Reader’s Corner: The top 10 lessons on life and politics that I learned from my brother, Wing Luke

Bettie Luke

By Bettie Luke
For Northwest Asian Weekly

Editor’s note: For Seattle Rotary, Bettie Luke from the Organization of Chinese Americans gave a short presentation on the top 10 lessons on life and politics she learned from her brother, Wing Luke.

He served as assistant attorney general of Washington state and a Seattle City Council member, the first Asian American to do so in the state. He died in 1965 in a plane crash. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American (APA) Experience was founded to fulfill his vision of preserving the cultures and traditions of APAs.

This is an edited version of Bettie Luke’s presentation.

Wing was the number one child, and I was number six — a 17-year [age] difference, so I was like this little sponge in the background, soaking up things that I heard and saw whenever Wing was around.

Some of the lessons I learned from Wing were things he said directly, and other lessons were from looking back and sorting and analyzing when I was older.

I mention 10 lessons, but I will mostly talk about the first lesson because it is so integral to what Wing was about.

Lesson one

To be successful, sane, and ethical in life and politics, there are three parts of your body that have to be functional: your brain, your heart, and your spine.

The brain

Wing stated, “Read, read, read, and read — learn what has happened in history so you don’t repeat the same mistakes. That is like the quote from George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

An example is the 1898 Supreme Court case of U.S. vs. Wong Kim Ark — which questioned the right to citizenship and threatened to overturn the 14th Amendment. So when I [recently] read in the newspaper of the challenges to citizenship and the 14th Amendment — it is like, hello! That has already been decided.

Leave the 14th Amendment alone.

Another example is that I’m researching a project based on the Chinese being driven out of Seattle 125 years ago, and I came across 1867 legislation that demanded that Chinese carry identification papers — shades of Arizona!

The heart

[We need a] passion for the greater good — we need commitment, to build relationships, care about others, and [we need to] take action when human rights and civil rights are being violated — especially for those who have less power.

An example is open housing. My family was evicted from our laundry in the U-District [when I was young].

Wing was fighting in the U.S. Army during WWII. The landlady said, “We’re at war, and I can’t tell them apart and don’t want any of them here.”

Wing had to come home on furlough to resettle us. I am sure that this experience was the catalyst to a life-long commitment to work for equal housing for all.

The spine

Wing sometimes had to stand alone on issues. He experienced smear campaigns while running for office.

After his primary win, all of the other nine candidates lined up against him.

Lesson two: The role of wit.

I learned that with high intelligence, you can understand a subject so well that you can phrase a statement in such a way that even those in opposition can laugh about it with you. This is part of that heart connection — finding joy in life.

Wing was kind of like a Chinese Will Rogers, a political rock star. During his campaign, someone said to Wing, “You don’t have a Chinaman’s chance!” Wing shot back, “On the contrary, I am the only one who has a Chinaman’s chance!”

Taking this approach was a brilliant strategy because people were laughing with Wing, not at him. This trumped any indignant call of racism or disrespect — it was not needed.  Wing had already won the people over.

Lesson three: Never underestimate what you teach by example.

I watched Wing’s brilliant thinking when I was 9 years old. [He kept us safe] during an armed robbery at our grocery store.

Lesson four: Constantly build on the best self that you can be.

Your character shows you what to do when you do not know what to do.

Think about it — in an emergency, what did you do? What did you say? Are you satisfied with the outcome? If not, you have homework to do.

Lesson five: Keep your heritage, language, and culture.

Language goes beyond knowing words. It is the key to learning rules, expectations, and nuances of cultural beliefs and practices. China is a growing world power. We need to be informed on cultural dealings for building relationships, which form the basis of personal and professional dealings.

Lesson six: Value the language and culture of others.

We need to build bridges, trust, and respect, as we are global citizens.

Lesson seven: Sometimes the democratic process is not the fair and right approach to take.

Think about it. I was in junior high when Wing said that, and it was so astounding because I had just had a civics lesson that week on democracy. I could later see that the “one person/one vote” method could be used as a weapon. The solution is in coalition building.

Lesson eight: There is a time to be public and a time to be private.

Lesson nine: If you don’t like what happens, don’t complain, cry, or criticize.

Find a better way. Come up with possible solutions.

Lesson 10: Do something, not because of who is right but because of what is right.

Keep your eyes on the prize of the greater good for the greater society.

I want to close with two things:

First of all, I want to extend a double invitation. Come visit the Wing Luke Museum and watch for a couple of events in February 2011 — we have a project that will mark 125 years since the Chinese were driven out of Seattle in 1889.

Second — I encourage you to continue your good work — with your brain, heart, and spine in place. ♦

Bettie Luke can be reached at ocaluke@yahoo.com.

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