“Who’s Got Game?” Asian Pacific Americans in sports, now at The Wing Luke

The author demonstrating her gymnast salute in the Wing Luke’s “Wingflakes” photo booth. (Photo courtesy Samantha Pak)

Nerd. Geek. Tech support. Model minority.

Among the many common stereotypes about Asian Pacific Americans (APAs), the common thread is that we’re more academic and good at math than athletic and good at sports.

The Wing Luke of the Asian Pacific American Experience’s (The Wing’s)  latest exhibit, “Who’s Got Game?” proves otherwise. Based in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, the exhibit debunks this stereotype and highlights many accomplished APA athletes in the U.S. — now and throughout history.

Personally, from ages 7-14, I spent almost as much time at the gym or competing around the state and country as a gymnast as I did in school. My sister was also a competitive swimmer, so many years of our family’s day-to-day activities revolved around sports: Who was picking up  and dropping of who at practice? Who had a meet that weekend?

But within our community of APA family and friends, our family was unique in that our involvement in sports went beyond competing at the school level. Outside a select few teammates and competitors, we didn’t know many other APA athletes.

In contrast, “Who’s Got Game?” according to The Wing’s website, features everything from “schoolyard games to national championships, from pre-war baseball leagues to this year’s X Games, the exhibition will follow the personal journeys of APA athletes representing a wide range of sports, ethnic and cultural identities, genders, and generations.”

Mikala Woodward, exhibit developer for The Wing, said planning for “Who’s Got Game?” started about two years before it opened last month. She said the exhibit’s community advisory committee was made up of about 20 people who conducted interviews and collected oral histories to highlight both APAs in sports history as well as high-achieving APA athletes of today.

The exhibit covers everything from the importance of play and how sports connect people and communities, to exceptional athletes such as Kristi Yamaguchi and Jeremy Lin, who broke through and gained mainstream success. There’s even a section of the exhibit that highlights the importance of sports fans and features Seattle Seahawks super fan Norbert Caoili of NorbCam, who has become known for posting videos online of himself reacting to Seahawks’ games.

A mantel of trophies won by Asian American athletes inside the “Who’s Got Game?” exhibit at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. (Photo by Samantha Pak)

And of course, what exhibit on sports would be complete without a section dedicated to the triumph of victory? This section features various trophies and medals athletes at various levels have won in their respective sports. Visitors to The Wing can even have their picture taken and put on the front of a cereal box (“Wingflakes” in this case, rather than Wheaties) — one of the ultimate markers of athletic success.

Woodward said the “Who’s Got Game?” exhibit is important because, while you can have role models who don’t look like you, it does make a difference to be able to see yourself as successful.

I could relate.

In 1996, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won gold at the Olympics in Atlanta. Among the Magnificent Seven was Amy Chow, a Chinese American gymnast who became the first Asian American woman to win Olympic medals in gymnastics — a gold in the team competition and an individual silver for the uneven bars.

While the uneven bars was my weakest event as a gymnast, that didn’t stop me from looking up to Chow. I was 10 at the time and had dreams of following in her footsteps and becoming the first Asian American to win Olympic medals on the vault and floor exercise (my personal strengths).

The competitive season following the Atlanta Olympics, I had the opportunity to meet Chow at a competition in Oregon, where she had come up from California to give an exhibition performance of her award-winning uneven bars routine and sign autographs.

I still remember catching a glimpse of her the day before her performance in the warm-up gym and my teammates and I giddily waving to her as she prepared to practice on the bars.

We were all excited to meet an Olympian in person, but it was extra special to me because Chow and I had more in common than just gymnastics: We were both Asian American. 

The author, far right, pictured with former Olympic gymnast Amy Chow (middle). (Photo courtesy Samantha Pak)

And for someone who rarely saw anyone like herself represented in any field, that was not insignificant.

This is the kind of feeling organizers of “Who’s Got Game?” want to create.

We want people to feel heroic and central and powerful,” Woodward said.

She noted that stereotypes of APAs have led to their athletic and sports successes being ignored or diminished. Woodward added that in some cases, APAs got involved in sports to avoid being stereotyped. For example, the exhibit features a team of South Asians who began playing basketball to avoid being labeled as terrorists. There are other cases in which athletes’ APA backgrounds played roles in the sports they participated in such as Hawaiians and surfing or the Japanese and baseball.

For Ursula Liang, who wrote the text for the exhibit, sports were also a big part of growing up. The New York-based former sports journalist-turned documentarian said that for her Chinese father, part of being American was playing sports. So Liang and her brother were always involved in some sort of athletic activity.

The two are even featured in the exhibit in a video of their younger selves playing soccer on a beach. In addition, clips from Liang’s documentary “9-Man,” about a streetball sport played in the Chinatowns throughout the country, are featured in the exhibit.

“There’s a lot of fun stuff there,” Liang said, though she added that the social justice and critical thinking components of “Who’s Got Game?” — including the social historical backdrops and issues of discrimination against APAs in sports — would not be centered in a non-APA museum.

“Who’s Got Game?” will be on display through Sept. 17 at The Wing, located at 719 S. King St. in Seattle.

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