Bernie Wong, founder of the Chinese American Service League, dies: ‘We’ve really lost an advocate and trailblazer’

Bernie Wong, the pioneering co-founder of the Chinese American Service League, which grew to be the largest social service agency serving Asian Americans in the Midwest, died on Tuesday of cancer. She was 77.

Heralded by Chicago politicians and community members as a dynamic leader who improved the lives of those she served, Wong co-founded the organization in 1978. It started out as a one-employee operation and now offers a wide range of social services including elder care and early education.

“We’ve really lost an advocate and trailblazer, someone who truly is an inspiration and role model for us all,” Paul Luu, CEO of the Chinese American Service League, told the Tribune.

Luu and Board of Directors Chair James Mark Jr. addressed the CASL community in a letter on Tuesday, writing that Wong “dedicated her entire life to supporting Chinese Americans and many other immigrant communities.”

Wong immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 18 and attended Briar Cliff University in Iowa before receiving her master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, the letter said. She worked as a social worker in Chicago before founding the service league with her husband, Albert, and a group of others who sought to teach English to Chinese immigrants.

“I had nine friends and my husband, Albert, and we always would have potluck dinners and talk about the needs of the Chinese community,” Wong told the Tribune in 2013.

She spoke of early resistance to the idea from leaders in Chinatown, who didn’t want to let outsiders know that people in the community had social service needs. But Wong persevered and secured a grant from United Way in 1979.

Wong “had a vision for creating a comprehensive suite of services to help Chinese Americans adapt and thrive in Chicago,” the letter said. Among her proudest achievements were the establishment of a senior housing facility, later re-christened the Albert and Bernie Wong Senior Living Community, as well as the Kam L. Liu Community Service Center.

Luu noted that Wong not only advocated for Chinese Americans but worked on behalf of the larger Asian and Pacific Islander community, as well as other immigrant communities. She was also a founding board member of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging and the Chinese Immigrant Service Agencies Network International, a network of social services organizations.

“She is a connector,” Luu said. “She was able to build bridges and strengthen the existing bridges between other communities and other neighbors within Chicagoland and other cities.”

Wong’s legacy was honored on Tuesday by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, among others.

“While our state is less full without her in it, Illinois has a stronger future because of her championship of the poor, the undocumented, the immigrant community and elderly individuals,” Pritzker’s statement read.

Wong was honored by then-President Barack Obama in 2012 for her work in the community, and her retirement from CASL in 2016 was marked with a tribute in Congress by Sen. Dick Durbin.

In September of 2016, the city dedicated the honorary Bernarda “Bernie” Wong Way in Chinatown.

In March, Wong was among 24 community leaders honored by Mayor Lori Lightfoot for Women’s History Month.

“I have seen firsthand the challenge that female immigrants endure in their quest for the dignity and respect they rightfully deserve,” Wong said in a news release at the time. “I hope that my time improving senior housing, building community relations, and serving as an adviser on multiple boards has made a profound impact on the Asian American community as a whole.”