LOOKING BACK, Beth Takekawa can laugh about how much, a couple decades ago, it all seemed like an awful lot to live up to.
As a former volunteer and longtime staffer at Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, she knew well the overpowering sense of community that had built the place, sustained it for a half-century, and turned it into a cultural icon of global significance.
It meant she’d never face the task of moving forward alone.
But knowing so many people have eyes on your work — even approvingly — creates a pressure all its own. Especially at a high-bar institution recognized as a natural cultural treasure, and serving as the literal hub around which the city’s Chinatown International District has rotated for decades.
Today, Takekawa, retiring this week after 24 years in Wing Luke’s administration — the past 14 as executive director — admits the first days were fraught with some degree of fear of failure.
Even as someone whose work at The Wing dated to 1992, she didn’t fully appreciate, she says, how much the helping hands of multigenerational community members provide a lift that extends all the way to the top of a museum that is as much a movement as a place.
“I didn’t realize the depth of where the museum had come from, and the amount of ownership and commitment the community had for the museum,” she says.
Takekawa’s admitted wistfulness about moving on — at age 68, her plan is to really be retired, she says, almost hopefully — is balanced by anticipation: Rare leadership changes at The Wing over its 54-year life span, she notes, have always provoked some degree of substantial leap forward in museum mission and scope.
“For whoever is the next director after me, that’s a nice thing to know,” Takekawa says. “My feeling is when the next director comes in, the museum will leap again.”
IN INNUMERABLE ways, hers are giant shoes to fill, says Ellen Ferguson, co-chair of The Wing’s board of directors. Under Takekawa’s guidance, the museum built upon its previous bold 2008 expansion into the four-story East Kong Yick Building, built in 1910 by Chinese immigrants, expanding the scope of its programs.
The museum, which draws some 75,000 visitors per year, since has established itself as a national model in cultural preservation for a more broadly defined immigrant experience of Pan Asian Pacific people — an experience that lives on today.
The Wing has gained global recognition for those efforts, earning the title (and some funding) of an “American Cultural Treasure” from the Ford Foundation — and recently drew a surprise grant from philanthropist McKenzie Scott. The museum is, Ferguson and others say, well-positioned for its next phase.
It continues to serve as a model for a cultural museum whose mission and managerial style stands as distinct departures from museum-world norms.
Here, the shape and scope of what’s offered through The Wing to the community is determined not by museum specialists with Ph.D.s, but largely by committees of ordinary citizens with extraordinary passions — and personal, heartfelt stakes — in the content.
Ferguson says this translates into what more-traditional cultural museums strive for, but less often achieve: exhibits, histories, displays and educational programs that speak with “authentic voices.”
The Wing owes this part of its heritage to its founders — surviving family members who opened the first modest museum space to honor the late Wing Luke, a talented young civil rights attorney, whose election to the Seattle City Council had made him the first Asian American elected to a high office in the Northwest. Luke died in a plane crash in 1965 at the age of 40. The state Attorney General’s Wing Luke Civil Rights Division is named in his honor.
The remains of Luke and two others on a small plane were not recovered in the Cascades for nearly three and half years. The family channeled grief from that painfully long period of loss and mourning into determination. Without much help, guidance or money, they launched a museum not only to honor Wing Luke, but to continue the same community activism to which he had dedicated his life.
“It was consciously decided that the community would always be the curator and voice of the museum,” says Ferguson, co-chair of the Wing Luke board, and a person well-versed in traditional museum methods via her role as director of community relations at the Burke Museum. “That is, I don’t want to say 100 percent unique, but pretty darn close” in the museum world, she says.
“I don’t worry about how we retain the community-based vision of The Wing,” Ferguson adds. “It’s in the DNA of the museum.”
And there it will stay.
The Wing’s board is fully committed to finding a new leader, via an ongoing national search, who embraces that mission.
“Beth is just leaving the museum in the most extraordinary position for the next person,” Ferguson says.
THAT PERSON, it seems safe to say, probably won’t come to the director’s chair via the same path followed by Takekawa, who as a child growing up in the Midwest never dreamed of running what’s become a Seattle and Northwest cultural icon.
Looking back, however, she appreciates the power that family roots, even tangled ones, have in the push-and-pull of life’s choices.
She grew up in Minneapolis, where her parents settled after the tumult and, for all too many Japanese Americans, tragedy of forced incarceration during World War II. But both sides of her family had roots along Puget Sound.
Takekawa’s maternal grandparents, farmers Tom (Takeo) and Kazue (Kaz Hirotaka) Matsuoka, were the first Nisei (American-born of Japanese descent) to be married in Bellevue. Her grandmother was valedictorian of Bellevue High School in 1926. Her grandfather, a community leader, was arrested by the FBI in the family’s Bellevue farmhouse on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
The family, along with other Bellevue Japanese Americans, was stripped of property and incarcerated at Tule Lake, Calif., eventually gaining release to work as migrant labor in sugar beet fields of northern Montana.
Takekawa’s paternal grandmother, Kaneji Takekawa, was Issei (born in Japan, immigrated to the United States) — a widow who raised three sons in a Seattle apartment at 11th and Alder, teaching at a Seattle Japanese language school. They, along with other Seattle families, were incarcerated during the war, first at the Puyallup fairgrounds and later at Minidoka, Idaho.
After the war, the Takekawa family, including Beth’s father, Yukata “Dutch” Takekawa, resettled in Minneapolis, one of the few U.S. cities allowing resettlement for Japanese Americans. He met Beth’s mother, Rae Matsuoka, there. They married in 1950 and started a family.
Like most subjected to arrest and incarceration, both families moved on but never forgot the betrayal. At his insistence, Dutch Takekawa, a talented athlete who was drafted into the Army while incarcerated, is buried at Fort Snelling, Minn. — a testament to his vow that “the federal government would have to pay him back for everything that happened to him,” Beth recalls.
While keeping fond memories of some of his youth as an athlete in Seattle, the incarceration left Takekawa’s father believing Seattle to be racist through and through, and he vowed never to return.
“It was a pretty segregated town then,” Beth notes, “and your whole world is your community.”
But her parents held a fondness for the broader Northwest, and ultimately were drawn back, with conditions: Her father took out a map of Washington state and drew a circle of territory he considered to be a three-hour’s drive away from downtown Seattle — his own sort of racism exclusionary zone.
“He told us four kids, ‘Your mom and I are moving to Ellensburg.’ We said, ‘That’s nice, but don’t expect us to ever come visit!’ ”
They wound up settling in Vancouver, Clark County, as retirees.
“I’m part of the Japanese American diaspora,” Takekawa says. “Because of the camps, we ended up in the Midwest. But a lot of us migrated back. My siblings and I all live on the West Coast now.”
Her father ultimately made peace with his place of residence — but never entirely with the place that had wronged him.
“He had too good of a memory,” Takekawa says. “He never forgot anything. Over the years, the humiliation faded, but the bitterness and anger remained.”
IT MIGHT have been fate that this very deeply seated, emotional bit of family history first drew Beth Takekawa, upon arriving in Seattle with her husband, Tony To, to The Wing in the early 1990s. (After helping manage her husband’s construction business in New York City, the couple had come to Seattle to visit Beth’s sister and been taken in by one of those Mount Rainier moments.)
Takekawa found work at a communications business owned by Seattle civic activist Sharon Maeda, and later worked for the Seattle Housing Authority.
She volunteered at The Wing, urged to share her experience in construction by museum director Ron Chew, then pushing for a bold fundraising campaign to expand The Wing to its present locale.
She learned of a Wing community advisory committee meeting in the basement of a Chinatown International District garage.
“The topic was the thing nobody talked about — the concentration camps of World War II. I thought, ‘Hey, I want to be in that basement.’ ”
Local people who had survived the camps started pulling items from their basements. Each item came with a story — an important family history, likely never transcribed.
This was historical storytelling in its purest form, Takekawa says — still what The Wing does best. “In this case, it was a story that was just not really known; there was a stigma about sharing that story. It wound up being a real connection I had with my dad.”
It helped her understand his bitterness — and how those emotions linger in a broad community of descendants.
To Takekawa and many others, The Wing’s documentation of that painful chapter in history delivered something nothing else really could: Validation, for the people who lived through it, and their families, in whose hearts the pain still resides.
“That’s something I’ve seen again and again with every exhibit,” she says. “That’s the power that a museum has. Seeing your family, or life, on the walls of a museum, it’s quite remarkable. We were not used to that. Something special happens … when people come there and see it, there’s an authority.”
THAT EMOTIONAL start grew into an unexpected career. Her appointment to the top job in 2008 seemed natural inside the museum, even though, given her lack of formal museum training (she has a degree in music from City University of New York — Hunter College), it probably raised eyebrows in the museum world.
The years flew by, she says — something that happens when you’re busy running an organization that relies almost exclusively on grants and gifts.
“You had to raise every penny, every dime,” she says. “There were some hair-raising times. But it was never me, by myself.”
It made her appreciate even more fully the pluck of the Luke family, which opened the museum with a few thousand dollars left from donations for search efforts for Wing Luke.
“We were lucky,” she says. “Wing’s family supported all these kind of risky [community-based] structural decisions all along, and to this day. That’s why I stayed, too.”
A broad range of associates, historians, artists and others drawn to the museum over the years agree on two things about Takekawa: She has been central to the preservation and advancement of that spirit. And modesty will prevent her from taking credit.
“I’m sad to see her go,” says author Jamie Ford, whose novel “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” was based on research conducted at the museum. “The work she’s done could fill up three lifetimes.”
Like others, he sees her career and “relentlessly positive” demeanor as inseparable from The Wing’s ascension to national prominence, including recognition by the National Park Service.
Takekawa has also been a strong force for maintaining The Wing’s mutual love affair with the arts, displaying the work of a broad variety of local visual artists, notes sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa, whose father’s works have long graced museum spaces, and where models of his own public sculptures are currently on display.
Takekawa is a rare person who balances talent as a strategic thinker with people skills sufficient to bring groups of people with vastly disparate standing and backgrounds together to work toward a common goal, says Maeda.
“She’ll be really hard to replace in terms of who she is as an overall package.”
AN IMPORTANT part of Takekawa’s legacy, associates say, is successful museum engagement with burgeoning social movements, both locally and nationally. Just as The Wing has been determined to showcase art from members of the local Asian community, it has reached out to artists and activists from other communities of color and underrepresented groups.
Last summer, after the Seattle protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the museum hired Moses Sun, the man responsible for designing a Black Lives Matter mural on Capitol Hill, to create murals on boards protecting its own fragile glass windows, Maeda notes. The message: “Where do you stand? We stand with Black Lives Matter.”
In keeping with the prescient social-justice drive of the museum’s namesake, it has long been a priority of museum staff to ensure The Wing remains a safe space for people of all races, Takekawa says.
“Everyone is welcome here,” she says. “You don’t have to be Asian to feel like this is your home, your place. That’s really important. Especially now.”
One of the museum’s more painful, but essential accomplishments has been documenting the waves of racism and hate crimes long present in the Northwest. Memories of that violence have been rekindled by recent anti-Asian hate crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Educating Americans about the long, deep roots of racism remains a challenge, even locally, where despite a relatively large population of Asian Americans, many residents are newcomers who have never been exposed to the history, says Bettie Luke, 80, Wing’s sister and a museum founder.
“We have had such an influx of newcomers coming in from elsewhere,” she says. “They don’t know the history of what we struggled with. They don’t know they’re standing on the shoulders of what’s been hard-fought.”
The museum issued a statement about Asian hate crimes in March, expressing its outrage, sympathy and solidarity with the victims, and calling for increased vigilance. This is a natural role for The Wing as a cultural presence, Takekawa says.
She points with pride to an incident a couple years ago, when members of the Proud Boys were meeting in the Chinatown ID’s Hing Hay Park — around the same time some other like-minded people were agitating for a disruption of a Wing lecturer speaking about Japanese American incarceration. Word went out on social media — and younger community members showed up in force to safeguard the event. No provocation occurred.
“I was really touched,” Takekawa says. “They were there to protect the museum.”
To remake the point: This was not the director calling for action from above, Takekawa notes. It was a protective community stepping up from below.
That’s the Wing Way. And Takekawa’s curation of that ethic is a solid platform for the next generation. Takekawa, who leaves a track record as a successful procurer of museum gifts, leaves The Wing an invaluable one of her own, Bettie Luke believes: “She held the mission and those views together, and pushed it forward.” Because of that, the museum “really, truly is a work that not only preserves the community, it’s a work by the community, for the community, with the community,” Luke says. “That’s very rewarding. And I know Wing would have really, really liked it.”