By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Born in a small town near Canton, China, Wing Luke became the first Asian American to win a seat on the Seattle City Council in 1962.
His appointment to a position of leadership by the city’s residents is a historic event, particularly in light of the hostile attitude they once held for foreign-born Chinese railroad workers, agriculture workers, and coal miners in 1886.
The Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project (CERP)’s steering committee commemorates Feb. 7, 1886, as the day Seattle’s anti-Chinese activists forced approximately 350 Chinese to the waterfront for a one-way trip across the Pacific Ocean. Two free events will be held in Seattle on Thursday, Feb. 10, and Saturday, Feb. 12.
Bettie Luke, Wing Luke’s sister, is the committee’s chair and returns to lead the group’s efforts. She and Ben Woo led the efforts to mark the expulsion’s centennial in 1986. She said, “I [am] the only connection to the centennial because Ben Woo has passed on. A couple of the other members live across the nation.”
For Bettie Luke, CERP’s goal of fostering a wider awareness of the history of the exclusion of Chinese citizens is one reason she was inspired to become involved in the 125th anniversary event. Luke hopes the events will encourage public discussion about civic responsibility and good citizenship, as well as provide educational opportunities for students.
She said, “There are schoolchildren who absolutely don’t know anything about this. … They’re looking for guidance. [To] those that believe that Chinese and Asians were passive, there are very specific reasons why things happened. … I hope that curriculum writers and educators see that this is not an incident that is trying to say ‘America is bad.’ It, basically, is something that we need to examine, understand, and recognize.”
Luke also has a personal connection to the expulsion. Her father’s uncle, whose name she never learned, lived in Seattle in 1886.
“He was the mayor’s (Henry L. Yesler) houseboy, and it really struck me because of the power of politics and the politics of power,” said Luke. Because of his unique situation, he was allowed to stay, avoiding the long steamship ride to China.
“One of the people who spoke out in support of the Chinese was the mayor’s wife (Sarah Yesler). So, I thought ‘That makes sense.’ ”
The event on Feb. 10 will feature a speaker panel consisting of retired Washington Supreme Court Judge Charles Z. Smith; Traci Lai, a professor at Seattle Central Community College; James Mar, a pioneer in Seattle’s Chinese American community; and Pramila Jayapal, founder and executive director of OneAmerica.
The Jon Jang Quartet will perform on Feb. 10 with music dedicated to Chinese Americans and their struggles.
The event on Feb. 12 will consist of a rally and march near the actual location “where the Chinese were put aboard the ship,” Luke said. Some of the speakers scheduled to appear include Michael Woo, Eric Liu, Vi Mar, and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
Sponsorship for both events consists of a $20,000 grant from the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods and a $1,000 grant from the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. CERP is made up of several volunteers and has other sponsors, including the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Jade Guild, and the Chinese Women’s Club.
King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson presented Luke and Ron Chew, lead adviser for CERP’s steering committee, with a county proclamation on Feb. 7, stating that day was Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Day in King County.
“I’m a third-generation Seattleite,” Chew said at the King County council meeting. “While we can’t remake history, we can embrace what happened and then also look at history in the context of how we ensure that these kinds of things don’t happen again. There’s continuing concern, I think, on all our parts that this kind of intolerance that exists toward people who have different cultural and historical backgrounds, who may speak a different language, the seeds of that kind of intolerance are always with us.”
Regarding the proclamation, he said, “I commend the council for taking this action.”
When asked about the 150th anniversary in 2036, Luke responded, “I hope some young leaders pick up the baton, and I hope they will want to carry the banner forward in terms of keeping the general community informed.”
“I want Chinese Americans and Asian Americans to have pride and respect in their culture and to recognize whose shoulders they stand on to be where they are today.” ♦
The Speaker Panel and Music Jam will be at the Cleveland High School Auditorium on Feb. 10, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The rally and march will start at the intersection of South Washington Street and Alaskan Way South on Feb. 12 at 10:00 a.m.; it will end at 12:30 p.m. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.