Urban 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 Asian-American journalism.

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 ethnic communities.

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.

< Back to Reviews page

Home | About the Author | About the Book | Author Appearances
Reviews | Order the Book | Contact the Author

Receive William Wong's Alerts | Download Photos

Site developed by DAVIDTSAI.com