By William Wong
In 1948, when I was 7 years old, my family moved from our crowded rented house in Oakland's Chinatown to a spacious five-bedroom split-level house in a predominantly white neighborhood less than two miles away. I was still too young to be of significant help at my parents' restaurant, so I stayed home more than my older sisters, who were practically held hostage at the restaurant. A favorite pastime was to listen to the radio in our new home. (It wasn't until 1952 that our family bought our first television set, which was still a luxury for most households.) On autumn Saturday afternoons, my ears were glued to radio broadcasts of football games played by the University of California at Berkeley ("Cal" to locals). The late 1940s were the glory years of Cal football, whose coach, Pappy Waldorf, was a living legend. It didn't matter that I was a Chinese American kid whose immigrant parents spoke broken English and didn't know the first thing about American football. I became a football fanatic and by extension a sports nut who supplemented my radio listening with hours spent reading the stories and memorizing the statistics of my favorite teams and players in the sports pages of the local paper.
Kids don't immediately realize any limits. When I started high school in the ninth grade, I had the brilliant idea of trying out for the freshman basketball team. After all, I had spent years playing schoolyard football, baseball, and basketball. I was barely taller than five feet. As I joined other boys my age---but not necessarily my height---it became painfully obvious after one quick scrimmage that I was delusional. While my skills were about average, my height wasn't, so I was not invited back for the next tryout. I don't recall whether I was emotionally crushed by this rejection, but I turned to the next best thing---writing about sports for the school newspaper. Since I had absorbed by osmosis the sportswriting idiom---military analogies, action verbs, and colorful clichˇs---I felt confident I could chronicle the exploits of my high school's sports teams. So began my journalistic writing "career."
Sportswriting took a backseat in my senior year, however, because my journalism teacher, a slender, nervous woman in her fifties named Blanche Hurd, appointed me to be editor of the school's yearbook. I agonized over a decision since I really loved writing sports for the school newspaper, but Miss Hurd persuaded me to head up the yearbook staff. I'm not sure why I gave in, because she was not dealing from a position of strength. She had taken over my high school's journalism classes in my junior year, succeeding the exceedingly popular James Black. It took a long time for the mousy Miss Hurd to win any respect from her students, although I didn't have any animosity toward her. In fact, what I remember about her---other than her naming me yearbook editor---was some prescient advice that resonates with me even today.
One day during my senior year, Miss Hurd took me aside to talk about my future. I don't remember what I said, but I vividly recollect what she said. If I wanted to pursue journalism as a career, she said, I would have to be "twice as good" to succeed. I heard her words, but I did not fully grasp her meaning. Twice as good. I was 16 years old and while I thought I knew a great deal about myself and the world, I knew very little.
Miss Hurd was one of two high school teachers who were most significant in my development as a writer and thinker. The other was George Stokes, a history teacher. Mr. Stokes had only one arm; he wore a prosthetic for his other arm. He didn't let that disability bother him. More than any other teacher, he pushed me and my classmates to think for ourselves. His class lessons were filled with dates and important events, but he insisted that we think about dates and events and that we write critically in our essays. And he did it in an aggressive style that challenged us to do our best.
When I enrolled at Cal in 1958, I pursued my first love---sportswriting. Even before I registered for any classes, I signed up to be a sportswriter in the dungeon that was the office of the Daily Californian in Eshleman Hall. I had the good fortune of covering Cal's football team coached by Marv Levy before he became the successful head coach of the Buffalo Bills and the superb basketball teams under Coach Pete Newell. I saw Newell's team win a national championship, then lose it the next year. I even rose to the exalted position of sports editor in my sophomore year, a precocious rise for a Chinatown kid. Alas, my sports editorship was truncated by a political revolution at Cal, a precursor to the Free Speech Movement of 1964 that shook the world.
My Cal experience helped shape my political worldview. I was there a little more than ten years after the United States, as the leader of the Allied forces that defeated the fascist regimes of Germany, Japan, and Italy, emerged as a world power. Russia turned from friend to foe. The Cold War set in. Rabid anticommunism was in the air in Washington, D.C., and coursed through universities like Cal, where professors were forced to sign loyalty oaths and where nervous administrators tangled with student freethinkers.
I had only cursory knowledge of these irresistible forces from my cubicle at the Daily Californian. I was content to write a column, which I called "The Chinese Bandit," after the nickname given to the defensive unit of the Louisiana State University football team. As sports editor, however, I was a member of the editorial board of the Daily Cal, led by a quiet intellectual named Dan Silver. Silver and his news-side editors, all seniors and liberal to one degree or another, decided to endorse a set of candidates representing a leftist student group called Slate who were running for student government positions. I went along with the endorsement even though I was not fully invested in the ideological leanings of Silver and his top editors. It was not as though I were a political eunuch. I was simply less mature politically than the top editors of the paper, who were my elders.
Our endorsement of Slate was a giant no-no to the conservative administrators, who engineered a coup of the Daily Cal's editorial board, forcing us to resign. The administration replaced us with more compliant students from the fraternities and sororities. The Daily Cal staff went off campus and published a newspaper called The Independent Californian with the generous assistance of a veteran local journalist named Orr Kelly. We hawked our newly minted paper on the streets near the campus, but our enthusiasm wasn't sufficient to sustain our resource-poor efforts. Eventually, a deal was brokered, allowing some of the old Daily Cal staff to join the Greek-letter-society interlopers. Since I was the youngest of the editorial board members, I was named to a high news-side position---managing editor---thus joining the ranks of the more serious news-side staff, and I haven't looked back since. In the last semester of my senior year, I took over as Daily Cal editor and led the staff back into a more liberal territory. The civil rights movement in the south was heating up, and I had friends who spent summers on freedom rides and otherwise lent their support to southern black people who fought to end legal segregation.
In the summer following my graduation from Cal, I got my first professional journalism job with the help of a Cal journalism professor---as a summer replacement reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. I was only 21 years old, still wet-behind-the-ears. A veteran reporter told me at the time that I broke a color line, becoming the first Chinese American reporter on a daily newspaper in the city with the largest ethnic Chinese community in the United States. That summer job lasted only five months, but I was able to land two other jobs at Bay Area papers during the next year and a half. One was with the afternoon San Francisco paper at the time, a hybrid called the News Call Bulletin. There I continued my political education. One of the big stories I covered was the local civil rights protests at the famous Sheraton Palace Hotel, which didn't hire black people or other racial minorities.
With two years of journalism under my belt---and too many stories about five-alarm fires, petty crimes, and murders---I needed a break, so I signed up for the Peace Corps. I served three and one half years in the Philippines, which wasn't my specific choice. But since I wanted to go to Asia to get closer to my ethnic Chinese roots, the Philippines was a good alternative because it hosted a Peace Corps program, whereas China did not. With my unaccented American English and my Chinese face, I baffled ordinary Filipinos who thought Americans were white and blonde. As much as any experience of being a racial minority in the United States, my years as an inchick (the Tagalog word for Chinese) in the Philippines enriched my understanding of the sensitivities and pitfalls of interracial relationships.
Racial matters were never at the forefront of my early journalism career, which I resumed after the Peace Corps and a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The Wall Street Journal's hiring me in 1970 after my Columbia education was not because I was a racial minority. Newspapers in those days, like many other American institutions, did not have affirmative action programs.
Nonetheless, as I settled into a routine life as a staff reporter for the Journal, first in Cleveland, Ohio, then in San Francisco, a yearning to write about my racial roots and identity issues began to surface. The Journal was one of those rare major newspapers that encouraged young reporters to propose their own stories, especially for the three precious feature slots on its rigid front page. After President Nixon stunned the world by resuming relations with communist China, I wrote a front-page Journal story about how some Chinese Americans were being used as cultural "bridges" between the two societies. I profiled a new Chinese American civil rights group, Chinese for Affirmative Action of San Francisco. A year after the so-called fall of Saigon, I wrote a feature story about how newly arrived Vietnamese refugees were faring in their new home state of California. During Labor Day weekend of 1977, a San Francisco Chinatown gang shot up a busy restaurant in a spectacular revenge hit. Going beyond that criminal act, I wrote an in-depth front-page feature about how Chinatowns formed and why they incubate conditions that can lead to such acts of organized violence.
As prestigious as it was to work for one of the nation's finest newspapers, I ached to get closer to my community---both geographic and ethnic. When I heard that Robert C. Maynard was taking over the Oakland Tribune as its new editor in late 1979, I asked him for a job. I had met and conversed with Maynard before. He had a solid national reputation through his reporting, writing, and editorializing at the Washington Post. He quit the Post---and his wife Nancy Hicks had quit The New York Times---to launch an ambitious initiative to train more racial minority journalists to become staff members at more daily newspapers in the United States. This time, for me, race was a factor in my hiring. I had told Maynard I wanted a writing job. He replied that he wanted me to be business editor of the Tribune, taking advantage of my nine years at The Wall Street Journal. I had not given any thought before to an editing job, but I felt it was an opportunity I could not pass up. So began a seventeen-year association with the Tribune, the newspaper I grew up with but one I never thought was friendly to me or the neighborhood of my childhood, which happened to be in the shadow of the Tribune Tower.
The Tribune had its zenith under the ownership of the Knowland family, led by patriarch Joseph Knowland, a Congressman who happened to own a newspaper. Under the Knowlands, the Tribune ran Oakland, along with Henry J. Kaiser, the industrialist responsible for building dams and paving thousands of miles of highways throughout the western United States and building and repairing ships during World War II and whose legacy is the pioneering Kaiser Permanente health-maintenance organization.
Oakland was a different city before World War II than it was after it. Racial minorities such as African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans were a relatively small presence before the war. But the Kaiser industrial complex needed workers for its shipyards, so thousands of black people from Texas, Louisiana, and other southern states migrated west for wartime jobs. Federal immigration restrictions kept the numbers of Asians low in Oakland and the rest of the United States. After the war, many African Americans stayed and immigration restrictions were loosened, allowing in more Asian and Latino immigrants. Meanwhile, flush with prosperity and a new hubris born of the war's triumphs, America was on the move internally. Suburbs blossomed everywhere, luring middle-class white families. The gritty industrial base began eroding too, leaving cities like Oakland to poorer racial minorities with fewer and fewer industrial jobs.
For about thirty years after the war, the Tribune managed to live off the wealth generated by its earlier successes. It was a powerhouse not only in Oakland but also in suburbs to its north, east, and south. Leadership at the Tribune shifted from the founding patriarch Joseph to his son William, who had been a conservative Republican United States Senator made famous by his staunch defense of the Nationalist Chinese regime that had escaped to Formosa, now called Taiwan, after losing to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949. William F. Knowland was apparently better as an anticommunist zealot than he was as a businessman, however. At a time when the suburbs were exploding, the Tribune inexplicably pulled back its resources and basically ceded that advertising-rich territory to two small chains---one owned by Dean Lesher, the other by Floyd Sparks---that later became prosperous at The Tribune's expense. By the time Robert C. Maynard took over as editor of the Tribune under the new ownership of The Gannett Corporation in 1979, the Tribune was a mere shadow of its former self.
Nonetheless, Maynard wanted to put his (or Gannett's) money where his mouth was, so he set out to hire qualified racial minority journalists to work at the Tribune, whose staff until then was predominantly white. I was among those he hired under his plan to further integrate the Tribune's staff. Maynard gave me many wonderful opportunities. The most significant was the columnist job. First, I wrote a weekly column about journalism issues and ethics, when I was the Tribune's first and only ombudsman in the mid-1980s. Then in 1988, I asked Maynard and Executive Editor Leroy F. Aarons if I could write a column on general issues for the paper's op-ed page. They agreed, with some reservations. Aarons was concerned I might not be able to sustain a column, especially one that occasionally focused on Asian American issues.
A few years earlier, I had begun writing columns for East-West News, a San Francisco Chinatown-based English language weekly run by Gordon Lew. Richard Springer, a white editor at East-West, had encouraged me to write a column. By the time I started my Tribune column, I had two outlets to voice opinions on a whole range of Asian American issues and, in the case of the Tribune, issues having nothing to do with my racial roots or identity. After East-West ceased publication in 1989, Patrick Andersen, editor at Asian Week, another San Francisco Chinatown-based English language publication, asked me to write my column for him. Asian Week was created by John Fang, a visionary businessman who, like the educator Gordon Lew, saw the value of a publication that wrote about Chinese American and Asian American issues.
Meanwhile, I continued to write columns for the Tribune, until March 22, 1996, when I was summarily fired at 3 p.m. and ordered out of the building without a chance to gather up my files. By then, the troubled Tribune had changed owners again---from Gannett in 1979 to Bob Maynard himself in 1983 to a chain owned by William Dean Singleton in 1992. The new editors under the Singleton regime didn't much like me, but they felt they needed me (and two prominent African American editorial page staff members) at the beginning of the transition from a Maynard-owned Tribune to one owned by a company notable in the newspaper business for its obsession with profits and its mostly white suburban markets. Oakland, a much-aligned appendage to world-famous San Francisco, was hardly a white suburb. Its population of close to four hundred thousand is approximately 70 percent non-white, and it was not politically smart for the new owners not to have prominent racial minority writers like me and columnist Brenda Payton, who is African American.
My firing ignited loud protests from local readers and supporters, who picketed the Tribune offices in a driving rainstorm demanding my reinstatement. That never happened. The official reason for my firing was "downsizing," but I was the only news-side employee downsized that day. And the way it was done---perfunctory notification by an immediate supervisor, then an order to leave the building immediately---left the distinct impression that I might be a deranged felon. To this day, I do not know the precise reason for my firing, but I suspect that the conservative white editors who took over the Tribune from Maynard did not like my politics and did not like my writing so often about Asian American issues. I thought the four other large newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area---the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek---might be interested in hiring me, but the best I could do was a freelance column twice a month from the Examiner. While the frequency of my columns is much less than what it was when I was at the Tribune, I continue to write journalistically, mostly on Asian American issues.
Why write about Asian American issues, and what exactly is "Asian America"? The Asian presence in the United States is both rich and mostly invisible. It is not my intention here to replay the 150 years of Asian American history except to note that Americans of Asian descent have until the past thirty years lived under second-rate (or worse) conditions and have mostly been worker bees---vilified ones at that during extended periods of economic difficulties. The legacies of exclusion and officially sanctioned discrimination are difficult to shed. The Asian American population grew enormously over the last one-third of the 20th century, and most Asian newcomers do not face the same overt conditions of segregation and discrimination. But even the most highly educated Asian immigrant professional sometimes discovers the ugly underbelly of the American experience---subtle (and not-so-subtle) discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Few of us have reached leadership roles on the national stage. Yet there is a great deal to be said about the Asian American experience that informs the complex American political, economic, and cultural landscape.
Which is why I have written this book, a compilation of stories, columns, essays and commentaries that range widely over a panoply of issues that touch Asian Americans and Americans in general. One of the great American stories of the late 20th century---and one that continues into the beginning of the 21st century---is the increasingly multiracial, multicultural aspect of the American experience. People of Asian descent have been a big part of that story, although the mainstream news and mass media have been slow to recognize our role in a changing America. Considering my background and politics and professional training, I saw the story developing almost from the time I resumed my journalism career some thirty years ago. I needed to find the appropriate forum to begin telling those stories within the story.
The stories, essays, analyses, and commentaries in this book cover many subjects, from the personal to policy, from the serious to the silly. A reader will learn some details of my cultural upbringing and my family's transformation from a poor rice-growing village in China to planting roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. A reader will also learn a little Asian American history and a lot about the nuances and intricacies of the contemporary Asian American experience. The overriding theme of this collection is the courage, forbearance, tenacity, survival skills, and humanity shown by people from east and southeast Asia who never allowed racism and hatred to deter them from winning a rightful place in the American sun.