This story is part of “Asian in Ohio,” an interactive gallery exploring the landscape of Ohio and the Asian and Asian American individuals who call it home through narratives, data, mapping and film.
“I wouldn’t even take my shirt off outside. But on these closed-circuit TVs? Everybody sees it then.”
On March 23, 2021, during a routine board of trustees meeting in West Chester Township, Lee Wong took off his blazer jacket, unbuttoned his shirt and displayed the scars inflicted during his time serving in the U.S. Army — a moment that would soon go viral.
“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?” he said.
Wong’s patriotism doesn’t just run skin deep. His journey in the U.S. is defined not only by his extensive experience in local government and the military, but also his commitment to Asian American advocacy and immigrant voices.
Wong’s parents originated from Fujian, China, but he was born and grew up in Red River Village, Malaysia. He had to grow up independently, his parents having passed away when he was 10 and 12 years old.
“Tough life  in those countries — the climate, days unforgiving and high humidity; mosquitoes; all kinds of diseases; tough, tough work.”
Wong was the second youngest of 11 siblings, and his older brothers and sisters had all moved overseas to start their careers. So, in 1970, Wong followed suit and immigrated to Chicago to study pharmacy after finishing high school.
Wong’s “American Dream” of becoming a pharmacist, however, soon got a reality check. Two years into his undergraduate studies, he experienced a racially-charged attack while walking home.
“While he was attacking me, trying to choke me, kill me, pushing me to the ground, [he] called me a Jap and all that racial slur,” Wong said. “But that incident changed the course of my career. Because as a young man, I thought, ‘Wow, the U.S. is most advance[d], in humanity, advanced in justice for all.’ No. That’s not the case.”
After the attack, Wong was left confused: a 20 year-old student living in a basement in Chicago, without parents or family around him. He decided to change his major to police science in a search for justice. But Wong faced challenges in the field as an Asian immigrant: “No one wants to hire this face,” he said. “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.’ ‘Well, there’s a blazer for MP [military police] — put it on.’ Very smart recruiter.”
Wong proceeded to serve in the U.S. Army as military police. But with ongoing xenophobia that Wong attributes to Japanese car company Toyota replacing auto jobs in Detroit, he felt racial tensions escalate.
Wong shifted gears again to study criminology and, after graduating from college, was accepted to the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID).
“The Army taught me initiative, […] take the first step. Nobody can help you unless you help yourself,” he said.
But still, Wong felt like he needed something more.
“While I was in CID — and I’d done well — and I liked what I do, but I say, ‘One day when I get out, I want to serve the community and make it a better place than I found it,’” Wong said.
So began Wong’s run for elected office in Cincinnati, Ohio. As an immigrant, he faced criticism from the community and other candidates.
“People laugh at you, laugh at me. ‘Lee, you[‘ve] only been here a few years — we’ve been here 33 years. You want to run against me?’” Wong said. “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.”
He is now a trustee of West Chester Township, the role in which he found his moment of fame.
Wong expresses pride in the ethnic diversity and dynamism of West Chester, a large township of 65,000 residents. While 14% of people move in and out due to education, a majority of residents set up families and businesses, according to Wong.
He is incredibly fond of the cultural curiosity of the West Chester community.
“People always ask me for my opinion, ‘Which is the best Chinese restaurant or Asian restaurant?’ They say that’s wonderful. And it’s vice versa. And there’s so much richness in different cultures that brings [people] together in a community.”
To Wong, showing his scars in that broadcasted meeting reminded viewers that he was no less American because of his ethnicity, background or appearance.
“Most people run around here saying that they are more patriotic than you or wear the flags and all that,” Wong said. “To me, patriotism is in the heart, not outward display.”
Wong says that the Asian community has a tendency to stay quiet in the face of hardship. As the chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati, he encourages his community to speak up about issues facing Asian and Asian American minorities.
“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.”
While showcasing his scars in public was a first for Wong, he’s since come to terms with being too self-conscious.
“Well, I got rid of the inhibitions. I go to the gym, I just strip naked,” Wong said.
All jokes aside, Wong emphasized how Asian Americans must find a balance between quiet patriotism and voicing pressing issues facing their community.
“You got to have that humility. That’s very important,” he said. “But there is a time to speak up.”
You can read a selected transcript from Lee Wong’s interview here and explore other stories from this series here. “Asian in Ohio” is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Equity & Access Initiative Fund of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation.