Hills Newspapers (Montclarion and Piedmonter of Oakland and Piedmont, CA), Friday, March 9, 2001
By Barbara L. Sloane
With the title of his first book, Yellow Journalist, and its clever play on words, William Wong stakes out his territory. He writes not as a journalist seeking to sensationalize events, but as a Chinese-American reporting on Asian-American issues.
Although he has traveled the world, Wong belongs to the Bay Area, more specifically to the East Bay. Born and raised in Oakland's Chinatown, he graduated from UC Berkeley. After more than three years in the Peace Corps in the Philippines, he entered the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, from which he earned a master's degree.
He returned to California in 1972 as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in San Francisco. In 1979, he established his home base, as an editor and writer at the Oakland Tribune for 17 years. Wong has also contributed columns to the San Francisco Examiner, Asian Week and other publications.
In Yellow Journalist (Temple University Press), he brings
together 74 pieces of his writing from the last two decades. He
describes this book as "a compilation of stories, columns, essays
and commentaries that range widely over a panoply of issues that
touch Asian-Americans and Americans in general."
The headings of the 13 sections into which Wong places his pieces provide specific subdivisions while adhering to his general focus. For example, Wong leads off with "Hometown: In the Shadow of San Francisco" and "Family: From Agrarianism to Cyberspace." In the two sections, the five articles cover Wong's early life growing up and working in his immigrant parents' Great China Cafe on Webster Street.
Wong's experiences as a native Chinese-American were far different from those of three older sisters, who were born in China. This gulf of perception is explored movingly in "Finding Sacred Ground," an essay written in 1994 following a trip to China with his sisters.
Throughout the book, Wong traces the history of earlier Chinese who came seeking Gold Mountain, their name for America. That history often included a stay on Angel Island, the federal enforcement center for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As Wong points out, that act which barred Chinese laborers and women from permanent residence was the only piece of federal legislation targeting a specific ethnic group.
As Wong studies the identity problem for modern Asians in this country, he raises the question "Where is Asian America?" His figures show 10 million Asian-Americans who constitute 4 percent of the total population in the United States. Of that number, two-thirds were born outside the United States.
Wong concludes that Asian America does exist, but as a state of mind, not as a geographic or even political entity.
Wong's columns do not deal only with Chinese-Americans; he includes many pieces about other Asians -- Filipinos, Japanese, Hawaiians and Koreans. He also refers to the various southeast Asian refugees of more recent times.
Yellow Journalist is not a book to be read at one sitting. After all, these articles were written as daily or even weekly columns for news publications. The timeliness of the pieces, however, does not seem dated. Wong makes his point of view compelling as he chides the media for ignoring Asian-Americans or depicting them as either "a model minority who excels in academics and business or bad guys like gangsters, influence-peddling political contributors, and spies for China."
Not all of Wong's writings are serious. He can be deadly sarcastic in such articles as "Yellow Chic" and "So That's Why I Can't Lose Weight." The former pokes fun at a 1989 New York Times article about Asians becoming the "in" item at Manhattan nightclubs. Wong's fictional San Francisco patricians engage in a dialogue about hiring Asian guests so they will be up on the latest fad.
In "So That's Why I Can't Lose Weight," Wong -- with tongue in cheek -- expresses his relief after reading a study by a Canadian psychologist who claimed that "Orientals" have bigger brains than other races. So that's why exercise doesn't work for me, decides Wong. "It's my brain that's getting heavier."
Wong's writings cover most of the major issues of the last 20 years: affirmative action, legislation against bilingual education, racism, domestic violence, interracial dating politics, crime -- even colorblind casting in the theater.
One of his most strongly personal columns was written for the San Francisco Examiner last year. In "I Am a Gook," he responds to Sen. John McCain's use of the word in one of his speeches. For two pages, Wong lists the ways in which he considers himself a "gook." He ends with: "I am a gook, even though I was born in Oakland, California, and lost my primary language (a Chinese dialect). I knew I needed English to survive in this often intolerant society. I was thus unable to fully communicate with my immigrant parents before they died after devoting their adult lives to rearing seven children to be productive citizens of the United States."
Wong's passion for his heritage, his parents' homeland and his own country shines in many ways. He campaigns for Asian-Americans. He exposes injustices. But he also takes pride in his people's achievements.
At one point, he says that all American journalism needs to do to improve Asian-American coverage is "use good reporting and precise writing with an extra dose of curiosity -- about apparent differences in cultures, real differences in languages."
These are standards Wong set for himself, and in so doing he reaches his goal outlined in his book's introduction. "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."
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