By Amy-Xiaoshi DePaola
Bill Wong’s ideal dinner date would be Bruce Lee.
“He was an innovator, disruptor, strategist and thought leader,” said Wong, who’s worked as a political strategist for over 30 years. “[Lee] was also a civil rights activist that demonstrated his commitment to equal rights by allowing anyone to attend his school, regardless of race or gender. This was courageous and revolutionary at the time.”
It’s fitting that Wong’s choice is the famed martial arts master, as Wong’s latest memoir, Better to Win, is chock-full of often-Machiavellian strategies for AAPIs to make their voices heard. In fact, his spark to fight bureaucracy emerged from watching the Japanese historical drama Shadow Warriors as a teen.
Though Wong traces his own experiences as a Chinese immigrant to working with powerhouses such as State Assemblymembers Judy Chu and Anthony Rendon, as well as California State Sen. Hilda L. Solis, he said the main goal of his book is to provide AAPIs with tangible examples of how they can make their voices heard in the halls of power—and how to take a seat themselves.
But simply being at the table isn’t enough, Wong warned.
“If you’re out there by yourself or dependent on someone else’s political infrastructure, you can easily be isolated and ostracized,” he said. “In order to have the courage to speak truth to power, you need to bring your own army to the field of combat.”
Someone who encapsulates this tactic—and who a large portion of the book celebrates—is the “absolutely fearless” Rep. Chu, whom Wong worked for as a chief of staff.
“Without a doubt, my time with Judy Chu was the most inspiring,” Wong recounted. “She’s been in and won more underdog fights than anyone in this space and she continues to fight fearlessly in the halls of Congress for the AAPI community and other communities of color.”
The admiration is not one-sided: “Bill is an incredibly selfless operator … working in the shadows for decades,” Chu said in a phone interview. “I experienced many obstacles, and he made me fight back.” She credits Wong with helping her become the first Chinese American woman in a congressional office.”
Chu, who’s held her California seat since 2009, currently serves as the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. But when she first was elected, that organization was in its infancy, with “only a handful of AAPIs”were in office, she said. Now, there are 21 AAPIs in Congress—and one in the White House: Vice President Kamala Harris.
But power does not hinge on a person holding a seat, Wong noted. One of the key mistakes AAPIs make once getting into office is failing to create and maintain a network to continue the fight.
“They need to continually cultivate a strong base of donors, nurture AAPI political staff and organizers and help other AAPIs get elected to office,” Wong said, pointing to Chu’s active support, from AAPI staff to standouts such as Rep. Ted Lieu, Betty Yee, Angela Pan and Annie Lam.
He also highlighted community organizations and nonprofits, which are essential to winning elections.
“2022 was probably the first time that we’ve seen AAPI 501c4 civic engagement organizations participate in voter turnout at scale,” he said, though acknowledging that many organizations have been operating and been active for decades. He pointed to the Asian American Power Network, led by Nadia Nisha Belkin, which “mobilized over $10 million for direct voter contact in key battleground states,” such as Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia. AAPI voters were heavily influential and reached out to on a much larger scale in the 2020 midterms.
But despite professional successes, both Chu and Wong expressed concern over the currently fraught environment for AAPIs—namely the rise of hate crimes, racial profiling and anti-AAPI sentiment that culminated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Which is why, Wong said, having AAPIs play a key role in the room where it happens is essential: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, that means you’re on the menu.
“Wealth and success are no protection from the wrongs of society. People’s lives are easily ruined in the halls of power by the decisions of those in elected office,” he continued, referencing historic government policies such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor, the Alien Land Law and the Chinese Exclusion Act.
With this cyclical rise of AAPI hate, Wong has put his political career on pause to reevaluate his priorities.
“I still love the craft of politics, but I am frustrated that we—meaning AAPIs—have not taken politics to the next level, and I haven’t been able to figure out why. Perhaps we are too complacent and comfortable and think the current anti-Asian hostilities will blow over. Unfortunately, history has taught us that our relative comfort and acceptance is only temporary,” he warned.
In Better to Win, he advises AAPIs to “Leave your pompoms and bullhorn at home. Bring your sword and shield instead,” something that Wong himself regrets not doing more of in his career.
“We should have burned the model minority myth into the ground a long time ago,” he said.
(Editor note: A portion of sales of the book Better to Win purchased through the links in this story go back to support Asian American Media Inc and AsAmNews.)
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