By Bill Yoshino
I know of few who had the outward zeal that Bernie Wong possessed in working for
the community and the organization she served. Bernie founded and led the
Chinese American Service League (CASL), which would become the largest Asian
American social service organization in the Midwest. I don’t think I would be
making her more than what she was by saying she was truly legendary among her
counterparts and colleagues in the Asian American social service community and
I first met Bernie in 1983 when she hosted a meeting at CASL (then a 2nd floor office
on Cermak) in the aftermath of the judicial outcome of the murder of Vincent Chin in
Detroit. Bernie had invited two leaders from the campaign in Detroit to talk about
the case and fundraising efforts to seek justice for Vincent Chin. The case of Vincent
Chin was a watershed for Asian American coalition-building efforts throughout the
United States including in Chicago and Bernie recognized the need to assist in this
Bernie’s contributions went far beyond her work with CASL. She was present in the
nascent movement for political empowerment among Asian Americans in Illinois
during the 1980s. In 1983, Bernie was among a group of Asian Americans who
worked with Harold Washington, the newly-elected mayor of Chicago to bring Asian
Americans into the processes of local government. Together with people like Ross
Harano, we established the Mayor’s Asian American Advisory Council and later
advocated for the creation of the Chicago Commission on Asian American Affairs.
Asian Americans truly had a voice in Washington’s administration.
I recall Bernie saying on multiple occasions that whenever she attended a meeting,
she always made it a point to say something. Having served with her as a member
of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, I know this to be true. However,
this personal maxim was especially important in settings where Bernie was the only
Asian American at the table as during her tenure as the first Asian American to be
appointed as a commissioner for the Chicago Public Library. The public library in
Chinatown stands as vivid testimony to her advocacy.
Bernie made a difference and left a genuine legacy in a career of service to her
community. I join with the Board of JACL Chicago in extending condolences to the
family of Bernie Wong. We will miss Bernie’s warmth, openness, and steadfast
enthusiasm, attributes that endeared her to many, and which played a significant
role in her leadership for Asian Americans in Illinois.