CLOVIS -- In 1948, when I was 7 years
old, my family moved from our crowded rented house in Oakland's Chinatown
to a spacious five-bedroom split-level house in a predominantly white neighborhood
less than two miles away.
I was still too young to be of significant help at my
parents' restaurant, so I stayed home more than my older sisters, who were practically
held hostage at the restaurant.
A favorite pastime was to listen to the radio in our
new home. (It wasn't until 1952 that our family bought our first television set,
which was still a luxury for most households.) On autumn Saturday afternoons,
my ears were glued to radio broadcasts of football games played by the University
of California at Berkeley ("Cal" to locals).
The late 1940s were the glory years of Cal football,
whose coach, Pappy Waldorf, was a living legend. It didn't matter that I was a
Chinese American kid whose immigrant parents spoke broken English and didn't know
the first thing about American football.
I became a football fanatic and by extension a sports
nut who supplemented my radio listening with hours spent reading the stories and
memorizing the statistics of my favorite teams and players in the sports pages
of the local paper. Kids don't immediately realize any limits.
When I started high school in the ninth grade, I had
the brilliant idea of trying out for the freshman basketball team. After all,
I had spent years playing schoolyard football, baseball, and basketball. I was
barely taller than five feet. As I joined other boys my age---but not necessarily
my height---it became painfully obvious after one quick scrimmage that I was delusional.
While my skills were about average, my height wasn't,
so I was not invited back for the next tryout. I don't recall whether I was emotionally
crushed by this rejection, but I turned to the next best thing---writing about
sports for the school newspaper.
Since I had absorbed by osmosis the sportswriting
idiom---military analogies, action verbs, and colorful clichés---I felt confident
I could chronicle the exploits of my high school's sports teams.
So began my journalistic writing "career." Sportswriting
took a backseat in my senior year, however, because my journalism teacher, a slender,
nervous woman in her fifties named Blanche Hurd, appointed me to be editor of
the school's yearbook.
I agonized over a decision since I really loved writing
sports for the school newspaper, but Miss Hurd persuaded me to head up the yearbook
staff. I'm not sure why I gave in, because she was not dealing from a position
She had taken over my high school's journalism classes
in my junior year, succeeding the exceedingly popular James Black. It took a long
time for the mousy Miss Hurd to win any respect from her students, although I
didn't have any animosity toward her.
In fact, what I remember about her---other than her naming
me yearbook editor---was some prescient advice that resonates with me even today.
One day during my senior year, Miss Hurd took me aside to talk about my future.
I don't remember what I said, but I vividly recollect
what she said. If I wanted to pursue journalism as a career, she said, I would
have to be "twice as good" to succeed.
I heard her words, but I did not fully grasp her meaning. Twice
as good. I was 16 years old and while I thought I knew a great deal about myself
and the world, I knew very little.
Miss Hurd was one of two high school teachers who were most
significant in my development as a writer and thinker. The other was George Stokes,
a history teacher. Mr. Stokes had only one arm; he wore a prosthetic for his other
He didn't let that disability bother him. More than any
other teacher, he pushed me and my classmates to think for ourselves. His class
lessons were filled with dates and important events, but he insisted that we think
about dates and events and that we write critically in our essays.
And he did it in an aggressive style that challenged
us to do our best. When I enrolled at Cal in 1958, I pursued my first love---sportswriting.
Even before I registered for any classes, I signed up to be a sportswriter in
the dungeon that was the office of the Daily Californian in Eshleman Hall.
I had the good fortune of covering Cal's football team coached
by Marv Levy before he became the successful head coach of the Buffalo Bills and
the superb basketball teams under Coach Pete Newell.
I saw Newell's team win a national championship, then
lose it the next year. I even rose to the exalted position of sports editor in
my sophomore year, a precocious rise for a Chinatown kid.
Alas, my sports editorship was truncated by a political
revolution at Cal, a precursor to the Free Speech Movement of 1964 that
shook the world. My Cal experience helped shape my political worldview.
I was there a little more than ten years after the United
States, as the leader of the Allied forces that defeated the fascist regimes of
Germany, Japan, and Italy, emerged as a world power. Russia turned from friend
to foe. The Cold War set in.
Rabid anticommunism was in the air in Washington, D.C.,
and coursed through universities like Cal, where professors were forced to sign
loyalty oaths and where nervous administrators tangled with student freethinkers.
I had only cursory knowledge of these irresistible forces
from my cubicle at the Daily Californian. I was content to write a column,
which I called "The Chinese Bandit," after the nickname given to the defensive
unit of the Louisiana State University football team.
As sports editor, however, I was a member of the editorial
board of the Daily Cal, led by a quiet intellectual named Dan Silver. Silver
and his news-side editors, all seniors and liberal to one degree or another, decided
to endorse a set of candidates representing a leftist student group called Slate
who were running for student government positions.
I went along with the endorsement even though I was not
fully invested in the ideological leanings of Silver and his top editors. It was
not as though I were a political eunuch. I was simply less mature politically
than the top editors of the paper, who were my elders.
Our endorsement of Slate was a giant no-no to the conservative
administrators, who engineered a coup of the Daily Cal's editorial board,
forcing us to resign. The administration replaced us with more compliant students
from the fraternities and sororities.
The Daily Cal staff went off campus and published
a newspaper called The Independent Californian with the generous assistance of
a veteran local journalist named Orr Kelly.
We hawked our newly minted paper on the streets near
the campus, but our enthusiasm wasn't sufficient to sustain our resource-poor
efforts. Eventually, a deal was brokered, allowing some of the old Daily Cal
staff to join the Greek-letter-society interlopers.
Since I was the youngest of the editorial board members,
I was named to a high news-side position---managing editor---thus joining the
ranks of the more serious news-side staff, and I haven't looked back since. In
the last semester of my senior year, I took over as Daily Cal editor and
led the staff back into a more liberal territory.
The civil rights movement in the south was heating up,
and I had friends who spent summers on freedom rides and otherwise lent their
support to southern black people who fought to end legal segregation. In the summer
following my graduation from Cal, I got my first professional journalism job with
the help of a Cal journalism professor---as a summer replacement reporter at the
San Francisco Chronicle.
I was only 21 years old, still wet-behind-the-ears. A
veteran reporter told me at the time that I broke a color line, becoming the first
Chinese American reporter on a daily newspaper in the city with the largest ethnic
Chinese community in the United States.
That summer job lasted only five months, but I was able
to land two other jobs at Bay Area papers during the next year and a half. One
was with the afternoon San Francisco paper at the time, a hybrid called the
News Call Bulletin.
There I continued my political education. One of the
big stories I covered was the local civil rights protests at the famous Sheraton
Palace Hotel, which didn't hire black people or other racial minorities.
With two years of journalism under my belt---and too
many stories about five-alarm fires, petty crimes, and murders---I needed a break,
so I signed up for the Peace Corps.
I served three and one half years in the Philippines,
which wasn't my specific choice. But since I wanted to go to Asia to get closer
to my ethnic Chinese roots, the Philippines was a good alternative because it
hosted a Peace Corps program, whereas China did not.
With my unaccented American English and my Chinese face,
I baffled ordinary Filipinos who thought Americans were white and blonde. As much
as any experience of being a racial minority in the United States, my years as
an inchick (the Tagalog word for Chinese) in the Philippines enriched my understanding
of the sensitivities and pitfalls of interracial relationships.
Racial matters were never at the forefront of my early
journalism career, which I resumed after the Peace Corps and a master's degree
from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The Wall Street Journal's hiring me in 1970 after
my Columbia education was not because I was a racial minority. Newspapers in those
days, like many other American institutions, did not have affirmative action programs.
Nonetheless, as I settled into a routine life as
a staff reporter for the Journal, first in Cleveland, Ohio, then in San Francisco,
a yearning to write about my racial roots and identity issues began to surface.
The Journal was one of those rare major newspapers that
encouraged young reporters to propose their own stories, especially for the three
precious feature slots on its rigid front page.
After President Nixon stunned the world by resuming
relations with communist China, I wrote a front-page Journal story about how some
Chinese Americans were being used as cultural "bridges" between the two societies.
I profiled a new Chinese American civil rights group, Chinese for Affirmative
Action of San Francisco.
A year after the so-called fall of Saigon, I wrote a
feature story about how newly arrived Vietnamese refugees were faring in their
new home state of California. During Labor Day weekend of 1977, a San Francisco
Chinatown gang shot up a busy restaurant in a spectacular revenge hit.
Going beyond that criminal act, I wrote an in-depth front-page
feature about how Chinatowns formed and why they incubate conditions that can
lead to such acts of organized violence.
As prestigious as it was to work for one of the nation's
finest newspapers, I ached to get closer to my community---both geographic and
ethnic. When I heard that Robert C. Maynard was taking over the Oakland Tribune
as its new editor in late 1979, I asked him for a job.
I had met and conversed with Maynard before. He had a
solid national reputation through his reporting, writing, and editorializing at
the Washington Post. He quit the Post---and his wife Nancy Hicks had quit The
New York Times---to launch an ambitious initiative to train more racial minority
journalists to become staff members at more daily newspapers in the United States.
This time, for me, race was a factor in my hiring. I
had told Maynard I wanted a writing job. He replied that he wanted me to be business
editor of the Tribune, taking advantage of my nine years at The Wall Street
I had not given any thought before to an editing job,
but I felt it was an opportunity I could not pass up. So began a seventeen-year
association with the Tribune, the newspaper I grew up with but one I never thought
was friendly to me or the neighborhood of my childhood, which happened to be in
the shadow of the Tribune Tower.
The Tribune had its zenith under the ownership of the
Knowland family, led by patriarch Joseph Knowland, a Congressman who happened
to own a newspaper. Under the Knowlands, the Tribune ran Oakland, along
with Henry J. Kaiser, the industrialist responsible for building dams and paving
thousands of miles of highways throughout the western United States and building
and repairing ships during World War II and whose legacy is the pioneering Kaiser
Permanente health-maintenance organization. Oakland was a different city before
World War II than it was after it.
Racial minorities such as African Americans, Mexican
Americans, and Asian Americans were a relatively small presence before the war.
But the Kaiser industrial complex needed workers for its shipyards, so thousands
of black people from Texas, Louisiana, and other southern states migrated west
for wartime jobs.
Federal immigration restrictions kept the numbers of
Asians low in Oakland and the rest of the United States. After the war, many African
Americans stayed and immigration restrictions were loosened, allowing in more
Asian and Latino immigrants.
Meanwhile, flush with prosperity and a new hubris
born of the war's triumphs, America was on the move internally. Suburbs blossomed
everywhere, luring middle-class white families. The gritty industrial base began
eroding too, leaving cities like Oakland to poorer racial minorities with fewer
and fewer industrial jobs.
For about thirty years after the war, the Tribune
managed to live off the wealth generated by its earlier successes. It was a powerhouse
not only in Oakland but also in suburbs to its north, east, and south. Leadership
at the Tribune shifted from the founding patriarch Joseph to his son William,
who had been a conservative Republican United States Senator made famous by his
staunch defense of the Nationalist Chinese regime that had escaped to Formosa,
now called Taiwan, after losing to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.
William F. Knowland was apparently better as an anticommunist
zealot than he was as a businessman, however. At a time when the suburbs were
exploding, the Tribune inexplicably pulled back its resources and basically ceded
that advertising-rich territory to The Contra Costa Times owned by Dean
Lesher, that later became prosperous at The Tribune's expense.
By the time Robert C. Maynard took over as editor of
the Tribune under the new ownership of The Gannett Corporation in 1979, the Tribune
was a mere shadow of its former self.
[Editor's Note: William Wong is the author of Yellow
Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America. He is also a communications
and writing consultant for non-profit organizations and foundations. He lives
in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and teenage son.]