By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Jing Wu ran around barefoot, raising chickens in his village of Xunyang in Taishan, China, he never dreamt that one day he would patrol Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) in an SUV as a Seattle Police Department (SPD) officer. As SPD’s newly hired Chinese American officer who speaks Chinese, three dialects—Taishanese, Cantonese, and Mandarin—Wu is assigned to the King Sector, West Precinct.
The Northwest Asian Weekly spoke with Wu recently at the West Precinct and in the CID.
Wu’s baby-face glowed with a happiness that reflects his Chinese name, Jing Hong (景鴻)—prosperity, bright future. (He goes by Jing Wu.) The dark uniform top with a shiny badge on his left shoulder adds to his confidence. He’s loaded down with tools of his trade—service weapon, handcuffs, walkie talkie, flashlight, keys, whatever he needs on his beat. But the most important tool he uses you can’t see.
Growing up in a rural village has fostered a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude. Wu is mild-mannered and respectful.
“My village was very small, very peaceful,” said Wu, sounding nostalgic. As in many rural areas in China, parents often leave their children behind to seek jobs in cities for better pay.
“It’s mostly grandparents and kids,” Wu said of his village.
Wu’s father left the village and worked in security in Zhuhai, one of China’s first Special Economic Zones created in 1980. It is also near Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia.
When Wu was 11, his maternal grandfather, who was already in the U.S., sponsored him, his brother, and his mother to join him in the Portland, Oregon area. Wu’s aunt ran a restaurant in Centralia where Wu’s mom worked as a dishwasher.
A year later, Wu’s father joined the family. His parents eventually got out of the restaurant business and worked for Safeway as deli cooks in Klamath Falls. Wu liked the small towns and never encountered any discrimination. He thought people were more innocent in small towns, more accepting. They were curious to learn about the newcomers.
“I always have a positive mentality. The only thing that was challenging was the language, not able to understand others,” Wu said about adjusting to life in the U.S.
After several years, Safeway offered to transfer Wu’s parents to Canby, near Portland. The family moved again, this time to Portland to begin a new life.
Wu studied business at his father’s advice at Portland State University. He didn’t like it, not understanding business theories. He changed majors several times and then dropped out.
“I had a tough time paying attention since I wasn’t really interested in the subject,” Wu said, “I didn’t want a desk job.”
Wu floundered for a few years. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” he wasn’t motivated. He worked in his aunt’s restaurant, continued living with his parents, and played video games. He was addicted to gaming—he was languishing.
“I couldn’t find success in real life. But in games, I could spend money buying all the gear and building my characters so others would want to play with me,” Wu said. The fantasy kept a grip on him despite his parents’ pleas.
One day, he looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw.
“And I was fat! What have I become?” Wu asked himself.
Determined to change, he brainstormed for three days on what he could do and contribute to society.
“Ding. Ding. Ding. The light bulb went off in my head. Police officer!”
Renewed with a purpose, Wu went back to Portland State and studied Criminal Justice. This time, it clicked. He graduated in 2015. To prepare for his dream job, he worked in security at the Adventist Hospital in Portland.
“I interacted with all kinds of people, some in crisis, some who are bipolar. Interior and exterior patrol are very similar to police work,” Wu said. Four years of security work at the hospital gave him a foundation in law enforcement.
In 2019, Wu applied with SPD and was accepted. He graduated from the police academy in August 2020.
The 2021 data provided by SPD showed out of 1,200 officers, 7.42% or 89 officers claimed to be Asian. SPD’s data is not broken down by ethnicity. Seattle’s Asian population is 16.3% in 2021. Interim Chief Adrian Diaz told KING 5 in a November 2021 broadcast that SPD needs 400 more officers for public safety. The overall number of officers are down since the recent unrest, calls to defund the police, and the pandemic. SPD’s King Sector has six officers. They need 10 officers of any ethnic background.
“I’ve seen three Chinese officers since I’ve been here,” Wu said. Wu may be the only native Taishanese speaking officer who also speaks Cantonese and Mandarin. The three dialects are commonly spoken in CID.
The first Chinese settlers in the U.S. were mainly from Taishan. Being on the southern coast of China, Taishan was easily accessed by American ships recruiting cheap labor in the 1800s. Those laborers were relegated to the ghettos, which became the present-day Chinatowns. Many elderlies in Chinatown all over the U.S. speak only Taishanese.
Wu has volunteered to take the Chinese calls in his precinct, knowing first-hand the frustration of not being understood, a common complaint in the CID community.
“I encourage my fellow officers to walk the beat,” Wu said. Because of the language barrier, officers often shy away from personal interactions. Wu is teaching his partners simple Chinese phrases to help them break the ice. He wants to build trust between the community and the SPD.
“I also want the community to learn that it’s okay to voice your concern to the police,” Wu said.
Wu requested to be on the second watch (11 a.m.-7 p.m.) so he can get to know the businesses, and they him.
Ming Huang, a waiter at Harbor City Restaurant is a fan. He jumped to his feet when he saw Wu walk into the restaurant. The two greeted each other like long lost friends in Taishanese.
“We like having an officer who speaks our language, plus he’s friendly,” Huang told the Northwest Asian Weekly. A female voice gushed in Cantonese from behind the counter, “And he’s so personable!”
Huang continues, “He stops by to check in on us. Unlike before, we’re scared of the police. Now, when we see him, we can share with him the news of the community. He understands us.”
“We’ve never had an officer who speaks our language in Chinatown,” Huang said. “His ability to communicate with the elderlies and the businesses eases the tension.”
Last December, SPD transferred him out of the King Sector to the David Sector, near Denny Way. Upon learning of Wu’s departure, Huang wrote a letter signed by his co-workers at Harbor City to express their appreciation to SPD for Wu’s “tremendous service.” The letter said Wu made it less intimidating “for older people and businesses to report issues to the authorities.”
Community activist Susan Lee Woo also wrote a letter on behalf of the Chinatown community and the Seattle Chinatown Block Watch, of which she’s the founder. She cited Wu’s work ethic, his passion, and commitment in building a relationship between SPD and the community.
Both letters highlighted Wu’s language skills to help build trust, bridging the gap.
Wu is back on the CID beat. “That’s where my heart is,” Wu said.
Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.