William Wong’s "Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America"
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TERENCE SMITH: William Wong is the author of “Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America.” It’s a collection of essays and columns that begins with his childhood in the Chinatown section of Oakland, California. William Wong has been a columnist and author here in the San Francisco Bay area for 30-plus years. He’s also appeared as a regional commentator on the NewsHour. We talked in his living room in nearby piedmont. William Wong, welcome.
WILLIAM WONG: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: You subtitle your book “Dispatches from Asian America.” What and where is Asian America?
WILLIAM WONG: Well, I think Asian America is more a state of mind than it is a geographic location. And I like to think of Asian America as sort of a framework for sort of political, cultural, and… discussions in which Asian Americans can talk about the various roles that we are emerging into American society.
TERENCE SMITH: In the articles and columns selected in this book, you go back to your childhood in Oakland, growing up in the Chinatown section of Oakland, and carry it right through to today. How has that state of mind– Asian America– changed over those years?
WILLIAM WONG: It’s actually changed greatly. When I was growing up, Asian America then was mainly Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American, and our numbers were much smaller. But after the 1965 immigration law changes and after the Vietnam War change, the Asian American community became much broader, much more diversified with different American experiences at that time. So therefore, this business of a state of mind comes into play because there has been so much history for Asian Americans that current Asian Americans don’t know and don’t understand.
TERENCE SMITH: Would you consider this area– Oakland, San Francisco, the Bay area– sort of the capital of Asian America?
WILLIAM WONG: No question. San Francisco is the capital of Asian America because the Chinese American population, which was the first significant Asian ethnic population, concentrated in San Francisco and spread throughout California. And it is much more so than any other state, with perhaps the exception of Hawaii.
TERENCE SMITH: You write about this, and this state of mind. Would you read a passage for us?
WILLIAM WONG: Sure, I will. “Part of Asian America’s soul remains wounded and unattended. Regardless of our larger numbers and increasing presence in all walks of life, we still feel invisible. For the most part, opinion leaders and power brokers don’t include us in any discussions of race and class in America. Our absence is preposterous, especially when Asian ethnics are specifically picked on, or on occasions, precipitate racial friction. In significant discussions of America’s race relations, the question is posed in black and white terms only.”
TERENCE SMITH: Invisible– that’s a strong word.
WILLIAM WONG: It is, and it’s an odd kind of contradiction. On the one hand, we are… Members of the Asian American community are becoming much visible, but on the whole, in some questions as I indicated in the passage I just read, when there is a significant discussion of race in America, it’s usually still black and white, now with a little Latino inclusion.
TERENCE SMITH: You use a phrase in one of your pieces. You describe… You describe the U.S. as “an often intolerant society.” What do you mean?
WILLIAM WONG: I’m referring really to the history of exclusion and discrimination up until World War II. After that, things began to improve greatly, where Asian Americans were able to integrate much more into American society and begin to go to schools everywhere and are working in every job that one can imagine now.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, you have a piece in the collection in which you describe something called yellow chic. What’s yellow chic?
WILLIAM WONG: Well, yellow chic is when some folks will take an aspect of the Asian American community and sort of toy with it and make it sort of much more stylish as a way of being up to date and au currant. And that to me is one of those interesting twists about how folks look on Asians as a group, as opposed to looking on us as individuals.
TERENCE SMITH: You’re talking about everything from food to fashion.
WILLIAM WONG: Exactly.
TERENCE SMITH: You also have a very strongly phrased column in there which you wrote in response a statement made by Senator John McCain in the last campaign. Tell us what that statement was and what you wrote in response to it.
WILLIAM WONG: Someone asked Senator McCain about his Vietnam experience, and he became very emotional talking about the North Vietnamese captors, and he called them gooks, and he called them gooks repeatedly. But he said all he was talking about where the North Vietnamese captors. But that got out over the air, was widely reported nationally. And my response to it was to sort of remind Senator McCain and anybody else that the word “gook” has been used against people of Asian descent far beyond being the North Vietnamese captors. It’s been used against us right here in our own country. So I did a… an essay which was sort of a tone poem that educated him and other people about the fact that there’s been a lot of history in the United States and Asia, and the fact that gook has been used as a derogatory term.
TERENCE SMITH: You used the phrase over and over again in the piece.
WILLIAM WONG: I did. In fact I start the piece repeatedly with the line, “I am a gook.”
TERENCE SMITH: Trying to make that explanation to him clear.
WILLIAM WONG: Correct.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you get any response from Senator McCain?
WILLIAM WONG: I did not get any from him, but I got a lot of response from the Asian American community, who were very much taken by it because it gave a capsule history of Asia and the United States, and the Asian American experience. And I got a lot of other reaction from other Americans.
TERENCE SMITH: There’s another very funny column in this collection in which… Entitled “Now I Know Why I can’t Lose Weight.” Tell me about that one.
WILLIAM WONG: Well, a Canadian scientist by the name of Felipe Rushton came to San Francisco for a scientific meeting. And he posited that in his “research” he had found that Asians had bigger brains than white people or black people, but at the same time, Asians were less aggressive and less sexual. So I was playing with these two stereotypes: One, of Asians as very smart; two, of Asians as being less sexual. So I did a sort of funny tongue- in-cheek column about that, and I read it at many different readings, and people really usually howl. I tell them that the reason that I do this is because sometimes you have to laugh at these things as opposed to taking them too seriously.
TERENCE SMITH: And of course the reason you can’t lose weight is your brain is too big and growing.
WILLIAM WONG: Exactly. That was the punch line that I used. And whenever my wife tells me that I have a heavy head, I have an explanation for her.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, I just wonder if you have an observation about the current sort of diplomatic dance going on between China and the United States these days over everything from the downing of the spy plane to the notion of the Olympics coming to Beijing, and presidential visits in the offing. When you observe this, from your point of view, what strikes you?
WILLIAM WONG: Well, granted, I am a Chinese American born in this country, but I still have an emotional affinity for the homeland of my parents, regardless of the governmental form, whether they’re Communists or Communists… or capitalists looking like Communists or whatever. I think the bottom line is China is such a major country, regardless of who runs it at this point, that it would be folly for anybody to say, “let’s isolate China, let’s not deal with China.” I think we need to deal with China on a lot of different levels. I’m okay with the criticism of China as a human rights abuser if that’s, in fact, the case. But I also think that China has made tremendous progress in how it treats its own people, and the fact is, China has made tremendous progress on raising the standard of living of a billion-plus people. And I think it should be encouraged as much as it can to join the community of nations, and perhaps more reforms will be on the way.
TERENCE SMITH: And very briefly, when there’s an incident like either the Wen Ho Lee case or the downing of the spy plane, does that have ramifications for Chinese Americans in this country?
WILLIAM WONG: It certainly does, and it goes back to this history of discrimination and institutional racism that a lot of Chinese American and Asian Americans feel. So even though we don’t have any direct connection with that case, because of the way we look, there might be some Americans who will make jokes or take it out on us in some way, and it becomes a psychological burden on us to continuously know that, or feel that we are not part of this country.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, the reader certainly gets an impression of that in “Yellow Journalist.” William Wong, thank you very much.
WILLIAM WONG: Thank you.