As a teenage leader at Roosevelt High School in the early years of World War II, Wing Luke listened to a discussion about juvenile delinquents...
As a teenage leader at Roosevelt High School in the early years of World War II, Wing Luke listened to a discussion about juvenile delinquents that blamed their mothers for lack of attention, and he begged a larger look.
Those mothers were playing a vital role in the war effort, he suggested. Perhaps the park department should step in and provide after-school programs.
Fifty feet from where the late Wing Luke is immortalized in a museum bearing his name in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District, his baby sister, Bettie Luke, 63, exclaims:
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“Supporting women! He was already thinking in much larger pictures than someone his age.”
The Wing Luke Asian Museum is free today in honor of what would have been Wing Luke’s 80th birthday, had the promising Seattle City Councilman not been killed in a plane crash in 1965.
His sister, born when he was 17, has come to fill in the gaps in his story. Wing Luke’s name is also on a Seattle grade school and a City Council meeting room. Who was he? How did he go from being advised not to run for office in 1962 — or at the very least not to use his photo so voters wouldn’t know he was Chinese born — to being the first Asian American to hold high office in the Northwest?
The likeable Luke won the City Council seat by a landslide of 30,000 votes, after he and his innovative campaign manager, Ken Prichard, held coffee hours so Luke could win people over. At the time of his death, three years later, he was being considered for mayor or First District congressman.
Honoring Wing Luke’s birthday
The Wing Luke Asian Museum offers free admission and cake today to honor what would have been the 80th birthday of its namesake. The museum, located at 407 7th Ave. S., in Seattle’s Chinatown/ International District, is open from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call 206-623-5124 or visit www.wingluke.org. Phnom Penh restaurant, 660 S. King St., will donate a percentage of profits to the museum today.
Former Gov. Gary Locke, who would follow Luke’s pioneering footsteps as the country’s first Asian-American governor in the continental U.S., said he remembers being in junior high when Luke introduced himself and “from then on, I was just in constant awe of him.” His intelligence, his hard work and the respect he earned made it easier for all people of color to follow.
“So many people I’ve met since have talked about how he was destined for greater accomplishments,” Locke said. “He had so much more ahead of him.”
Luke’s work with fair housing, Indian fishing rights, using publicity to sway opinion toward saving the Pike Place Market or saving the Wawona sailing ship as a way to revitalize the waterfront were just part of his broader view.
But his Chinese heritage and his role in his family played a major role in his leadership, his sister believes.
The Lukes’ grandfather did Henry Yesler’s laundry in Seattle. But exclusion laws sent their father back to China to marry, and it wasn’t until 1931 that Wing, then 6, and his mother were allowed into the U.S.
The Lukes had a laundry in the University District. In first grade, Wing became the only English speaker in the family as he learned first to defend himself in school and then to charm allies by entertaining them with serial cartoons he drew.
“I wish I had asked him: Where along the way did he switch tactics?” his sister says.
As oldest son, bearer of the family name and role model for his siblings, Luke had greater responsibility. In addition to school and Chinese school, he worked in the family laundry and did the shopping when he went to Chinatown.
“It was the expectation,” Bettie Luke explains, “but he rose to the occasion.”
He served as class president at Roosevelt and on the Seattle Inter-High Student Council, and then he fought in the Pacific, earning a Bronze Star. But his family paid a price when other returning servicemen drove rents sky high. The Lukes were given the boot: Chinese, Japanese, what’s the difference, their landlady told them, the country was at war with “those people.”
“I really feel that was a critical incident for Wing for social justice,” Bettie Luke says. But her brother didn’t fight to avenge their family — rather, he worked to change the laws.
Three months before he died, Luke set the course for what would be his own memorial. When the owner of the Wah Young Co. searched a sub-sub basement and found Manchu slippers that had been popular among Chinese men until the early 1900s, Luke realized that the story of immigration was fading fast. “His sense was that there were enough museums for jade and silks,” his sister recalls. “It was the living culture that was going to die off, and there needed to be something to preserve it.”
It took 3-1/2 years to find Luke’s plane after it crashed in the Cascades on the way back from a fishing trip. So much money was raised for the search that surplus from a Chinese American Community Fund event was used to start what was then called the Wing Luke Memorial Museum. The museum, which now celebrates all Asian Pacific American culture, hopes to raise $24.7 million to move to a new home.
Years after her brother was gone, Bettie Luke listened to a taped radio interview in which her brother laid out idea after idea, including P-Patches and intergenerational living, years ahead of their time.
“All of these multiple layers of creating quality of life, and he could light the spark.”
Sherry Stripling: firstname.lastname@example.org