I think you get the picture, but maybe not. That's because Ron is not what you think of as a traditional historian, or a Bard. He does not hold forth for spellbound audiences with his story. Quite the contrary, because he's a quiet teller. More like a story whisperer than a shouter. A whisperer who nonetheless has moved the crowd and the proverbial dial through his sharing of stories that have made a manifest difference in the community that he loves. A difference that has demonstrably improved the lives of Seattle's Asian Pacific Islander Community, and by extension help that city reckon with its unsettling history with that community.
This week on Change the Story, Change the World, we’ll be talking to Ron about his transformative work as a journalist, a museum director, a healthcare executive, and of course a lifelong spinner of tales. This is Change the Story, Change the World. My name is Bill Cleveland.
Part One: Listening in the Kitchen.[:
[00:01:28] BC: Right, year of the tiger. .[:
[00:01:32] BC: Yeah, and hopefully this new year will bring some degree of recovery and growth.[:
[00:01:42] BC: So before we begin, I'd like to acknowledge that Ron is speaking to us from the traditional land, past and present, of the Duwamish people in Seattle, Washington, and my part of this conversation is originating from Alameda, California, which is located on the unceded homelands of the Chochenyo people of the Muwekema Ohlone tribe.
So Ron having known you and your work, it's clear that the idea of a story, particularly a community story is not an abstract concept to you. Correct me if I'm wrong, but more like an essential aspect of life?
So I'll begin asking how do you describe the story of your life path, particularly to people who are not familiar with it? What comes up? What rises?[:
As a young child, growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, my parents being immigrants, there were, murmured stories that they told about my grandparents and that other generation that came to America during a period of exclusion. But they were whispered stories, and when you ask questions, they didn't really want to tell you all of what they knew, largely because being Chinese in America was an illegal act. The Chinese could not come here because of exclusion laws, and so those were elusive stories.
As I grew up in began working in the Chinese restaurant where my father was a waiter, and listening to those uncensored moments when waiters would reflect on their lives, and talk about the laws, and people and places, my ears perked up because these were other stories.
Later I pursued a communications degree in editorial journalism at the University of Washington, and that was really about then developing the skills to write stories, to interview people, and then to bring them to light. I became a journalist newspaper editor in the international district community of Seattle. Became museum director at the Wing Luke Museum, and then entered healthcare, and the most recently, as you know, I produced a memoir and yeah, there are them all in one.[:
[00:05:21] RC: As I mentioned, Bill, I grew up in the restaurant. I spent 10 years from age 13, through my college years, busing dishes in a Chinese chop suey restaurant. Didn't make a lot of money back in those days, and of course, certainly my dad didn't, because wages were really dependent on tips and not so much pay, ‘cause you literally, during that time period, when I was working side-by-side with them in the late sixties and seventies, I mean he made a dollar an hour. So the those are the wages, wasn't much to support a family on, but I just had this intense curiosity, about these people that I didn't see reflected in my textbooks, on TV, and in the mass media, and so I said, I'm going to become a writer. I want to become a journalist.
So I went to university of Washington and, pursued a journalism career. I was denied an opportunity to rise at the University of Washington Daily to an editorial position which I applied for. Long story, discrimination complaint that got settled. But, what happened was because I couldn't get a job in the mainstream press, I came back to my community, the Chinatown International District, and started working on an ethnic community newspaper, that served the community, and so that's really where my skills were honed.
Again, my pairing of my love of stories with the people that I grew up with, including my father and the waiters, and my mother worked as a sewing woman in the big factories that they used to have in downtown Seattle. So it was all really about trying to put those hidden stories in some public forum that gave me a sense of value that I could contribute something.[:
[00:07:41] RC: Yeah, it was totally different, and the sad, ironic thing Bill is during that time period where I worked, for 13 years as a community journalist, in the international district, the mainstream press, would always mine our stories for sources, and then basically didn't attribute things, which they lifted And sometimes there were big events, such as, back in 1983, what they called the Wah Mee Massacre, the murder of 13 individuals in a gambling establishment in the neighborhood.[:
RC: [00:08:50] And they came and, covered the event because it was a sensational event. They also, mis-characterized the community, but the first place they came was, “Ron, give me some sources” and you know, and then they lifted things from our story. So we were valuable to them at key moments, and other times we were just background noise that they ignored and didn't give us the professional regard that I thought we deserved, given the limited resources and the constraints we were working under.
BC: Would it be accurate to say you had a very different and specific mission and intent as journalists that had a focus on accountability to your community?
RC: Our audience and what we're trying to do, Bill was very different. We were trying to, provide some accurate coverage.We were trying to, unravel stereotypes. We were trying to provide voice to people who had never appeared in the media. So those are very different purposes. And then we provide a training ground for a lot of emerging journalists, of my generation because there were not very many Asian American journalists back in that day.And, so it's about opening doors, and providing different perspectives and, and then building community. Because we were on the ground, we just story. if you screwed up, you heard about it, they walked into your newsroom and they told you what you screwed up on, because these are people you served very directly. So it's much more intimate I think, a relationship.[:
[00:10:35] RC: Yeah, absolutely. So remember. at the time that I was working in ethnic community press, there were a lot of development pressures, gentrification happening within the neighborhood. You know, they built King Dome, in mid 1970s, which had a huge impact on the neighborhood, and without us, it wouldn't have been a vehicle for talking about the preservation of housing for our seniors in the neighborhood, because they would have bulldozed those places to make room for parking lots. The environmental impact, the smoke, the, traffic jams, pollution, all of that were concerns of ours.
So we brought those concerns to public officials, and talked about mitigation. How are you going to fix up? These hotels, our seniors can live in these places and preserve them, not tear them down. How can we find ways to create services for these folks, because you've neglected them for years, and you're just going to run a rough shot over these folks again and displace them. But did you ever realize they have never seen a doctor before? You know that they don't have refrigeration, that there are rodents in their places? They have no electricity? These are things that, really were very much, I think much more important and central and again, working in that arena really kept you in touch on the ground with what was happening and what was.[:
[00:12:31] RC: Yeah. they're there when I was attending University of Washington, in editorial journalism, the big, word that was flaunted in front of you was, objectivity. as I began working in the community, I realized, first of all, is there such a thing as objectivity, because if you're sitting in a different place, and your work you view differently, is easy term.
Working in the ethnic community press, advocacy became important. The notion of objectivity, I agree to a certain extent with the idea of fairness. I think you need to be fair and present different perspectives, but how can you be objective when I'm sitting still and watching injustice happen, and watching people go without, and watching inequality in your city? How can you stand by, and say that's all right, as a journalist with skills to tell stories?
And I would describe myself as a person trying to be fair, but who is also an advocate for community interests.
Part Two: Re-inventing the Museum.[:
[00:13:45] RC: Yeah.[:
[00:14:06] RC: It's a little bit of some happenstance. The Wing Luke Museum at the time I was working at the International Examiner was a museum still in its birth stage. It was a small historical society, it had a budget of about a hundred thousand dollars, one staff person, fairly sleepy, not a lot of visitors.[:
[00:14:29] RC: A small storefront. Open part-time, it was debatable if you went there on a given day, whether anybody would be there, or whether it would even be open. But they were struggling, with some financial survival issues. So Betty Luke, who was the younger sister of Wing Luke, a former Seattle city council member, who the museum was named after, approached me one day. He said, “Ron, we're really struggling here at the museum. You should apply to be director of this museum.” And I said, “Betty, I don't know anything about museums. I'm a journalist.” And, she said, “you don't have to be a museum person, because it's a such a small place and you could do whatever.” She said, “if somebody doesn't come in and inject some new life into it, the museum will have to close its doors”, and she was somewhat tearful and so forth. And she says, “you have some community organizing skills. You know, a lot of people in the community, so just try it out.”
So I went to the museum, and my instinct Bill really was, I wasn't interested in the objects, the artifacts. I was interested in people's stories. And so I centered my work in that, and we began doing exhibitions set are not on objects, but on interviews. Remember I'm drawing from my journalism background, because I'm thinking, let's do the interview, these folks, and get their perspectives.
And certainly we did have objects, artifacts, people shared photographs, treasured belongings, and so forth, but those came secondarily.
So through that process, we invented this story-based museum motto that also was about bringing ordinary people, people who could share their perspectives. Eyewitness, storytellers, community elders, students, activists, into the process of creating these programs.
It was a very novel idea at the time because people were really drawing from their collection of objects that have been stored away. And my thought was, well, let's start with the stories. I mean, if there are some objects that are relevant, let's use them. But I also was about not so much building a physical collection, because that was about taking things from people. I said, “can we borrow it for the exhibit, and then you can have it back”.
So again, the thinking was so different, that I was considered a little bit of a nut in my beginning years. I also talked about the exhibit should… what's wrong with advocating? It’s not simply about looking at the past, and distancing ourselves with seeing how, what we talk about in the gallery has relevance to community building, and can improve the community.
“Well isn't that advocacy Ron?” “Yeah, but nothing wrong with that.” I see a community dying in the face of gentrification, large-scale developments like the stadiums and so forth. We to protect the community, we need to preserve it, we need to let out a lot of these stories and give people form for this. That's how it really started until I was there 17 years.[:
[00:17:49] RC: Yeah, that was Bill, my first big exhibit after I became director of the museum. I came into this place that was dying, that had no visitors, that was very lethargic and didn't have a whole lot of relevance to the community. One of my first acts was to cancel several exhibits that were scheduled, and I got a few people pissed off.
It was a Persian miniatures exhibit that the Seattle Art Museum had turned down, and the person had worked out a deal with the previous director to have it at Wing Luke. Then there was a Modern Indonesian Art exhibit. So those are the featured exhibits, and I said, “what relevance does this have to the local community, the Asian American community?” I said, “look, the 50th anniversary of the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Let's do an exhibit that engages our local Japanese American community of which 10,000, Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated from Seattle, basically lost everything, forced into concentration camps during world war two. Let's share their stories, let's work on this.”
Now the previous director had actually applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities, for a grant to support this. It got turned down. The NEH said it didn't have enough academic scholars to drive the work, so I looked at the rejection and all that, and I said “screw it, we don't need the NEH”. Our scholars are the people who lived this experience, because we're gonna allow them opportunity to share what they went through, so that their children and grandchildren know what happened, so that they also raise the issue of what this country did to people solely on the basis of their race and ancestry.::
The rest are their Japanese born parents and grandparents. The people are not under suspicion. They are not prisoners. They are not internees. They are merely dislocated people. The unwounded casualties of war,[:
[00:20:42] RC: Two thirds of the folks who were incarcerated were American born citizens. There was no due process. They basically, lost everything. So create this exhibit, over s six month period we had over 10,000 visitors.
The exhibit rescued the museum. It transformed the community. It was a recreation of one of the barracks from one of the camps. It was very moving, and there are people who came there who then had a way to tell their children what happened. We had a way for educators to then enter the picture and tell that story.
The majority of the comments were positive, but it's sad though, you had racial, terms used, “Japs”, and other things. There, you saw some of this undercurrent of what we even see today. This xenophobia, this racism that still is here today, but at least we had a vehicle to educate people.[:
Could you talk about the history, and the importance of that building, and how in the world it came to be that it was first still intact, and then how you managed to grab it and transform it into a center for culture in the community?[:
We were in desperate need of more space. We began looking at what are our options. At the time, space was much more available, for example, on the east side, over in Bellevue, and it hadn't become priced out as it is today, but you could get vacant land, and build new museum there.
We looked in the International District, and we were really left with limited options, because the area is filled with a lot of these workman hotels that housed the bachelor men who came here in the early years to work on the railroads, to work in a lot of the laboring jobs, lumber industry, and salmon canning. So in order to stay in the neighborhood, there was limited choices.
We looked at this one particular building, there are actually two buildings separated by an alley and the buildings had been built originally by 200 Chinese pioneers who came around the turn of the century, created a corporation, and developed these two buildings.There's East Kong Yick building, and the West Kong Yick Building. I began talking to the descendants of those original shareholders who were in their seventies and eighties about redeveloping those buildings to preserve their history, because they were the legacy of our original pioneers.
We realized we didn't have capacity to do both, so we picked the one that was the easiest to reconstruct into a museum, and began a fairly audacious capital campaign to reconstruct it into a museum to preserve the historic apartments and spaces, but then to break apart in the spaces, and make them into new community spaces.
At the time we started this campaign, we had, budget of less than a million dollars and we were trying to raise $23 million. People said, “you're crazy, there's no way you could do this because the scale is just too big.”to open in the new space, in:
[00:24:57] BC: I have to say, one of the most moving experiences I had during my time in Seattle was when you took me to the building, and we wandered up and down the stairs, and into those little rooms and gathering spaces where the men lived. Could you talk about what was there in that raw space ready to be honored and preserved can you take us there?[:
When we got the building, it was, mostly vacant on the upper floors, which is where the, apartments were. [It was] covered with pigeon poop, the windows broken and boarded up with plywood. It was a mess. But the infrastructure was there. There were objects left behind. It was a big Chinese family association space, with the coffered tin ceiling that had been abandoned. There were upstairs balcony rooms. There used to be railing around the upper level, which had been taken down because it had collapsed partially. Down below their import/exports shops that were still functioning, some vintage restaurant spaces, and there were some still existing Chinese family associations. These were clubs of people who shared the same surname who came from the same villages, so the Luke Association was there, the Lee Association was there, the Wong Association used to be there, the Yee Association, and so forth.[:
Bill Chin: In those days, I mean, it was a community bath, you know. They all have rooms like a dormitory and all, and down the hall there'd be a powder room you know. It was all men living here, and I couldn't understand why, because, in those days, immigration was so tough on the Chinese people that they couldn't get their children and wife over. But they all got along, you know. I mean, they’d get together and play Pai Gow and play Mahjong and stuff like that.
You gotta hand it to these old timers, they had it really rough. The reason why they formed the association was for mortars, for protection, and security. Somebody wants an axe to grind against another memberyou be able to go to up to the OTN hall in front of the council and decide who's right, and who’s wrong.[:
[00:28:20] BC: So, it wasn't just abandoned. It was a living, breathing community space that meant something to the people there.[:
It was an amazing journey Bill. Those folks stepping forward to be the underpinning of a groundswell that allowed us to raise over $23 million, from an organization that had no donor base, that had no donors. Remember also too, the other thing I share with folks, it wasn't simply a Chinese community because as we looked at the history of the building while Japanese Americans were there, African-Americans who worked down the street as porters and worked at union station, native Americans, Italian Americans, etc. So it was a multi layered, multi-ethnic story that was just waiting to be mined.[:
[00:30:11] RC: One maybe physical metaphor for what the space is, and folks who haven't visited really should it's amazing. But inside the building, the way it's constructed, there are two interior light wells, around which the apartment units were built. You think about it back in the day, you didn't have an air conditioner, you didn't have a proper ventilation except through the interior windows that were opened.
You can imagine people, opening their windows and talking to their neighbors across the way. So we preserved those interior light wells, and then took off the roof covering that had been built back sometime after the building was first opened, and then open the building to the sky. Then you began to get a sense of what life was like, and if you walk through it, it echoes with stories of the past. You can just envision that there's an eerie presence.
Somebody from Paul Allen's foundation came in, and the first thing she mentioned, she said, “Ron, there's this eerie feeling. I come to this space. It just gives me the chills, and what she was referring to was just the presence of all these people who left behind their stories, and it was about the process of mining all these stories, and then bringing them to another generation. And that was marvelous thing to do.[:
Here are some community members reflecting on what that means to them in a 2018 museum video.
Various Community Members: The wing is at the core of that kind of conversation.
So the museum is vital to really tell the whole story.
Your identity is acknowledged, and regarded, and your stories are being told. and that's why it is so important to me.
I walked through the Wing, and I feel like these exhibitions are love letters. You know they’re love letters to our children who have not been born to teach them how to navigate through the world.
Part Three. Healing the Unforgotten.[:
[00:33:07] RC: Yeah.[:
[00:33:15] RC: 17 years, brand new museum, I was exhausted. So it was time to move on and pursue something else. So I briefly did some work for the Gates Foundation, helping advise them on their visitors center, which was being developed at the time. I taught at the university of Washington in the museology graduate program. But those were places that were more rest stops. They didn't inspire my passion in the same way that the community has always.
When I was at the university of Washington, I was approached by the director of the International Community Health Services. It's a network of a few community clinics that serve the immigrant refugee population. Mostly the Asian Islander community, and then actually quite a few other refugee communities as well. But, the director said, Ron, come down and help us fundraise. We’re hitting a struggle right now. I told this person, I said, “I don't want to fundraise anymore. I'm still tired.” They said “well think about it. We'd love to have you here.”
An incident happened that I didn't share in the memoir, which really changed my mind. I live on Beacon Hill in Seattle, in a largely Asian immigrant pocket, and the mother of one of my son's friends called me because she was having a medical emergency. Her son was having trouble breathing, so she called me, he didn't speak English, and said, I need help. So I called my healthcare provider, tried to get some advice And person said, this person isn't part of our network. We can't provide advice because there's liability. And meanwhile, I got this mother on the other line and she's freaking out that her son is going to die. So the next thing I did is I called the director of International Community Health Services, who I knew, and she immediately connected me with a bilingual, Chinese speaking doctor, and they talked their way through the crisis.
After that incident happened, I thought about it I said, I need to help, I need to come back down. So I called the director again. I said… So I joined, ICHS as the Foundation Director, raising money for the community clinics, because I had some skills and I thought if I can help, I should. So I was back in fundraising again, and then during that time we built a new clinic in Shoreline, built a new clinic in Bellevue, opened a mobile dental clinic, opened a vision clinic in Chinatown. I'm still doing some work right now raising money for an aging in place, senior care facility on Beacon Hill.
I told the director said, “hey, this is it, no more. I want to get back into writing so that's where I'm hoping to land in this next.”[:
[00:36:24] RC: Boy, so many stories that are out there. I'm sure you feel the same way to Bill. Like which ones do I grab onto? Which ones do I let go of?
I've started doing some more writing for the International Examiner, I’ve returned to some of my journalistic roots, mostly centered on people who I think are unacknowledged, or who otherwise people wouldn’t know about. I want to do a children's book, so I'll be collaborating with probably a graphic artist on that. Perhaps another book, a collection of stories maybe from the neighborhood, the Chinatown International District. There's more to be told there. I'm currently working on an audio book version of my memoir, as well.[:
[00:37:54] RC: It is, ‘cause it's a big book.[:
You've obviously called many stories from your journalism and from your work with the community.[:
As I mentioned, the garment industry, who, who knows about the fact that, the underpinnings of development of the city, were the immigrant, mostly Asian garment workers. So those stories are in the book. The restaurant workers that I grew up with, the cannery workers, documenting their stories. I felt privileged to have an opportunity to bundle them together and yeah it's almost sold out. It's only been out for a year, we are going to have to do another printing.[:
So Ron, if somebody is listening to this and saying that's an interesting path I'd like to explore, what would you share with them as they set out?[:
I feel blessed because I haven't made a whole lot of money in my career, but I've had rewarding experiences based on the fact that I do the things that for me matter, and it's really about sharing stories, bringing them to light, and helping open people's eyes to worlds that maybe they weren't aware of, and then making connections. I think whatever people do should somehow serve the purpose of connecting all of us on some universal level. Storytelling is all about that. I'm sure, Bill, you know, the political divides are pretty sharp in this period, but you know, when people are able to share stories across the divide, story is undeniable. A person's lived, shared story is their story and a solid ground on which you can build coalitions.
So I'm not so much caught up in the, a lot of the street activism that is certainly important in terms of creating social change, but I'll leave that to others. I like to find ways again to reach people on softer ground, which is where more people can stand.[:
[00:41:07] RC: And one thing I'll say about that, one piece of my unforgotten Seattle is talking about my mother and my father being Chinese American, having come here during the Chinese Exclusion Act period, and the impact of that. Again, because of laws that barred Chinese laborers from coming to the U.S. for so long, and the people who were coming here were laborers coming here illegally, living under that shadow, having to dip and dodge to avoid the government, and deportation, so forth. That is being repeated today. I think about the Central American refugees, the dreamers, that whole generation. I know, but many folks don't know what it's like to live like that, and I wanted to share that story to shine a light on, “hey, do we realize what we're doing to these children, to another generation it's the same thing.”[:
[00:42:14] RC: Yeah, and it's because for my parent's generation, they're not going to share the story. They want to protect their children, and then as a child, you grow up with this vacuum, and not a strong sense of who you are, and then what kind of person does that make you in terms of your children? So somewhere along the way there has to be a reveal, a reckoning, and then some responsibility assigned to the authorities who made this happen. It's not about victimizing again people who've been victimized already.[:
[00:44:13] DM: We have to remove certain words from our vocabulary. When we say, oh, it's very complex.Dealing with race is very complex, and people who have the power to solve it start with these terminologies. Or [they say] dealing with patriarchy is extremely complex. Dealing with homophobia is a complex situation. There is nothing complex about it. If there's a desire to solve it, you solve it. And it's really simple for me to respect you. It's very simple[:
[00:43:50] RC: It's not complicated at all.[:
[00:44:00] RC: So there's a film titled If Tired Hands Could Talk, which is actually, it's the garment workers’ exhibit. That's one. There's also, Finding Home in Chinatown, a documentary about the Koon Yick Buildings before we actually decided to develop that as a Wing Luke Museum.
And then there's also, a film, One Generation's Time, which is about the murders of Selmi Domingo and Jean Vernice, the two Filipino cannery workers.
And then I partnered with a couple of videographers, principally Shannon Gee, who's the director of the Seattle Channel, so those have been some other things I've worked on.[:
[00:44:47] RC: That'd be great.[:
[00:44:53] RC: Yeah, no, thank you. Thank you.[:
Also know that our library of past episodes was stories from the likes of Pangea World Theater, the fabulous trickster Normando Ismay, Emmy awardee Fantastic Negrito, and this show are now available through the Change the Story collection on our artandcommunity.com website and our show notes.[:
Until next time, please stay well, do good, and spread the good word