The new leader of the Wing Luke Museum, Joel Barraquiel Tan, is the first Filipino and first queer executive director in the museum’s history. Looking through the community portrait galleries showing the ever-evolving Asian-American experience, he sees himself.
“Oh, look, there’s my nose,” he said, pointing to a wall full of photos about Filipinos. “There’s my ears. Look, there’s my auntie’s smile.”
He described the Asian-American experience as one of “anti-fragility” — a strengthening and a response to the struggle. And he said being a Filipino also includes one important characteristic.
“You gotta have a sense of humor,” he said. “That is so intrinsically Filipino.”
Barraquiel Tan is a poet, as well as a social justice, arts, and health advocate who co-founded LA’s Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team health centers during a different pandemic.
“I was part of this early wave of artists who responded to HIV/AIDS,” he said.
All that he has experienced, he said, has led him here.
“In this time of pandemic, in this time of heightened AAPI [Asian and Pacific Islander] hate, as well as an incredible time of potential of really groundbreaking shifts in demographics and technology and innovation… I recognize this peak moment,” he said. “I kind of experienced it a little bit like the Bat Signal.”
The museum is named for Wing Luke, the first person of color on the Seattle City Council and first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest. Luke not only earned a Bronze Star for serving in World War II, but also went on to receive a law degree from the University of Washington and was appointed assistant attorney general for Washington state.
Luke fought for civil rights and fair housing, and his life was tragically cut short at age 40 when he died in a plane crash.
The museum now stands as an anchor of the Chinatown-International District, with its collections telling the story of the neighborhood, its people, and businesses.
“These were the first two buildings in the Pacific Northwest, you know, bought and owned by Chinese families,” Barraquiel Tan said of the museum site. “What effort did that take in that time to do that?”
In February, the museum received a $1 million grant from Bank of America to restore the buildings and improve technology.
“What kinds of digital experiences actually promote wonder?” Barraquiel Tan asked. “If we’re going to counter API hate, it comes down to what kinds of joy and wonder can we create, right, to counter that energy, the defeated-ness, the fear that’s happening.”
Just down the street is Tai Tung Chinese restaurant, run by Harry Chan and started by his grandfather in 1935.
Pre-pandemic, the Wing’s Bruce Lee tours included a stop here. Chan listed off some of the items tour participants would eat.
“Chicken wings, Bruce Lee’s favorite oyster sauce beef, shrimp with the garlic sauce,” he said.
The Bruce Lee tour is restarting sometime this summer. And Chan knows the museum has a big impact on the neighborhood.
“I can see we have more people going to the museum and coming to this area,” he said. “The reason why? Because I can see they bring a brochure in here,” he said.
He believes Barraquiel Tan was a good choice for the role.
“With his background, I think he should be doing very good job,” he said.
Barraquiel Tan told KIRO 7 that the job begins with taking care of the staff, who’ve endured the pandemic. Then it’s about looking toward the future with the Wing’s “community curatorial approach,” which is the opposite, he said, of the traditional “single curatorial genius-expert” approach. It means asking a lot of questions and including a lot of people’s perspectives when it comes to curating exhibitions.
“As I look at my nieces and nephews,” he said, “who are Mexi-pino, the generations that are Afro-pino, or Filipino, right… when they all walk out the door, they’re going to experience different things… so the question really becomes for me, what is Asian-American?”
After all, what is being created now will become the history examined in the halls of the Wing Luke Museum by the next generation.
Learn more about the Wing Luke Museum and its latest exhibits.
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