Bettie Sing Luke: Chairwoman - 2011 Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project (Jan. 8, 2011)
For this inaugural issue, I have a special lady to present.
Her name is Bettie Sing Luke, born and grew up in Seattle, an artist, educator and activist. You may or may not have heard of the Wing Luke Museum of Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle. Wing Luke, the late Seattle City Councilman, was the first Asian American to have won a major city elected office in the Pacific Northwest. That was in the early 1960s. Bettie is Wing's youngest sister.
This is Bettie, at 69 years young, standing proudly in front of the wall panel dedicated to her brother Wing. The museum, initially Wing's idea, was established about 40 years ago. When it expanded in recent years, the Luke Family Association was asked to raise funds to include the Association as a part of the new museum space. Bettie, her sisters, family and friends turned that into a reality. But that's not why I interviewed her.
On February 7, 1886, a Chinese expulsion riot took place in Seattle. A mob rounded up hundreds of Chinese residents and took them to the dock to be shipped to San Francisco. Governor Squire and President Cleveland declared martial law. You can read the story here:
This February would be the 125th anniversary of that event. When I learned that Bettie was organizing the anniversary project, I decided to interview her. Here are the highlights of my interview of her on Dec. 28, 2010, in three parts:
Part 1. Family History and Childhood
Wen: Where is home, your parents' or ancestors' home?
Wen: Taishan (in Mandarin), of course. Taishan is famous. When did your grandparents or great-grandparents first come?
Bettie: Facts are so spotty, as our father never talked about it. One piece of information is that his father used to have a Chinese restaurant called Hop Thiem. I went to the Museum of History and Industry. In their second oldest telephone book, I found the name and address. So I know it existed. It was something like 1903 or 4. Second piece was with the Chinese expulsion. I asked my father if he had any knowledge about it. He said he had an uncle that was in Seattle during the time of the expulsion and that the reason he got to stay and not shipped out was that he was the mayor's houseboy.
Wen: Your middle name Sing. Do you know which Chinese character it is?
Bettie: No. My name was Bettie Luke. The school required that you had a middle name. I didn't have one. My sisters and I just took our father's middle name.
Wen: What was it like growing up when there were not as many Chinese or Asians?
Bettie: You just tried to fit in and not be left out or get rejected. You look at that wall downstairs. Wing was the only Chinese in that class picture. It is sad, but the education system and the public attitude resulted in a lot of cultural loss - get rid of the language, reject anything "un-American," hide cultural pride.
Wen: Was there one bad experience racial-wise you remember that stands out?
Bettie: Yes. There's a number of things that happened. I remember my sister and I walked to school. We cut diagonally through this grassy field. The guy yelled and cursed at us and said we couldn't walk on his property. But he allowed other people to walk.
Part 2. Asians and Immigration
Wen: After the 1970s, more Asians came, and more Chinese. What do you think of the increasing Asian immigration?
Bettie: I worked with some people on the Census project here this year. It was such a surprise to me, the percentage of people who are not American born, how many, and how diverse, different Asian countries. None of those countries had immigrants when I was growing up. You didn't talk to anyone Korean, certainly not Vietnamese, Laotian or Cambodian. The whole Southeast Asian immigration that came, in the mid 1970s, it was as puzzling and new to the Asian American community as it was to the general community. We were not informed, the whole country was not informed, about how these Southeast Asian troops were allies to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. We had to learn about these groups. I was working for the Seattle School District when these new immigrants started coming. There was a lot of learning for us.
Wen: That's right. As with this museum, it is Asian experience, not just Chinese experience. Why is that? Was it Wing's idea?
Bettie: In those days, you didn't have that diversity. Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, that's it. The concept at the time when the museum was first started was to have a Chinese folk art museum. Wing said we had enough museums, like the Seattle Art Museum, for the jades and silks, for the high culture. What he particularly focused in on was the living culture. He said the living culture is going to die out if we don't do something to preserve it. Even though in Wing's time, we didn't have a Pan-Asian American consciousness, he was already reaching out to other Asian groups. He worked with Japanese Americans on land ownership. He was also working for the Indian fishing rights. Wing was stationed in the Philippines during the War. He did things to help out schools there. So it was very natural for him to reach out to try to help other Asian groups. I think if he were alive, he would love the idea. He already was moving in that direction as it became more a Pan-Asian American consciouness. He would have been a leader with the change. It doesn't diminish the Chinese-Americanness. It is just keeping in mind that we are part of a bigger umbrella. Pan-Asian Americanness makes sense. In fact, Wing was very multicultural before that became a known term.
Part 3. 2011 Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project
Wen: So this is going to be the 125th anniversary of the expulsion. Why 125th? Was there a 100th event?
Bettie: Yes. We did have a 100th event.
Wen: Oh, you did. I didn't know. I wasn't here. What did you do?
Bettie: I was part of a committee with Ben Woo. Ben Woo was a long-time community leader. He headed and I supported. I contacted the academic speakers. A friend of mine wrote a play. We did the march from Hing Hay Park to the dock. He took care of all the details. For me, it was learning the logistics how it happened. This year, I came up with the concept that since the Chinese were rounded up and taken down to the dock, I wanted a reverse march that we start at the dock and march in, symbolic that we are here to stay.
Wen: So there was one, in 1986.
Bettie: Yes. February 7, 1986.
Wen: Are there any newspaper clippings?
Bettie: I lost track of over 100 photographs, somewhere in my house. I remember putting out a PSA, public service announcement, that this happened, that the project was not aimed at trying to accuse people or create guilt, but to educate the public that this should not have happened. We started at the Hing Hay Park, we had politicians and judges speak. And then we went down to the dock. We had lion dance and firecrackers. What struck me as impactful is that every cultural group was represented. There were Native Americans, Black, Latinos, Asian Americans, European Americans. Another thing that was impressive is the age range. There was one white-haired woman that had a walker that joined us on the march. There were a few people who got their grandchildren to walk with them on the march. It was so rewarding to see the wide range of people who were interested in it.
Wen: Are you going to do the same, with a PSA, out soon?
Bettie: I already have that one draft we've been using. It needs to be updated as we are still confirming the speakers. We will have, to the dock, a speaker or two, the rest of the speakers would be at the museum.
Wen: Are you just going to release the text and not going to have a press conference?
Bettie: I don't think we would take the time to have a press conference. I think we just send it out.
Wen: February 7th?
Bettie: That's what we did in 1986.
Wen: This time?
Bettie: It's February 12th, 2011. It's Saturday.
Wen: What would you want to achieve with this 125th anniversary, when you already had the 100th anniversary? Bettie: One of the compelling reasons behind it is that we want to highlight how that kind of animosity that happened in 1886 is still reflected in the way the new immigrants are treated. In recent times, you see states enacting "English Only" laws, challenging the 14th Amendment, and anti-immigration legislation. So we want that addressed.
Wen: One more thing. Nowadays, China is so big trade-wise, economy-wise. There is resentment here. Americans say we have too much Made in China, China owns us in Treasury notes, etc.
Wen:Do you think people might connect China with this event, history with present?
Bettie: Well, the pattern of people coming here is not the same. In the early days, the Chinese came to work, earn money, send it home, did not intend to stay. But just the same. They should not have been driven out. Attitudes towards China today doesn't have to do with people so much as trade, jobs, economic impact on USA. I think there will be some association, economic-driven resistance. We will have to see what happens. But that's something we would try to address in the talks.
Wen: Thank you very much.