Warm. That was how I felt leaving the Community Spread: How We Faced a Pandemic exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum. After spending a while freaking out about driving on I-90 for the first time, I walked through Capitol Hill, shivering and stuffing my hands in my pockets. Yet, when I pulled open the door to the museum, I was embraced with warm air and excited smiles.
The Wing Luke Museum is in a special spot. It could’ve been built by the Gates Discovery Center, or in Bellevue, but it’s in the International District right near Chinatown. The proximity to the Asian community that the museum honors is an important part of the experience. Walking up to the museum you pass an Asian grocery store, selling fresh dashi stock, durians, and pulled noodles. When I crossed the street, two bundled up elderly Asian women walked past me with arms full of groceries. It’s important that the museum wasn’t built in more developed neighborhoods. The museum isn’t white-washed and doesn’t pander to the desires of those more privileged. The diverse International District neighborhood creates a rich environment for the Wing Luke Museum.
Everything and everyone was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, from dogs who got to spend more time with their families, to kids who spent two years learning algebra in bed. Sadly, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced additional negative effects. In early 2020, Trump called the emerging COVID-19 virus the “Chinese virus” and, later, “this crazy, horrible China virus.” Xenophobia, specifically towards Asians, with hate incidents almost doubling, with many instances of hate crimes, including the Atlanta Spa Shooting that brought more media attention to the rising violence.
The Wing Luke Museum’s Community Spread exhibit mourns the lives impacted and lost, while concurrently celebrating the resiliency of the Asian community. The exhibit begins with a photograph collage of Asian families going about their lives within a pandemic. A student, missing out on the college experience, does an online workout with her mom. A grandmother video chats with her newborn grandchildren from a community center. The loss and loneliness of the situation in each picture is contrasted with solutions and alternatives filled with love and hope.
As I walked through the door, I was drawn to a video screen playing a rap/R&B music video Us by Filipina American Northwest rapper Ruby Ibarra. The cast of the video, which features BLACKPINK-esque dance moves and a beat that could compete with Billboard toppers, consists entirely of Filipina women. The US music industry features very few Asian American artists, so to see the exhibit making an active effort to promote Asian American artists warms my heart.
The exhibition features Asian American owned local businesses like Mimi’s Bakery and Flower shop and Night Light Nails. Both owners are part of the Seattle Vietnamese community. The museum also highlights Lawyers Linda Tran and Maria Bao Tran who are providing legal assistance and counseling to struggling Asian Americans during the pandemic. The solidarity between the Asian communities is present in every part of society, from America’s flawed justice system, to where people spend and invest their money. Walking through the hallway, a poem is written on the wall: “Take a deep breath. Then another one. And another one. Keep smiling. And remember why.” This quote is reminiscent of the struggles of the model minority myth, and how we must keep fighting for our communities and spreading awareness.
The “model minority” is a term used to invalidate Asian American experiences with racism. Because stereotypes associated with Asian people (being smart, being nerdy, being involved in STEM) aren’t character traits that are generally thought of as negative, racism against Asian people is often seen as less hurtful or discriminatory. Stereotypes of any kind erase individual identity to prioritize how white people, or privileged people, want to see others. The model minority myth is used to attempt to invalidate the heightened racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic. This myth enforces the fallacy that racism towards Asian people is limited to nerdy stereotypes and fail to acknowledge the violence towards AAPI people, with higher rates of sexual violence and rising violent hate crimes.
To deliberately contrast this, the exhibit showcases all sorts of interests and passions, from the music industry, to local salons. To add an interactive component, the museum collaborates with local nail salon VEQUE to allow visitors to propose names for new polish colors. The beauty industry has a strong presence in the Asian diaspora in America, from nail parlors to beauty standards. The museum showcases the first Korean plus size fashion magazine, in an attempt to decolonize beauty standards, and, while the beautiful woman on the cover is definitely not plus size, the intent of change is there. From a plethora of art mediums, to seeing my own face represented and succeeding in every facet of society, Community Spread is compassionate, thoughtful, and intentional in the decolonization of attitudes and the dismantling of stereotypes. The love of the exhibit curators is present in every piece of art and visiting feels like home.
Community Spread opened at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in May 2021 and is currently on display. For more information see here.