Earlier this year, I became an author, completing a personal project that was 30 years in the making. The book allowed me to fulfill a long-overdue promise to a dear friend, Gene Viernes, who was murdered on June 1, 1981.
Gene and Silme Domingo were both gunned down on that day outside the cannery union hall in Pioneer Square where they were working. The two were victims of what was later revealed to be an intricate conspiracy involving a corrupt union president and agents with ties to former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. It was a tragic and incredible story that captured local and national headlines for a full decade.
My book, “Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism,” is an attempt to retell the story of that era through a personal lens.
I first met Gene in the late 1970s when he moved from Wapato to Seattle to work with Silme and other young activists who were pursuing class-action racial-discrimination lawsuits against the salmon-canning companies in Alaska. Behind the scenes, I helped Gene and Silme write, edit and design fliers and brochures for the movement.
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Gene — the “Wapato kid” — became one of my best friends. Many things drew us together: a mutual love of history, a penchant for analyzing people from a distance, similar working-class backgrounds and equally wry, low-key personalities. When he died, it felt as if a part of me died on that day, too. I was too young to fathom — and cope with — the loss of a friend.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Gene’s bowlegged saunter, his torn jeans, the ubiquitous papers, books and clipboard tucked under his arm, his deadpan humor, the way he would talk rapidly to hide his shyness, the way he chuckled instead of laughed, the way he would belch loudly for the amusement of people around him. I can still remember our many greasy-spoon meals in Chinatown International District cafes, where hours were spent discussing Asian-American history and the fight for political and social justice in Seattle and elsewhere.
Gene was a self-taught historian. One of his dreams — a project we had envisioned together — was to publish a book about the role of Asian laborers in the salmon-canning industry, based on a series he had written for the International Examiner, where I was working as editor. Gene had been passionate about rediscovering, documenting and sharing the contributions of Asian-American labor pioneers.
We didn’t get much beyond a rough manuscript, an outline and a pile of accompanying photos. “Do you think we’ll ever get this book done,” he asked me during one of our many hurried encounters.” I told him not to worry, that I was committed to helping make it happen. He was 29 when he died.
I let the manuscript languish in my basement for 30 years. I didn’t know how to move forward without him.
Two years ago, mindful that time can swiftly corrode memories, I approached Silme Domingo’s widow, Terri Mast, to ask for help in bringing the manuscript to publication. Terri and other activists who had worked alongside Gene and Silme readily agreed to be interviewed and photographed. The book was recently published.
When I’m asked why I wrote this book, I tell them it’s because Gene was my friend and friends keep their promises to one another. I can tell, by the raised eyebrows, that some people don’t comprehend. I think it’s because our definition of friendship has changed.
The last time I was on Facebook, I had 335 friends. I can’t even remember how I picked up most of these “friends.” Some I probably chose during random bursts of personal curiosity. Other “friends” became “friends” because others recommended them to me. It might be more accurate to say that my 335 friends are a mixture of casual contacts, acquaintances and a very small smattering of real friends.
I’m also on LinkedIn. I have 665 contacts. Some of these “contacts” I know pretty well and are, in fact, what I consider to be friends. But some I hardly know at all. Some I’ve never even met. Nevertheless, we’re joined in some vaguely delineated relationship that involves aspects of friendship, but falls short of that label, even by Facebook standards.
How and why did we allow social media to redefine our relationships and hijack a time-honored concept like friendship?
In the pre-Internet era in which I grew up — the era in which I knew Gene — friendships weren’t created with the click of a button. Our friendship was nurtured during the slow journey of a life, through many ups and downs, sustained always by shared commitment, trust and unconditional support for one another’s hopes and dreams.
I wrote my book to offer inspiration and wisdom to a new generation of young activists who now continue the fight for a more tolerant, just and compassionate world.
I wrote my book for a friend. My promise to Gene was deeper than a status update, more everlasting than social media and more cherished than hundreds of Facebook “friends.”
Ron Chew, a lifelong Seattleite, works as executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation. He previously served for 17 years as executive director of the Wing Luke Museum.