The Wing Luke Museum takes flight

The handsome new space is a striking work of architecture, and the exhibits make up a "meta-museum," continually asking questions about how a museum should relate to its community.
Crosscut archive image.

Wing Luke (left). (Wing Luke Museum)

The handsome new space is a striking work of architecture, and the exhibits make up a "meta-museum," continually asking questions about how a museum should relate to its community.

Perhaps the most moving thing about the rebirth of the Wing Luke Asian Museum is that it has at last acquired a permanent home. Up until now — ever since the museum began operating in the middle of the Chinatown/International District in 1967 — it had been a nomad, getting by leasing spaces nearby (including an old garage for the past 20 years). U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, on hand for last weekend’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, eloquently pointed out the symbolic dimension of this settling down: It’s an affirmation of the need to chronicle and preserve the immigrant cultural heritage which is at the root of American identity and experience.

The new Wing Luke represents a dramatic expansion of scope, which has been widely heralded by the media in the drum rolls leading up to the grand opening. The East Kong Yick Building on South King that is now the museum’s home affords eight times more space than its previous quarters (a half block away on S. Jackson), and administrators project a fourfold increase in visitors per year. An impressive fund-raising campaign secured the $23.2 million budget needed for the intricate transformation of what had been a plaintive ruin of a building dating from 1910 into a unique blend of old and new.

"We are a living museum," explains executor director Beth Takekawa, using the catch phrase that homes in on the core of Wing Luke’s special mission. The artifacts and objects it houses are means rather than ends, intended to encourage an ongoing dialog with the past as "living representations of history." The museum plans to display multiple points of view from the pan-Asian community — or, to use its own terminology, "Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIAs)" — that come from inside their experience rather than the "objective" judgments of expert curators. Moreover, the Wing Luke incorporates spaces meant to be used by the community, including a reception hall, a library (named for former Gov. Gary Locke), exhibit areas for younger artists, and an intimate 59-seat theater. The museum is especially proud of the historic curtain from the early 1900s that is decked out with painted ads from the era. Originally it had been used for the Japanese Nippon Kan theater in the neighborhood, a place where variety shows shared the stage with visiting artists from Japan. Plans are for Wing Luke’s theater to host new shows such as a work-in-progress by local performance artist Nancy Calos-Nakano.

It will also address contemporary issues, such as voter registration vis-à-vis an exhibit about Asian-American participation in the election process. The topic is especially appropriate, not only given the stakes this November but because the museum’s namesake became the first Asian American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest (as a member of the Seattle City Council). Two years after his tragic death in 1965 in a plane crash (at the age of 40), Wing Luke’s legacy was commemorated by the founding of the museum he had envisioned (now an affiliate of the Smithsonian).

Takekawa points to the unique nature of the venue itself. "We use both historic and contemporary spaces. The building also has a story and is part of our community legacy. We made a deliberate decision to stay here. It’s an unconventional location for a museum — an urban setting in the heart of a low-income community."

Indeed, the additional square footage acquired by the revitalized Wing Luke is hardly the main story. One of the opening exhibits pays tribute to the formal grace of George Tsutakawa’s fountains, for example. But along with such expected displays of artistic accomplishment, the Wing Luke has its eyes on other horizons. Much of what makes the new quarters so intriguing is their "meta-museum" quality, whereby there is a continually rethinking of assumptions about what a museum should be, in tandem with the issues of Asian-American identity that are addressed.

The four-story East Hong Yick Building began life nearly a century ago as a hotel and boarding house for legions of newly arrived immigrants. It was their first anchor as they began to remake their lives in a foreign land, a base where they established ties with fellow newcomers. And already it was a multicultural meeting point, bringing together not only Chinese immigrants but Japanese brides and Filipino "Alaskeros" who were heading up to work in Alaska’s salmon canneries.

Seattle architect Rick Sundberg of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, who used input from the local community, has referred to New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum as an inspiring model, but his blend of bright shiny new spaces with moody, weathered historical elements is an extraordinary local masterpiece of renovation. Instead of simply gutting and building up from scratch, the composite respects — and embodies — the original aura of a site saturated with memories.

After a cheery welcome sculpture in the main hall, you ascend the main staircase to the second-floor exhibitions, the skylight of the west lightwell floods the evocative "Letter Cloud" installation by Erin Shie Palmer and Susie Kozawa. Against this visual backdrop of suspended, floating letters, an audio loop of narrators intones the texts (in the original languages and in translation) of authentic original letters from travelers making their way to this strange new world. Their almost-whispered intimacies are gentle lapping waves. An alley-like hallway summons the ghosts of the past in another installation where echoes of a living, breathing building are suggested in the indistinguishable noises of bygone daily life. They are at once intensely nostalgic and comforting in their routineness, capturing the sense of these immigrant pioneers in passage as they adapt to new surroundings while still dreaming of distant homes.

This aspect of the museum is at its most dramatic in the building’s "historic immersion" spaces (for which special guided tours are available). Here you can encounter rooms as these first immigrants experienced them: tight living quarters, a communal kitchen area, and — the piece de resistance of restoration — a top-floor, balconied "family association" room which was a gathering space housing original ancestral shrines. Paintings decorate the walls, and its original hammered-tin ceiling has been beautifully preserved.

Another part of the historic immersion area which has garnered much attention is the first-floor food shop. This is actually a transplanted version of the legendary Yick Fung Company which was still in operation (in the building next door) right up until earlier this year since it opened in 1910. "Uncle" Jimmy Mar, the 93-year-old phenomenon who took over running the store from his immigrant father, has contributed a video that will replay his recollections of the store’s many decades as a social gathering place. Along with selling imported food (to local residents and to restaurants throughout the Northwest), the Yick Fung Co. also offered barber services and sold tickets for a steamer line traveling to China.

Fond memories aren’t the only ones the museum intends to preserve. The current "Honoring Our Journey" exhibit on the second floor — basically a stroll through varying aspects of Asian-Americans’ experience as they came to terms with their new lives here — includes a chilling engraving from Harper's of the Anti-Chinese riots in Seattle in 1886 which shows victims being violently rounded up and forced on ships headed back to China. Documents show the grim realities these settlers faced, not only in the late 19th century, when groups such as the Congress of Sinophobes gathered in Yesler Hall, but well into the next. A section on Japanese-American internments in World War II reminds us that the first citizens to be rounded up were from Bainbridge Island (on March 30, 1942). And an examination of stereotyping gathers artifacts from popular culture — including recent items like Wal-Mart’s controversial 2003 "mail-order bride" costume — to show how embedded some of these images are.

A good portion of the available exhibit space is currently empty, awaiting installation for such upcoming shows as an exhibit on "mixed races and ethnicity." If Wing Luke’s planners can steer clear of a blandly predictable, PC approach to multiculturalism, the rebirthed museum offers great promise as an unusual and reflective venue. "This is our year of new beginnings," Takewawa declares. "The APIA community has been growing rapidly. Now we have space for greater representation of the range of ethnic community stories and artistic expressions. Sometimes the lens changes how you tell the story. People’s perspective on history changes, and we reflect that."


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