The Seattle Times, July 27, 2001

'Yellow Journalist' gives voice to experiences of Asian Americans

By David Takami/Special to The Seattle Times

Journalist William Wong laments the absence of a regular Asian-American voice in the country’s mainstream media. He is too modest. For the past three decades, Wong has been that voice – clear, cogent and wickedly funny at times.

The compilation of his columns and essays that make up “Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian American” (Temple University Press, $22.95) mirrors the emergence of a distinct Asian-American culture, and touches on nearly every hot-button issue of the past 25 years, from the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in the late 1970s, to Japan-bashing in the 1980s, to the Asian political fund-raising scandal and the detention of Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee in the 1990s. Along the way, Wong comments on the many faces of racism, the portrayal of Asians in the media, interracial dating, and the myth of the Asian “wimpy” male.

Wong plots a steady line through these seemingly unrelated issues and peoples, who are themselves dizzyingly diverse. Asian Americans include a multitude of ethnic groups, the gamut of religions and political leanings, fifth- and sixth-generation Americans commingling with recently arrived immigrants. What could they possibly have in common? Over the course of 75 essays, Wong responds convincingly that Asian Americans share an identity borne of a history of racism, discrimination and perceived foreignness – the common frustration that the media and mainstream America don’t make distinctions between Asians and Asian Americans.

The son of Chinese immigrants, Wong began his journalism career as a reporter for Bay Area newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, in the mid-1960s. After earning a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism, he landed a job with The Wall Street Journal in 1970. In 1979, he jumped at the chance to join Robert C. Maynard, the new African-American editor of the Oakland Tribune, first as the business editor, then as ombudsman, and finally in 1988 as a regular columnist. He also wrote steadily for Asian-American publications, including Seattle’s International Examiner.

A change of ownership at the Tribune eventually resulted in Wong’s firing in 1996 – which prompted protesting pickets in front of the paper’s offices.

The book’s title is a reference to race, but also an ironic rebuke to “yellow journalists” of yore: jingoistic newspapermen of the 19th and 20th centuries whose lurid headlines and scandal sheets inflamed public opinion. Wong’s prose is anything but inflammatory. His cadences are even and pleasing, and his reasoning is never forced. He draws a quick bead on his topic, presents precise details, and makes his point without seeming strident or doctrinaire.

He occasionally stumbles. A couple of the book’s first essays on his family and an emotional visit to China fall uncharacteristically flat. It’s as if the journalist in Wong feels uncomfortable revealing personal matters and distances himself too far from his subject. Wong also sometimes treads safer middle ground when presenting controversy. This works well in a 1990 column on volatile Asian-black race relations in New York City, but other times feels wishy-washy, especially in a piece on the University of California affirmative-action debate.

Wong rises to eloquence when he combines a journalist’s eye for detail with an impassioned point of view. His 1995 essay on the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War is a powerful yet nuanced exploration of America’s selective memory, which invariably omits the Vietnamese perspective. He takes on proponents of the “English Only” movement in California with a poignant reflection on the loss of his own mother tongue.

And he skewers Sen. John McCain’s off-handed use of a racial epithet during the 2000 presidential campaign to describe the North Vietnamese who tortured him when he was a prisoner of war. Wong declared, “I am a gook” and listed all the ways that “gooks” have contributed to American history.

More than a primer on recent issues, “Yellow Journalist” is a distillation of what it means to be Asian American and should be required reading in classrooms and newsrooms across the country.

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