Asian Week, March 29, 2001

Yellow Journalist: William Wong sums up his career -- and looks for another one.

By Dann McDorman

He's the elder statesman of Asian-American journalism, but William Wong still doesn't get the respect he feels he deserves. For nearly thirty years, Wong wrote from the epicenter of the Asian American community -- the San Francisco Bay Area -- for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Oakland Tribune, East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle/The Examiner, and Asian Week. But now, at age 59, his output is reduced to occasional columns for the Hearst Chronicle and freelance work for nonprofits. Wong hopes that the publication of Yellow Journalist will thrust him -- and the community he serves -- back into mainstream newsrooms.

Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America is an anthology of Wong's best writing from the last decade and a half, covering an impressive array of topics and tone. Want satire? Read "Yellow Chic," his devastating mockery of the early '90s fad for "Asian cool" in elite restaurants and nightclubs. Want anger? Check out "I Am a Gook," Wong's ferocious response to John McCain's infamous remark about his Vietnamese captors in last year's presidential primaries. Want humor? Go to "Rock On, Mr. President," in which a beaming Wong describes how his precocious son stole the show from Bill Clinton at a local rally. Or go to "Violating the Crustacean Creed," in which an invented dialogue between two crabs is used to criticize racist crackdowns on seafood markets in Chinatown (white-owned markets in Fisherman's Wharf were -- can you believe it? -- totally left alone).

Most of these pieces are less than two pages long, and drive their point home with intelligence and Wong's characteristic passion. It's a passion he's had his whole life, from his early days as a student radical at UC-Berkeley and in the Peace Corps to his initial forays into journalism as a young business writer at the overwhelmingly white Wall Street Journal. Even while he was reporting on stockholders' meetings and commodities pricing, Wong knew that what he really wanted to do was cover Asian American issues. He remembers that after an infamous gang shooting in San Francisco's Chinatown (the one that led to the awful -- and awfully racist -- Mickey Rourke film, Year of the Dragon), Wong convinced the normally stodgy Journal editors to let him do a different twist on the shooting.

"I decided to take that incident and do a story on American Chinatowns," says Wong. "Their insularity, and the fact that they were enclaves that had formed in part because of discrimination. And therefore, you could understand some of the problems they had. It's almost like a bacterial growth, if you allow it to gestate, you'll get some bad things happening, like gang shootings." The piece landed on the Journal's coveted front page -- a stunning placement in the 1970s for an article focused on Asian American themes.

At the same time, Wong isn't adverse to criticizing his own community when he feels it's warranted. "I'm not an ethnic cheerleader the way some people think I am," says Wong. He points to "Parenting, Chinese Style," the piece in Yellow Journalist in which he paints an unflattering portrait of a domineering Chinese father whose tyrannical ways cause his daughter to run away. And he isn't shy about criticizing major players such as Connie Chung for not using their influence in the media to call more attention to Asian American issues. "If some no-name Asian reporter said, 'Hey, we should cover this,' no one would listen," says Wong. "But if you're Connie Chung, everyone has to pay attention. She never did that, and no else is really doing it now either."

A few pieces in Wong's book feel dated, dwelling on events too specific to a past time and place to matter much to contemporary readers. But most of Yellow Journalist holds up quite well. The best piece is "American Dream, Chinatown Branch," the long, memoir-like article that opens the book. In it, Wong recalls his childhood growing up in the '40s and '50s in Oakland's Chinatown, where his father ran an illegal lottery and, later, a successful restaurant. Published two years ago in the East Bay Express, "American Dream, Chinatown Branch" is a classic of its kind -- informative, funny, heart-rending and sad. It's a striking example of the kind of journalism Wong is capable of achieving. It's the kind of journalism he should have an opportunity to do more of in the future.

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