Like his forefathers, Marshall Wong traveled far pursuing the promise of opportunity.

It led him across the country and to the newly created District government position of special assistant to the mayor for Asian and Pacific Islander affairs.

"I had heard that Washington had some exciting things going on in refugee and immigrant support," said Wong, 28. So in October 1986, the social worker moved here from Los Angeles, where his family had settled after leaving China.

By February, he had started work as coordinator of community services in the city's Office of Latino Affairs, and had heard of the opening for a liaison with Asian Americans. As he undertakes that job, which pays a $33,733 salary, Wong will work to make social services and business opportunities available to Asian Americans, coordinate the programs suggested by the year-old Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and nurture affinity among various peoples in Washington.

The idea for the commission arose during in the mid-1980s, as the city faced issues as diverse as concerns of Korean merchants and construction of the Chinese arch on H Street NW.

"It became apparent that there was no one conducting outreach to the Asian community," said Charles Gossett, a special assistant to Mayor Marion Barry. The commission was formed shortly after, and convened in 1986 on Oct. 2 -- Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, according to Anthony Antoniswami, who chaired the commission during its first year.

Since its inception, Antoniswami said, the commission has received briefings by city government agencies on services provided, formed several working committees and helped Chinese restaurateurs to understand city regulations on eateries.

Antoniswami said that he hopes Wong can foster public awareness of the commission, which has spent its inaugural year in obscurity.

"There is a place on every agenda for public response, but there is no public to respond," Antoniswami said, noting that commission meetings, held in the Reeves Municipal Center on the second Thursday of each month, are open to the public.

No exact statistics exist on the number of Asian Americans living in the Washington area. The 1980 census showed 6,800 Asians and Pacific Islanders living in the city, making up about 1 percent of the population.

"That has grown, but has not grown astronomically," Wong said.

In recent years, Washington has borne tensions between Asian American merchants and blacks in surrounding neighborhoods. Wong hopes to use his office to link churches, community leaders, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and local charities with Asian American societies and associations.

Wong's family experienced hostilities in California earlier this century. Neighbors twice burned down his great-grandfather's restaurant. His parents, the first nonwhite residents to move into Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood, received less than a hearty welcome in the 1950s. "The neighbors took out a petition against the Realtor" to keep the Wongs out, but backed down at the threat of legal reprisals, he said. The Wongs moved in, and some neighbors befriended them. Others moved.

"I think when you grow up with a sense that your own family undergoes these indignities, it makes you want to do something," Wong said.

Wong's father Delbert is a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge whose father left southern China in his teens for a job as a houseboy in America. His mother Dolores is a volunteer and activist who worked as a social worker with the families of severely retarded children before having a family of her own. Her father left China and became an American shopkeeper.

Marshall Wong received his bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from the University of California at Los Angeles, and studied Spanish at a language institute in Mexico. In 1985, he went to work for Mike Woo, the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

Larry Kaplan, Woo's chief of staff, said of Wong: "He's got a great reputation -- he's a really sharp, outgoing guy. I always thought of him as a real up-and-comer."

In his new job, Wong hopes to help dispel stereotypes regarding Asian Americans, who he believes "have the rather dubious distinction of being the most misunderstood minority in America."

Wong said, "No matter where I go, no matter what I do, when I meet kids weaned on TV, the first question inevitably is, 'Do you know kung fu?' " He does not.

"I think that the media, both in entertainment and in news coverage, have further set Asians from the mainstream of American life," Wong said. He cited the Steven Spielberg film "Empire of the Sun" as typical of filmmakers' tendency "to portray Asians as teeming hordes, without stories, feelings, personalities."

And even ostensibly positive pieces, such as a Time magazine cover story on "Asian American Whiz Kids," tend to disseminate what Wong calls "the myth of the model minority." In that perception, Asians are seen as phenomenally bright and extremely successful. While Asian cultures esteem work and education, Asian Americans are largely concentrated at both ends of the economic scale, according to Wong.

"{There} are enclaves living in urban ghettos who slave and toil away in a manner not unlike their counterparts of a century ago," Wong said. Further, the model-minority myth creates a schism between Asians and other ethnic groups, who are subject to comparisons, such as " 'They made it, what's wrong with you?' " Wong said.

Man-King Tso, minister of the Chinese Community Church in Washington, agrees with Wong on the misperception of Asians, who Tso believes pay a heavy toll for their successes. "Asian Americans are diligent, hard-working people, and many hold several jobs," Tso said. "But they do that at the expense of their own family. That leaves very litte time to talk to their own kids."

Part of the result may be troubled teen-agers and marital problems, said Tso, whose church offers counseling, translation, tutoring, recreation, immigration and social services.

"It is not very easy to work with the Asian community," Tso said, pointing out that under the umbrella of "Asia" fall dozens of nations with diverse cultures and languages.

Still, he is optimistic about the establishment of the new position, and the choice of Wong: "He's young, he's vigorous and he's very sensitive politically."