Lee Wong is a trustee of West Chester Township and serves as a chairman at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati. Lee is a U.S. Army Veteran and served in the Criminal Investigation Division. In 2021, Lee went viral for removing his shirt and showing his military scars during a town hall meeting as a protest against Asian hate. He currently lives in Cincinnati and immigrated to the United States from the island of Borneo.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Lee and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 28, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): I think our project speaks to the sense of the Midwest being blanketed over with this sort of mainstream narrative of being all white — that it’s all the same. Actually, I think it’s not all the same. I think your story exactly speaks to that.
Lee Wong (LW): Well, the Asian [story] is very unique, especially in the Cincinnati area, Southwest Ohio. My personal experience now, we are not really considered as minority. But we are also not like other groups [considered] marginalized. We are the “model minority.” Now who the h*** are we?
LW: So I came here in 1970, after I finished high school — it’s called Malaysia now, but it used to be British Borneo. My parents are from Fujian, China a long time ago. They came with my grandfather. But I was born actually in British Borneo, in Three River Village. My grandfather was the first immigration boater to have arrived there, opened up a jungle, go in there and [make a] settlement. So, he was a real pioneer in Borneo. So, I came over here, my parents pass away at a very young age when I was only — my mother [when I was] 10 and my father died [when I was] 12. The tough life on immigration in those countries — the climate was unforgiving and high humidity, mosquitoes, all kinds of diseases, tough, tough work and work hard. [I] have 11 brothers and sisters. I’m the second youngest. So, by age 12, you know how young is 12, I’m by myself already, my parents gone, all my older brothers and sisters overseas to study — gone on to have their own careers. So, it was basically either you do or die, but you know, we are pretty smart, we worked hard, we know that we must succeed. So [that] gave me more resolve. I applied for U.S. school and I got accepted to Chicago to come here to study pre-pharmacy, to be a pharmacist, a dream of getting “Wow, the American Dream.”
Anyway, life is unpredictable. Two years into the school, one night, I was attacked coming home from school. A man jumped on me. He thought I was Japanese American. While he was attacking me, trying to choke me, kill me, pushing me to the ground, called me a “Jap” and all that racial slur. I called the police. I even had to go to hospital to get treated at the emergency room. But that incident changed the course of my career. Because as a young man, I thought, “Wow, the U.S. is most advanced in humanities, advanced in justice for all.” No. That’s not the case.
While in court — I took him to court — he still called me the racial slur: “Slanted eyes. Japanese Jap. I’ll kill you like dogs.” He pretended he was crazy then. The judge gave him one year of unsupervised, non-reporting probation. That means, if you don’t do it again, you’re scot-free. So as a 20-year-old student living in some basement in Chicago, there was no parental advice anymore. I had a hard time dealing with that. I was very confused. For a couple of years. I even changed my major to police science, to police work, thinking I want justice. No one wants to hire this face. They laughed at me when I went to apply.
So one day an Army recruiter came to college and asked me, “What do you want to be?” I said, “I want to be a cop.” Very smart recruiter. Next thing, I was signed up for the Army as a military police. And as soon as I got in, I cut my hair, put on a green uniform, and they told me that, “You’re in the Army. I’m your big daddy, you’re gonna do what I tell you. All those garbage you had in mind, you better clean it out now, or else you’re not going to make it.”
I knew I messed up, because I let that man into my head. I would say, “It got to me, that kind of attack.” The reason for his attack — I understand. At that time the Japanese Toyota car company is coming into Detroit taking the jobs. It’s just like now, it’s this xenophobia or that nonsense going on. He had a hatred against Asians. So, same thing today too with the attacks on Asians.
So, the Army turned out to be a very good training. I like it. The philosophy is: they were with us 24/7. I couldn’t get out then. That’s when I knew I messed up. So I re-shifted my gear to study criminology. I finished my bachelor degree while I was in the MP corps and applied for CID; that is the top Criminal Investigation Division. That is the FBI of the Army. They wear civilian clothes in the military so [they] control the entire military — about 300 of us. Stroke of luck, I got accepted. I did well on the test. I did all the way after six years of MP, all the way CID to retirement. So while I was in CID, I’d done well, and I liked what I do, but I said, “One day, when I get out, I want to serve the community and make it a better place than I found it.” This is why I get involved with community. Before that, just like any typical Asian or any typical person didn’t get involved with civic matter, I felt that it is important to make a change. The Army taught me initiative: take the initiative, take the first step. Nobody can help you unless you help yourself. So I came here. Also, it’s not an easy step. Nothing is given to you rosy free; this is an all-white community.
RC: Tell me more about it.
LW: To run for elected office, people laugh at you. They laugh at me: “Lee, you only been here a few years, we’ve been here 33 years.You want to run against me?” But you know what, I got on a bicycle and knocked on 18,000 doors, and I got the top vote and ever since, I’ve been reelected a total of five times. So that’s four years each. So 20 years. I’m very fortunate. I love this community. People like me. I stay close to the ground. I do what is right for the people. I don’t bring in an agenda — political beliefs or religious beliefs. I just do the right thing. So far, people liked it. I enjoy what I do here.
So besides that, I also got elected to be the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati to be the chairman. So that covers 12 states. Also, to top it off, I said this one took the cake, over the top. I got invited to the White House last month for the first Lunar New Year celebration by Biden and his wife, and that was a great event. That was the best — top.
So, to bring up the Chinese American here in the community. From my observation is that we are definitely a minority here. Chinese American, Asian American, including Korean, other races — they’re very hard-working people, law-abiding citizens. And some of them have been victimized several times and never speak up. I learned from my experience that bad things happen when you don’t speak up. I’m not afraid to speak up. Like I say, one meeting that was during the big Atlanta attack where six Asian women were killed and people make fun of it. And then I see the attacks over here rise in our local restaurants. So they came to me — I’m the leader. I say something to help to stop the Asian hate.
So I spoke up in a meeting. And as I went on, something took over me. At one part, I looked back and I thought that for 50 years I put up with a lot of s*** — that’s what I said exactly — and I did not speak up, though. So that’s when I got hot. I took my shirt and jacket off and showed what patriotism is about.
Most people run around here saying that they are more patriotic than you and wear the flags and all that. And to me, patriotism is in the heart, not outward display. But we all have contributed different kinds of patriotism. You pay taxes — that’s patriotic. You know, you are law abiding. So to say that one group is not because basically because of the way I look, they couldn’t get over this face — that gets me. So something took over me at that moment. I thought I was just going to get my foot in the water, but it was deep in. So I made a point — took my shirt off and showed them what patriotism is about. The scar I sustained from the military combat training. And I served this country, I paid my dues. And what are you talking about? Patriotism that’s only by skin? We are not patriotic enough? How much do you want?
RC: In this community specifically, can you share a little bit about your constituents and their thoughts when they saw that you’re Asian, and the majority seems to be white?
LW: I’m very lucky. This is a very great community. High education level. This is the most affluent community in the county. People here are educated. Many work at GE, P&G — a lot of fortune 500 companies here. Well-educated, they are very good people. I stay close to them; I always listen to the views. I always pass up my cell phone number to them; they can call me anytime or write me an email. I always responded. This community, I will say, is definitely up and up. We are forward-thinking. They don’t tolerate that kind of behavior here. Like I say, I love them, and they love me. This is a great community to be in.
RC: In some ways, your family’s history itself is very much part of the Asian diaspora. Now that you’ve been here and you’re an American and serve the country, how does your background or Asian heritage inform the way you think about government?
LW: Well, I think it’s really a benefit to be Asian. To me, it is a rich heritage. That, to me, is a very positive thing: my heritage I can share with others. That’s what makes America great: that we are different. We have more diverse people, educated people.
I bring a lot of experiences, not only language — but I’m bi-cultural. I live in other countries before, and then bring it over here so people can understand it. People always ask me for my opinion, “Which is the best Chinese restaurant or Asian restaurant?” I say, “That’s wonderful.” And vice versa. There’s so much richness in different cultures that brings us together in a community. I think the benefits it brought to West Chester of different ethnic backgrounds — it is wonderful, instead of one monolith.
RC: “Mono” is typically what people think of when they think of the Midwest — Ohio.
LW: Right. You’d be surprised how mixed we are in Westchester. Just on my streets alone we have Indian, Korean, Moroccan, Middle Eastern. There are about five different ethnic groups and ethnicities. So West Chester is a dynamic community. Every year there’s about 14% of people moving in and out because of good schools here that [they] take advantage of, a good place to raise a family and a good place to do business. We are the most prosperous township in the state. It is also the largest township in the state — we have over about 3,600 businesses here. And our valuation of business is very high here. So it is the largest township. We have about 65,000 in population. And people like to remain it that way, as a township.
RC: I was talking with the co-founder of an organization serving Asian Americans in the Cleveland area and she was saying how she longs for more leaders coming out of the Asian American community. How do you feel about that?
LW: That’s a very good question. Oh, that’s a part of our chamber, which is to educate young kids. Asian Americans need to get more involved in civic matters. Asians, traditionally, we always think about being doctors, engineers — never thought about being journalists, police officers or any civic roles like township administrator. These are all very important leadership positions and have good benefits. And they need to change their mindsets. So I educate them. Young Asian Americans, I teach them. I talk to them: “You need to get involved. How to volunteer. Volunteerism is very important.” How did I get involved in our community? Football games, I used to collect tickets. Varsity games, I’d done all that. I don’t even have kids playing football. So this is all a part of community involvement. When there is a meeting, I don’t see any Asian faces. I say, a community is run by people who show up. And you don’t even show up — how can you have your skin in this? You need to speak up, get involved and do what has to be done. Do it right. You know what’s going on —I’m sure Asians do. Yes, they contribute a lot, don’t get me wrong. They pay taxes, they work hard, raise a family here. And there is more they can do, which is to get involved in a community they live in, and have a voice in it.
RC: Especially with Asian American second generation, third generation, increasingly, they feel more part of this community. What would you say to a young person that approaches you? Has anyone come up to you and say, “Wow, you just inspired me?”
LW: Yes, yes, I got that a lot. I do have a pretty good sized fan club there. I’m glad at least I talked to a few of them to join the military and get their feet wet. That’s what I did. And that’s a good start, but we are still looking for police officers of Asian descent. I still can’t find one. I am glad I can be an inspiration to a lot of Asians.
One good example I want to give you is P&G. About 17 years ago, I was invited to speak at a group in P&G. I found out that 80% of my audience were PhDs, Asian, Chinese American. But none of them were directors at such a big company corporation. So I taught there. They wanted to know, “How can I be a top leader in a community that’s all white?” They were not. They’re all technical. Well, after I talked to them and gave them a few tips, today I just found out that there are 14 directors in P&G who are Chinese American. Six VPs, and two are the most senior VP there. In fact, one of them was in my first talk. I’ve been invited back to speak to them many times already. But one of the senior VP was in their first class I gave. So that makes me feel good. After so many years, she came back: “I remember you.”
RC: You made a difference.
LW: I make a difference. One of the simple observations is you’ve got to sit down with your boss every lunchtime. Eat with them. You don’t just go there by yourself and your friends. You are not invited [but you can go]. I said, “This is America.”
RC: What’s the legacy that you hope to leave?
LW: Well, I hope I set the stage for future Asian Americans who step up, to take this leadership role. I think it’s very important to have a voice in a community — a face to show up where it is needed. And it’s great to have a voice in a community. You got to build the community from the ground up. And I hire police chief, fire chief, administrator — all the top directors. So, it makes a big difference. So we have a good community here through, see, involvement. I had to learn all this — I didn’t go to college to do this. I learned it from the army about leadership, about what is leadership? You know, just nothing is going to drop from heaven on my lap.
RC: I think it’s a certain amount of humility, too — allowing us to learn, allowing us to be part of American life.
LW: Yes, yes. I’m humble. I don’t go out to brag about myself. And you got to have that humility. That’s very important. But there is a time to speak up. There are sometimes people don’t speak up — that’s when problems occur. I dare say, one of the best comments during the episode of my chest bearing, I got a comment from the Australian prime minister, saying that “Silence is consent to racism.” I thought that was very good. Even President Biden said that: “Silence is complicity.” So, I think we need to be bold sometimes to speak up and get involved in a community.