By Assunta Ng
“Did you know that the first engineer at Boeing was Chinese?” said the late Ted Yamamura in the early 2000s.
This confirmed a rumor I heard years ago. Boeing hired their first engineer, who was Chinese, in 1917. However, Boeing had never acknowledged it before. Was it because Boeing was not proud or ashamed that it was a Chinese and not a white guy who developed its first product?
Boeing hired Wong Tsu, an MIT graduate and engineer, to develop its Model C, which the company later sold over 50 to the U.S. Navy.
It took a lot of community pressure before Boeing finally acknowledged that it was a person of color who had contributed deeply to Boeing’s early success.
Ted died of cancer on Aug. 18 at the age of 64. His death is a big loss to the Asian community.
As president of the Boeing Asian American Professional Association (BAAPA) and cofounder of BAAPA, it was Ted who connected the Asian Weekly with a group of passionate Chinese American engineers who fought hard to bring out the real history of the Boeing Co. into the front pages of the Seattle Chinese Post and Asian Weekly. It was Ted who empowered and navigated his fellow Asian engineers to lobby for Boeing’s recognition and support of Wong’s story.
Finally, in 2005, Boeing recognized Wong’s work by placing a plaque honoring him at the Museum of Flight with a big ceremony attended by both top Chinese and Taiwan aviation officials, who already knew about Wong’s achievement decades ago.
How Ted dealt with glass ceilings
In Boeing’s almost 100 years history, there was only one Asian American president, Abe Goo, who was head of the Boeing Military Airplane Co. from 1984–89.
The glass ceiling hit Ted and many Asian Americans hard, even though Asian Americans were overqualified for the positions they sought in their companies. But, at the time, he did not confront or expose his company’s fault of not promoting Asian Americans to management positions even though Boeing had a glut of Asian American engineers with two master’s degrees, such as Ted, and some with doctoral degrees as well.
A source told the Asian Weekly a Caucasian at Boeing with one master’s would naturally receive a management position. And if a white person has two master’s degrees, he would be promoted two steps up. Yet Ted’s title as regional director of Global Asia Markets was not even a manager position, according to his colleague.
“Boeing gave him the title because Ted was in customer service. Customers don’t like to meet with Boeing’s low-level staff,” a colleague told me.
Ted was a dedicated employee at Boeing. When his cancer first went into remission, he went back to work. Then, he got sick again.
Ted said the Black community was aggressive in demanding Boeing’s support in community funding, but the Asian employees were passive and didn’t work together for common goals. Asian employees were afraid to rock the boat, he said.
The Executive Development Institute he cofounded in 1994 with community leaders Scott Oki and Vanna Novak was a solution to tackle this issue and the glass ceiling.
EDI’s goal is to develop culturally diverse leaders with the skills and self-assessment of their personal and cultural strengths and weaknesses to deal with the challenges growing out of institutional racism.
Learning from Black community
Learning from the Black community, Ted pushed hard for Asian American unity inside Boeing and relentlessly pursued white managers who had a sense of social justice to support the formation of BAAPA. According to Ted, it wasn’t easy to get BAAPA started since diversity at the top was never a priority at Boeing. If it weren’t for Ted’s tact, ability to foster goodwill and
relationships, and jumping through red tape, BAAPA wouldn’t exist.
By then, he had already learned the ropes and found support from upper management to take advantage of Boeing’s funding for leadership programs. Ted laid the groundwork for many fellow Asian Americans to receive EDI training sponsored by Boeing. It is no coincidence that Boeing has continuously paid for Asian and Latino American staff to join the EDI every year.
Ted was also president of the Asian Management Business Association, now known as the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP).
Under Ted’s leadership in the late 1980s and early 1990s the organization transformed from a dating service to a community service organization. Every year, NAAAP adopts a nonprofit organization to benefit through fundraising and project work. He would connect NAAAP with other organizations to do anything to support the Asian community, not just the Japanese community. Ted would make sure that NAAAP sponsored a table at many Asian community events. He mentored many new presidents to continue to grow and develop NAAAP’s strong voice.
Ted paved the way for many, including the Northwest Asian Weekly. He was my mentor.
He inspired me to change the name of the Seattle Chinese Post’s English edition to the Northwest Asian Weekly in 1992.
“You have covered the Asian community anyway, changing your name will have a broader reach,” he said. With his help, we held a naming contest and settled on our name today.
Forever, Ted, we are indebted to you. (end)
To read the publisher’s blog in Chinese, visit www.seattlechinesepost.com.