Post-Intelligencer, Seattle, WA, April 27, 2001
"Dispatches" examines Asian America
By Judy Lightfoot
On a breezy California morning in June, William Wong walked into the cafe in San Francisco's Haight district where he had agreed to meet me for an interview. He looks like his book-jacket portrait -- silver-haired and handsome, with a pensive, good-humored smile -- though he's more wiry and wary in person than in his pictures. I waved my copy of "Yellow Journalist" at him by way of introduction and we grabbed a table.
For three decades, beginning with his stint at The Wall Street Journal during the 1970s, Wong wrote for various publications including The Oakland Tribune, East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle, and Asian Week. "I've written on Asian American topics," Wong told me, "but also on gender, class, crime, national and international politics: a range of things. Having lived in various U.S. environments and abroad -- Asia, Europe -- I like to think I have a fairly wide vision."
But it was the Asian American material that many of Wong's readers urged him to put into more durable form. "There's a dearth of Asian American writing, particularly non-fiction," Wong explained. "People are glad I've been out there writing all these years. They wanted my stuff to be available to their children. So I looked back over my 30 years of being published two to three times a week, and counted 1,500 pieces with an Asian American emphasis."
Wong shook his head, as if still surprised by the number, and set his cappuccino down. "Putting the book together was like putting my soul together."
"Yellow Journalist: Dispatches From Asian America," (Temple University Press, 252 pages, $22.95) opens with autobiographical chapters about growing up in Oakland's Chinatown during the '50s and chronicles a recent family visit to the Wongs' ancestral village in China. However, Wong explained, "The overall design isn't narrative. One woman told me she read it straight through. My sister said she couldn't read it all at once because it's too heavy, too emotional for her."
Certainly chapters on Angel Island and immigration policies will resonate emotionally for American descendants of immigrants, particularly from China. Wong lifted his copy of the book as if weighing it. "Maybe people should take it in easy bites."
The book invites this approach. Of its 74 articles, the longest is 15 pages and most are under four or five, making "Dispatches" an apt word for the volume's subtitle.
Altogether, said Wong, "'Yellow Journalist' is my take on the Asian American experience." His subjects range from bilingual education, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and Asian American gender politics, to Sen. John McCain's use of "gook" in describing his Vietnamese captors when a prisoner of war, Asian American donations to the Democratic Party during Clinton's presidency, the racialized public comments about Judge Lance Ito and a Chinese American forensics expert at the O. J. Simpson trial, and the case of Wen Ho Lee, the China-born American physicist wrongly accused of spying.
Wong doesn't intend to speak for a group: "It's the Asian American scene through my eyes and mind," he told me. But the man with this mind and eye was born into an ethnic community that occupies a unique position in the United States. For one thing, Americans tend to see Asian Americans either (in the book's words) as "a 'model minority' [excelling] in business and academics," or as "gangsters, influence-peddling political contributors, and spies for China."
Wong sets these conflicting stereotypes against each other in his chapter, "The Model Minority Criminal," a phrase that evokes his characteristic appreciation for irony and complexity.
Here and in other chapters, such as "Plenty of Blame to Go Around," he is especially interesting writing about the diversity, good and bad, among Asian Americans. "Some of the Asian wealthy have little sympathy for affirmative action programs that may give Latino and black kids a leg up," Wong told me, "and some manage sweatshops making products for big-name retailers. Other Asian Americans oppose such views and behavior. But they all tend to be invisible to the public eye unless they can be made to fit a popular stereotype, and this has kept people from learning their true complexity."
So it has been especially important to Wong that he map his personal set of coordinates onto the American scene he writes about.
Today Wong is mainly a writer for non-profit organizations. A few years ago he was fired from The Oakland Tribune, suddenly and without explanation. In "Yellow Journalist" he voices suspicions that the new owners and their "conservative white editors ... did not like my politics and ... my writing so often about Asian American issues."
Still, his comments on contemporary newspapers transcend personal grievance as well as concerns that might seem particularly Asian American.
For instance, Wong deplores journalism's growing emphasis on infotainment. Outside the cafe, where he and I said goodbye in the sunny wind, the headline on the newspaper in the vending machine announced Timothy McVeigh's death that morning. Wong remarked, "Issues like capital punishment are important, and reporters always feel a thrill when they get the perfect quotable remark." But front-page quotes from random people about their feelings at the moment of a criminal's execution "don't add up to an understanding of the event and the underlying forces. How representative among people today is McVeigh's view of American political life? That's the kind of question I'd want to explore."
Wong continues to explore such questions in frequent contributions to Asian Week and The Examiner. He's also writing his first novel, a fantasy with a Chinese American protagonist, set in Oakland.
And in "Yellow Journalist," he has given us a highly readable American archive that samples three decades of reporting from a man with an unpredictable, inquiring mind.