she recalls. “But when I immigrated here, that was a different story.”


Kwan poses for a family photo, which was taken in the chambers of then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew (later a U.S. District Court judge, now deceased) in 1995 after Kwan was sworn in to the East Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Kwan came to America when she was 14 and moved in with an older sister who had already married and established a home in Huntington Beach. She says she believes her father decided to send her, and one of her younger sisters, because he was getting older and his financial resources were depleting. America bore the promise of a better future for both girls.

It was “difficult” for Kwan and her sister, though. In the 1970s, Huntington Beach was “a very conservative, white neighborhood,” she notes, relating that she and her sister were “very home sick, and culture shocked.” They were also living with another sister they hadn’t seen in over 10 years.

“I knew this was a place where you get opportunities, equal opportunities, I thought,” Kwan says. “Then that belief was shattered by the realities I faced with my experiences at school.”

Experienced Racial Prejudice

Kwan says she encountered a lot of racial prejudice at school, with children uttering racial epithets at her. It culminated with her being attacked by a group of girls in a school bathroom. Kwan was injured so badly that one of her teeth needed a crown. That crown serves as “a lifelong reminder of this experience,” Kwan says. “Although I may not have realized it at the time, these types of experiences shaped me for the better, they gave me inner strength, courage, sensitivity, and a sense of fairness.”

After about a year in Huntington Beach, Kwan decided to move in with another sister who had settled in Pasadena. This sister owned a small restaurant with her husband, where both worked. Kwan says she was looking for “a little more financial independence” since the sister in Huntington Beach was paying for all her living expenses, and “I wanted to feel like I was paying my way.”

In Pasadena, Kwan would babysit her sister’s three children after school so her sister could work at the restaurant. Kwan worked as a waitress at the restaurant on weekends, as well.

Kwan enrolled in a speech class at Pasadena High School, and she says she remembers the teacher, Mrs. Harding, was “wonderful.” Students were being bused in to integrate the campus, but it was still “pretty segregated” Kwan recalls. Mrs. Harding’s class “was the only class that felt truly integrated,” Kwan says, and “she treated all her students—black, yellow, or white—with sincerity, care, and encouragement.”

Mrs. Harding’s class was where Kwan says she learned how to speak in front of people, which helped her with her public speaking skills and her English.

Law Students’ Influence

At around this time, Kwan remembers, two Asian women came to speak at the school. They were both law students and wanted to encourage women and minorities to pursue a career in law. “It was then I became interested in a potential legal career,” and how it “could be a place where I could combat the gender and racial injustice I had seen firsthand,” Kwan says. She never saw those two women again but, Kwan says, “it shows how the little things people do to reach out could have a lasting impact on people from various communities.”

Kwan graduated from Pasadena High School in 1974, just four years after immigrating to California. She found a full-time job at Union Bank as a proof operator. The job, she notes, was “very, very boring, and repetitive.” It entailed reading checks and coding in the amount so that the bank could debit that amount from the account. Kwan made minimum wage, which was about $2 per hour at the time, but it was enough for her to be able to move out of her sister’s home, into her own apartment, and to enroll at Pasadena City College.


In this undated photograph, Kwan poses with her sister Anita Kwan, left, with whom she immigrated to the U.S.

“I was very tough,” she recalls, working a swing shift from 5:30 p.m. until 2 a.m., then getting a few hours of sleep before classes began. After about 18 months though, she was ready to transfer to a four-year university, and she settled on the University of Southern California.

Kwan’s tuition was covered by a California state scholarship and one from USC, and she continued working to pay for her living expenses. She changed banks so that she could work during the day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, freeing her up to take classes Tuesday and Thursday, or in the evenings.

“I didn’t have time for much of a social life,” Kwan recalls, “but I wasn’t burdened by any student loans, and it felt really great to be independent.

Considers Law School

About a year before she was set to graduate, Kwan told her mother—who had moved to California and was living with the sister in Huntington Beach—that she wanted to go to law school. Kwan recalls her mother was “not that supportive.” That, she explains, “had to do with the fact that she never lived outside her small world” and was still “trapped in the world where she was unable to have bigger dreams or visions for her daughter.” Having a daughter graduate from college “was already a dream come true,” Kwan says. “She had never dreamt beyond that.”

So “instead of giving me words of encouragement, my mom told me to get a good job and find a nice Chinese boy to marry.” Kwan says she doesn’t hold it against her mother, since she realizes her mother just “didn’t see a way for me to find success” going so far beyond what her mother had ever thought to be possible.

By contrast, her father was “very encouraging,” Kwan says. Even though he was from an earlier generation than her mother, her father was “a more worldly person” who had traveled extensively beyond his home village and adapted to a multitude of societal changes since he was born in 1902.

Enters Hastings

Kwan started at what was then called the University of California Hastings College of Law in 1978—only eight years after immigrating. “This was my chance to go to a different city and experience a different culture,” since “northern California and southern California are very different,” Kwan says.

She notes that she was drawn to Hastings because it was “known to be a progressive school,” and it was “a time when issues of minority admissions, gay rights and other significant issues of the day were often talked about” on campus.

“I’m very glad I went to Hastings,” she says. “It really opened up my eyes to different things, and solidified many of the views I still hold today in terms of treating people from all backgrounds fairly and the belief in the importance in giving opportunities to the underprivileged.”

This was the first time Kwan didn’t hold a full-time job all year-round. “I worked in the summers, but it was such a joy and pleasure to devote myself to studying full time instead of working so hard” during the school year, she recalls. It still wasn’t easy for her though, as she was still learning English and “quite frankly I was spending as much time with a dictionary as I was reading cases in the textbook.”

But what could have been a handicap was really an asset, Kwan reflects.

“A lot of people when they read a case, they read too fast and don’t fully think about what the case is saying, what are the implications of the words and sentences,” she explains. “Having to use the dictionary, and having to read slowly to try to understand, I really think helped to understand the law and the value of reading a case, understanding the rationale behind the ruling.”

She was in the top 15 percent of her graduating class in 1981 and was admitted that year to the State Bar of California.

Back to L.A.

Kwan returned to Los Angeles to take a job as a deputy city attorney. She says she enjoyed law school but didn’t love Northern California. San Francisco “has its allure, but I didn’t like the weather,” she says, especially the almost ever-present fog. By now, almost all of her family members had immigrated to Southern California, and she wanted to be closer to them.

She had not been very interested in joining a private law firm, and the City Attorney’s Office at the time was going to law schools to interview third-year students and make offers before graduation. Kwan therefore was able to secure a position before graduation. She says she was also interested in the fact that the office was known for an excellent trial skills training program.

“I wanted to do trials,” Kwan says, since “I enjoyed my time competing in speech and debate in high school.” It was still a daunting prospect though, as she was concerned jurors might not understand her because of her accent, or she might not be able to find the right words in English to express herself. “I had a lot of self-doubt,” she says “but I wanted the challenge and I was very excited by the prospect of being a trial lawyer.”

Kwan also put extra work into the endeavor. Aside from participating in the office’s six-week training program, she did several other multi-day trial skill programs on her own. Kwan also met with a speech therapist to lighten her accent.

“I wanted to be the best of the best and I wanted to make sure all my self-doubts didn’t hold me back,” she says. And it worked. Her trial skills “never were an issue” and she “got lots of kind words of encouragement and praise from judges I appeared before.” Some of them are now her colleagues, and she says “I’m very grateful to them” for the support she received as a young lawyer.

Kwan says she also remembers seeing that then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointing judges of Asian heritage, many of whom ended up presiding over her trials. “I remember thinking to myself, role models, I would like to do that one day,” she recounts.

Court Appointment

Although an attorney only needed five years in practice to apply to become a Municipal Court judge, Kwan says she waited 10 years before turning in her application. At the time, only one Chinese-American woman, Rose Hom, had been appointed. Kwan became the second when she was appointed to the East Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1995 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Kwan’s parents both lived long enough to see her take the bench, although her father died the following year.


Kwan stands with her mother, Kwan Ching Wai-Ying, left, at a gathering in the 1990s.

Kwan says her “excitement” with her new position “quickly gave way to fear and anxiety” because there were rumors, she would have to defend her seat in the upcoming judicial races.

In 1996, she was challenged by J.B. Casas who, two years earlier, had been turned out of office by voters as a judge of the Rio Hondo Municipal Court. Running as “Judge Casas,” he implied that he was the incumbent for Kwan’s position. “So I faced dual challenges,” Kwan remembers, “the challenge of learning the role and running to retain my seat in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood.”

Even though her opponent was Latino and the judicial district was also overwhelmingly Latino, Kwan says she “never lost faith.” She said she “never believed the voters of East Los Angeles would vote me out of office simply on account of my race.” Kwan says when she walked the precinct, “people were welcoming, they listened to what I had to say,” and “I think a lot of voters connected with me because of their shared immigration experience.”

Kwan’s mother also backed her efforts, cooking meals for Kwan’s husband and two young children so she could go out in the evenings and talk to prospective voters. “She was there in her own way,” Kwan says, contributing in the way she knew how, and “she was extremely proud.”

While her mother has since died, Kwan says “realizing the lowly place my mother came from and hearing about stories of some of what it was like growing up poor and getting married off to my father, what it was like being a poor Chinese woman living in a male dominated society, in many ways shaped the foundation for my passion for women’s issues and my belief in equity, diversity and inclusion.”

1998 Elevation

In 1998, Wilson elevated Kwan to the Superior Court. Since then, the judge has earned various awards including the Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s 2021 Public Service Award and the American Board of Trial Advocates-Los Angeles chapter’s Judge of the Year award.

Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley notes that “Ruth Kwan has the unique distinction of having sworn me in as the elected district attorney in 2000, 2004 and 2008.” Cooley says Kwan was “sort of my good luck charm, and I wanted her to have that honor.” He also praises Kwan for “having proven herself as a judicial officer in both the criminal and civil courts” as “decisive and quick study on the issues presented to her.”

Michael D. Antonovich, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, says he has known Kwan for years. “Ruth, as a member of judiciary, is accessible and involved in community events,” he says, “I have nothing but the highest admiration for Ruth’s leadership, commitment to the community and carrying out the law.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Brazile says Kwan “is amazing, and so well-deserving” of being named a person of the year. “She has an incredible work-ethic, she’s brilliant, and a tremendous role model,” Brazile says. “She’s always giving back, always supporting people” and “when you see her, you go, ‘Wow, that’s who I want to be.’ ”

When he was presiding judge for the court, Brazile says, Kwan was on his management team and “one of my go-to people” because “if you want something done and you want it done right, you give it to Ruth Kwan.”

Praise From Bruguera

Retired Judge Suzanne G. Bruguera says she had a courtroom next door to Kwan’s for years, and they became fast friends. “I respect her so much,” Bruguera says. “She’s so dedicated to public service and her job.”

Bruguera suggests that it’s a “cliché” to say “someone is dedicated to equality and diversity and mentorship, those kinds of concepts,” but Kwan “is the kind of person you can use to define those concepts” having come from her difficult background. “You can see she believes in them in her actions,” Bruguera says, “she’s constantly putting together education events and speaking.” Kwan also “really has a dedication to educating the young,” and it was “rare for me to go into her chambers and not see a young person sitting there, from college or law school.”

Kwan “just helps people,” from other judges to attorneys to interns to family, Bruguera says. “She wants to give back and she wants to help and she does.”


Now-retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney swears Kwan in to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1998.

Retired Judge Mark Mooney says he met Kwan when they were both appointed to the Municipal Court just days apart. He describes Kwan as “hard-working,” “tenacious” and “inquisitive.” Mooney adds that “she cares a lot about her cases,” and “enjoys getting cases in areas of law she hasn’t had before.” Kwan always “wants to learn, wants to read, wants to learn about new things,” Mooney says, but “she knows the law, all facets of the law,” and she has “integrity” in that “she really is interested in doing the right thing in every case.”


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