The atypical Wing Luke Museum shares immigrant community's history

The atypical Wing Luke Museum shares immigrant community's history

The atypical Wing Luke Museum shares immigrant community's history

Attached to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience, 719 S. King St., is the Yick Fung Co. store. Opened in 1910, Yick Fung was one of Chinatown’s longest-operating stores until it closed in 2008. Although it has been out of business since then, it remains in perfect condition, from the arranged items on its shelves, to the perfectly up-kept yellow-and-gold logo painted on the storefront door.

The fact that, after the Yick Fung closed, it became part of the Wing Luke Museum, proves that this is not your average art museum. Rather than focus primarily on Asian art and artists, the Smithsonian-affiliated Wing Luke Museum seeks to immerse people in American stories of survival, success, struggle, conflict and hope. All its exhibits and the historic building it calls home, are dedicated to showing the specialized history of Asian Americans, from immigration to the present.

Amy Chinn, marketing coordinator at the Wing Luke, said that the museum is unlike any other in the United States: “As our nation’s only museum devoted to the Asian-Pacific American experience, it’s one of the few places that can truly give you a new perspective on what it means to be American.”

Why it’s so special

The previously named Wing Luke Memorial Museum first opened in 1967, in a small storefront on Eighth Avenue South in Seattle. Wing Luke was the first Asian American elected to public office in Washington state.

In 1987, the museum moved to a larger space on Seventh Avenue South and changed its name to the Wing Luke Asian Museum. It achieved national recognition by using a community-based model of exhibit development that shifted focus from just art over to personal experiences. Chinn said that the community-based model for creating exhibits allows for a different experience than that of other major art museums.

“We don’t have curators on staff, so when we do shows, we get input from the community on what they would like to see,” Chinn explained. “From there, we as a staff vote on the different ideas. Then, when we are going to put a show together, we assemble a community advisory committee made up of people from the community. They decide what they would like to show, what they would like the community to see, the objects they would like to have in the exhibition and what stories they would like to tell through the exhibit.”

The Wing Luke has been operating in this manner since the 1990s and has found its brand of storytelling to be very popular among the community. 

Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, said that having multiple museums that are so different in a metropolis like Seattle offers a greater opportunity for learning.

“Different museums have a totally different take on some of the same things,” he said. “Looking at the Wing Luke, it’s a completely different experience going in there than the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Though they both have Asian art exhibits, the way and the process that the Wing Luke gets there is the completely different process of community-driven curation that you don’t see around the country. It’s quite impressive.”

Just as impressive as its community exhibits is the historic building the museum occupies. In 2001, the museum began looking for a new home, and found the building it currently occupies on South King Street. 

Formerly an immigrant hotel, the building itself offers historic exhibitions, from the preserved Yick Fung Co. store to the third-floor hotel rooms once used by Asian immigrant workers.

“When this was an immigrant hotel, there were retail shops on the first floor, the manager’s office on the second and hotel rooms on the third. It really was kind of a community of single men at the time, since men came over [from China] to work,” Chinn said. “So the hotel rooms are preserved with some of the furniture and clothing and photos. It’s really amazing, and a great piece of AAPI [Asian-American/Pacific Islander] history in this area.”

Wing Luke exhibits can take up to two years to complete, and often stay on display from four months to a year. Paul Mar, a member of the board of trustees at Wing Luke, said that it can take a very long time to complete their comprehensive shows.

“It takes that long because a lot of the exhibits are talking about history, and we have to do a lot of research,” Mar said. “It’s mostly done with volunteer people who are part of community action committee for each specific exhibit. They start meeting with abstract ideas and concepts, which they translate into two- and three-dimensional visuals. It takes a really long time to put all that together.”

Wing Luke’s methods seem to be working. Though the museum opened in 2008, right before the recession and has had to weather difficult economic times, Mar said that it is doing very well.

“We’re trying to get to the point where at least 30 percent of our funding comes from operations; right now, we’re at maybe 20 percent,” he said. “We opened [at the South King Street location] in June of 2008, and the economy crashed [that] September. We’re almost to the point of meeting our first-year projections right now, and in the next couple of years, as the economy bounces back, we should be in very good shape.”

Chinn said that the museum sees several thousand visitors each year and also receives grant funding and local government funding to continue operations. 

She added that it has its slow and busy times each year: “Right now is Lunar New Year time, so we are going to be very busy for the next few months.”

Chinn also said that it partners with local businesses and organizations in the area to publicize its business.

“Part of our mission is to help with the revitalization of the whole International District, so we work all year-round with different business improvement associations and organizations in the area to improve awareness and support. We just think we’re much stronger if we all work together,” she said.

Why it’s so important

But in a city struggling with budget issues that already has several other museums — including an Asian-specific museum — why should the public worry about the success of a smaller, independent museum? 

Blakeney said that the Wing Luke remains relevant because it draws people to the neighborhood and tells people stories they would otherwise not hear.

“I think that having the Wing Luke, not only as a resource for people who want to learn about AAPI culture but also for the neighborhood is very important,” he said. “They do a tremendous amount to promote the International District. Plus, having that kind of community-driven force and storytelling capability is really powerful.”

Chinn agreed, adding that the older generations in the area have been extremely receptive to what it is doing.

“We have a lot of members and loyal visitors that are older. I think they appreciate their stories being told and their voices being heard. It honors and tells the immigrants stories, so the older generation appreciates that,” she said. “Also, it’s very important that everybody knows the stories of other cultures. It helps in so many ways — when you can understand other people’s stories and where they’re from. I can’t stress how important that is.”

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