View, Oakland CA, April 11-17, 2001
Color Lines: William Wong rocks the boat in his debut book
By Dann McDorman
For thirty years, Bay Area journalist William Wong has been covering
the Asian-American issues that get neglected or confused by the
mainstream media. From his start as a cub reporter in the 1970s
at the lily-white Wall Street Journal, to his stints in the
'80s and '90s as columnist for the Oakland Tribune, San Francisco
Examiner/Chronicle, and Asian Week, Wong has consistently
put the spotlight on a community that all too often gets left in
the dark. A native of Oakland's Chinatown district, Wong has just
published an anthology, Yellow Journalist, which packages
the best and brightest of his work over the last decade and a half.
The pieces in Yellow Journalist cover an astonishing range
of subjects and styles, from his deft dissection of the racialized
press coverage of Judge Ito in the O.J. Simpson trial in "Escaping
Racism: No Way Out," to his cutting satire of white condescension
of Asian Americans in "Yellow Chic." Then there's "I Am a Gook,"
a prose-poem response to John McCain's famous (and fatal) remark
about his Vietnamese captors in last year's primaries, and "Rock
On, Mr. President," a hilarious account of how Wong's precocious
son leapt into the spotlight when introducing Bill Clinton at a
local rally. These and other pieces in Yellow Journalist marvelously
showcase Wong's wry, canny sense of humor and his fierce desire
to champion those who lack a voice.
Darrell Hamamoto, a professor at UC-Davis, calls William Wong "the
dean of Asian-American journalists." We recently met with Dean Wong
at a coffee shop to discuss his career, work, and the future of
UV: Where did the title [Yellow Journalist] come from?
WW: It has at least three meanings. One is the classic meaning
of yellow journalism, which goes back to the Hearst-Pulitzer circulation
paper wars...But the real essence of the title is a political statement,
by me, that describes me. I am a journalist, and within the American
racial color spectrum, if there's a white, a black, a red, a brown,
there's also a yellow. So I thought it would be appropriate for
me to use it that way. And then the third, sort of hidden meaning
that some Cantonese speakers would understand is that one of the
translations of the word "Wong" is "yellow."
UV: One thing you don't really touch on in the book is workplace
discrimination, especially your early career. I imagine the Wall
Street Journal in 1970 was not exactly a bastion of diversity.
WW: The only time I felt something at all was later in my
career, in the late '70s, when the Journal management was
beginning to think about "diversity." They established a committee
of Journal staff members and other members of the Dow Jones
family, and I heard about this and asked to be a member of that
committee. One of the management staff told me that he didn't consider
me a minority. They were clearly thinking of blacks.
UV: You clearly write a lot about Asian-American issues.
Did you ever feel that you were pigeon-holed by editors because
of that, as far as topics you could write about?
WW: The book obviously is about Asian Americans. Purposefully.
I had a universe of about 1,500 articles to draw on...Of those 1,500,
I would guess that a minority were Asian-American themed, so I obviously
write on other subjects...But I did this book on purpose because
I felt that was my largest contribution to the public discourse.
Especially, in my view, there's so very little written in the way
I write about Asian-American issues. Almost nothing. I have to say
honestly, there's almost nothing in mainstream journalism that is
equivalent to this book.
UV: What kind of gap do you think this book fills?
WW: In any emerging ethnic community in the United States,
there are always stories that aren't going to be told in the mainstream,
given the discriminatory nature of the hiring and story selection.
And you also have to consider the tremendous cultural misunderstanding
and the pressure on ethnic journalists coming out of these communities
to conform to the newsroom culture...Yet in the last twenty or so
years, the demographics of this country have changed sharply, and
all those people are potential new readers. Even from a business
standpoint, if mainstream newspapers are worried about stagnant
circulation and advertising competition, they should turn to these
UV: In a piece in the book from 1987, you talk about how
there are many more female Asian-American TV news anchors than males.
What about now?
WW: It's still an issue...It's what I call the Connie Chung
Syndrome. It's still there...In the last several years the Asian
male anchor picture may have improved slightly, but the Asian female
anchors/reporters have proliferated. It's an odd gap.
UV: Do you have a theory about it?
WW: Yeah, my theory is an old theory. Institutional racism
and sexism. Whether subliminally or overtly, white guy bosses like
the looks of Asian chicks.
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