Running up King Street, past the row of pre-I-5 freeway industrial buildings, the young Chinese boy with asthma could not keep up with his friend. Stopping at the Chinese Baptist Church to catch his breath, he watched as his friend yelled “come on you wimp.”
I was the wimp. Donnie was physically strong, quick thinking, and organized. I was the follower. Donnie had the ambition to lead with a hard personality that rubbed people the wrong way.
He’d come over to my family’s storefront-turned home and pick fights with me. Some say opposites attract.
He liked the Beatles, although he did not listen to their songs later in life. We had some toy machine guns and would lip sing Beatle tunes while pretending the guns were guitars.
We both liked to make noise. He had a small cannon that we fired in front of his family store, the Sun May Company. It was much louder than the firecrackers we played with. The boom echoed off the buildings on King Street and sent pigeons flying in fear.
We loved firecrackers. During the New Year, I chased after the lion dancers and rushed in to pick up loose firecrackers on the ground. He had too much pride to do that. He refused. He wasn’t ghetto enough then, I was.
His father, Don, was active in the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. Donnie and I got paid to clean the office on occasion. We’d take the opportunity to sneak into the closet to take packs of Zebra firecrackers.
In the old days, the Chinese community celebrated the New Year at the Chong Wa Playfield, hanging long strings of firecrackers on wires stretched across the fences. The lion would dance through the smoke as crowds watched along the fence line.
For the next couple of days, Chinatown kids would sift through the debris looking for firecrackers. By this time Donnie put his pride aside and did the same. I guess you could say we’d have a blast. It was the Chinatown way.
At Chinese school, Donnie and I got into trouble often for reading comic books instead of paying attention. The principal was old school, carrying a stick which he slammed on the table to get our attention. There was a nice teacher. She was pretty. But both teachers and principle often made us stand in the corner of the classroom, facing the wall as punishment.
Donnie always liked to make a statement. On the Chong Wa Playfield, the kids would play catch with a football. Donnie would throw it so hard, aiming to take your head off.
He was physically strong, showing off his six pack abs. His tongue was sharp, although he had yet to learn the art of the four letter word.
Donnie learned the value of working in the community from his father and inherited his toughness. He was tender and sweet with his mother Myra, who came to my house when my father died to make onion burgers. Feeding the four Wong children, while my mother wept and was comforted by friends.
In later years, Donnie finally took time off from the International District Emergency Center (IDEC). He would often take his mother to Las Vegas or Reno to try their luck and eat at a buffet. Donnie would trade his uniform for a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. He deserved it, a vacation away from the streets of Chinatown.
Donnie was smart but not in an academic way. He loved the idea of being in business, selling candy in the Sun May store and operating a booth at the Moon Festival on Seventh Avenue and King Street.
Don and Myra also raised two daughters, Connie and Melanie. Connie was sweet like her mother.
When his father had to move into a nursing home, Donnie showered him with love. Finally learning to drive a car to take his father short outings. To get his license he learned on a borrowed Ford Mustang. “Dean, the engine is powerful. You just step on the gas and it goes,” he told me nervously.
IDEC was born in Canton Alley. It was Donnie’s idea completely. It had started with his interest in first aid. We took classes at the Red Cross, where we were the only minorities and could feel the sting of being treated differently. The Red Cross director and Donnie did not get along. We stayed the course because we had the right to belong. We had the right to learn these skills to help Chinatown.
Donnie built first aid kits using square suitcases that weighed at least 40 pounds. We monitored 911 calls and rushed to the scene carrying these cases. I always lagged behind my stronger Asian brother.
For uniforms he chose bright red and yellow jumpsuits. I hated them. We looked like Asian popcicles who needed hair cuts.
He became used to the blood and gore of his chosen profession. He got used to the ugliness of life on the street. The alcoholics sleeping in the doorways with smell of urine, the drug addicts and two bit thugs.
There were countless intoxicated people passed out in doorways. Donnie would wake them up by poking them in the neck with a pen. One guy cleaned up his life and found Donnie to thank him.
One time we were driving near on Lane Street. Donnie saw a group of men, one was carrying a baseball bat. Donnie got out of the car to talk to the men. He asked for and got the baseball bat.
“What the hell did you do that for,” I said. Donnie did not reply. He did it just because. To keep the peace.
There were countless heart attack victims in restaurants and apartments that were saved. Car accidents, fires, shootings, and stabbings.
He was the subject of attacks on the street that he fended off with pepper spray, used liberally from industrial sized cans. This would be backed up by wooden nightsticks and then collapsible batons or the three foot long flashlight that gave him.
Visiting homebound seniors in the International District was a big part of the early IDEC. The seniors enjoyed the visits and the food we brought them. One woman’s refrigerator was filled with spoiled and moldy food. We threw it all away and brought food that she could eat.
He treated the Asian elderly with the utmost respect. I think he regretted never learning Chinese, but he developed a sense for what was being said to him. During runs, the seniors looked to him for help communicating to paramedics. Donnie’s sixth sense enabled him to understand.
The old ladies called Donnie “Lol Chin.”
When he had an opportunity to talk to an elder, Donnie would sit there patiently and respectfully listening to their life stories and advice. Groups like the Jade Guild were IDEC supporters.
The Chinese associations recognized IDEC each New year’s eve, dropping off red envelopes to Donnie. He would bring IDEC red envelopes to them. Donnie was invited to every Chinese New Year dinner.
At his Canton Alley memorial, Chinese seniors would stop by and pay their respects. They would stare at his picture and bow three times in respect. They more than anyone knew how much Donnie had done for them.
We had Chinatown kids who hung around Canton Alley and were drawn to IDEC. The Louie’s and the Hung’s were some of those kids.
One of them, now all grown up said at Donnie’s candlelight vigil, “He taught me how to cuss.”
It was Donnie’s way, like it or not. Treat kids with tenderness and toughness. Tough love is what it’s called. I think he did that to make them listen. To filter out the non-essential information and get to the core message of IDEC. To serve the community. Treat the elders with respect. Learn about your culture and history.
Half of the IDEC volunteer core grew up in Chinatown, learned the values of IDEC and stayed with the program as adults.
Others came through IDEC and left unable to take the discipline. Some of these people are now calling Donnie a father figure who taught them so much. With Donnie’s passing, they are sending messages of love and deep respect. Now as mature adults, they understand how Donnie’s message made them better people.
The youngest member was 15 a few years ago when she stood by Donnie to help a woman who had stepped off a sidewalk and injured herself.
The oldest is 70 or so. One is a retired King County Police Officer.
IDEC volunteers like myself helped operate aid stations at the Chinatown International District Dragon Festival, Bon Odori, White River Buddhist Church, Jamfest, and other events.
The reputation of IDEC was rock solid. We were a part of the community and they relied on us to watch over them.
Donnie earned countless awards that he was always reluctant to accept. He shied away from the limelight. He was humble and wanted no part of the accolades. A true unsung hero.
The Seattle Fire Department respected him as did the Seattle Police. But each time a new rookie police officer was assigned to Chinatown they rejected his presence. Both departments took time to accept IDEC.
Donnie was always there for us. Sometimes he’d deliver food from the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) food bank to families, using his own car and gas. I’d help him drag boxes out of his trunk and into their homes, where they were grateful.
I work at ACRS. The first thing Donnie did was give me a run bag, full of first aid supplies for my job as facilities assistant. He donated bag masks to use during CPR.
When the ramp broke at the ACRS Food Bank, I called Donnie and borrowed a power saw and nails. The ramp was ready to break under the weight of rice bags stacked on racks. Donnie’s nails are holding up that ramp at this very moment. I could always count on my best and oldest friend. In this case, he was there for the Asian community. Like he has been time and time again since 1968.
Thursday, July 23, I turned on the television news around 5:30 a.m. The report said there was a shooting in Chinatown at 3:00 a.m. The victim had life threatening injuries.
Then I saw the red Chevy HHR crashed into a building.
I knew it was Donnie.
My phone lit up. The text was from longtime IDEC member Kay Chinn: “I heard Donnie had been shot. I heard he did not make it.”
I refused to believe.
Stunned but not accepting the news, I called Donnie’s cellphone. I desparately wanted to hear the voice I had called on the phone since 1968. The voice who had survived thousands of encounters on the street.
Later that morning I received the email. “Important Please Read.” It was from Dicky Mar, IDEC Board president.
He confirmed Donnie had been shot and did not make it. I was with some co-workers who had been around long enough to know Donnie. I immediately began to cry.
Each day since, I’ve shed some tears. There was a grief counseling session for IDEC members.
At his vigil, I wrote the speech of my lifetime to honor my friend.
His radio call sign at IDEC was Dragon One.
Since his death, I truly believe he has channeled me to say something. I think he was there when I made my speech.
True story. After the vigil, I saw a flash of khaki color passing behind me. I turned to look, fully expecting to see him.
Others have said they felt his presence. Donnie’s spirit will always be with us.
Donnie was a brother to most of us, a second father to young people, a hero to the community, especially seniors, and a thorn in the side of evil.
I still don’t believe Donnie is gone. He’ll always be among us, if only in spirit.
Donnie my brother, stop by Canton Alley. We’ll grill up some hotdogs and we’ll talk about old times.