Award-winning Journalist and author William Wong comments on the national firestorm that AsianWeek has created by publishing writer Kenneth Che-Tew Eng's "Hate" Column
March 5, 2007
By William Wong
For nine years (1989-1998), I wrote a regular column for AsianWeek, the San Francisco-based weekly newspaper that bills itself as "The Voice of Asian America" but that now has egg foo yung on its face for its incredibly stupid decision to publish a racist rant ("Why I Hate Blacks") by a young writer named Kenneth Che-Tew Eng, or as AsianWeek labels his (now former) column, "God of the Universe."
I appreciated the forum AsianWeek provided me. It gave me an opportunity to explore numerous angles, tangents and pathways of the complex Asian American experience, including uber-sensitive yellow-black relationships.
I tried my best to do this exploration in the context of a changing America that has racial and ethnic ghosts it wishes would stay in an overflowing closet. I never ranted or raved or engaged in racist language or stereotypes (at least that's what I thought). I felt my "voice" was mostly reasoned, respectful, honest, and thoughtful (again, my opinion).
I even included a number of my AsianWeek columns revised and rewritten slightly in my first book, Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America, published in 2001 by Temple University Press.
In my resume and one-page biography, I include AsianWeek as a publication I have written for. Now I am not so sure I want to advertise this fact as part of my lengthy writing career.
The recent public flap over the Kenneth Eng column is more than just about a young Chinese American writer spewing hatred in the pages of AsianWeek. It's also about AsianWeek itself, its ownership, how America's dizzying array of racial and ethnic groups get along or don't get along, and how their stories are told or not told, by whom and for whom.
Kenneth Che-Tew Eng
Who is Kenneth Che-Tew Eng? A Web search yields a few clues. He claims to be the youngest science fiction novelist in America. He's 22 years old, apparently from New York City. He studied computer science at State University of New York, Stony Brook, and then attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. In addition to science fiction writing, he's into comic books and has strong opinions about religion, race, and America.
Reading some of his articles gives other clues about him. One article, "Discrimination Against Asians at NYU," which I found in my Internet search, tells of his contentious experience at the Tisch School of the Arts. Here are some selected quotes:
"As an undergraduate student who is not afraid to express his opinion, I have faced extreme consequences for merely speaking my mind."
"when I was at Stony Brook, I received at least 10 death threats from students who hated my opinions, and was once thrown out of a philosophy class for bringing up racial issues."
"since I always speak my mind, I also made negative remarks about students' films in class critiques in an attempt to help them improve their work."
"I was not going to surrender to the brainwashed majority."
"when the conversation shifted to my controversial views, I told him (an NYU official) that I thought Hitler was not a coward and that African Americans were receiving unfair aid from the American government at the expense of Asian Americans."
"every time I vocalized my sentiments, I was attacked, threatened and/or harassed by students and faculty."
"I believe that she (an African American student) has the right to express her racist opinions just like I have a right to express mine"
"I certainly wasn't going to take this lying down."
"Every session, I flooded the conversation with derogatory remarks about every ethnic group conceivable, spewed loads of anti-American remarks and blared out against the weak-mindedness of religious followers."
"To this day, I stand by all of my opinions no matter what the consequences."
In AsianWeek columns previous to his explosive "Why I Hate Blacks" one, Eng further reveals himself as unafraid to confront and fight white teenagers in Queens, New York, who called him a gook. He uses racial and ethnic identities without apology even if those identities aren't specifically relevant.
In a January 7, 2007, AsianWeek column, "Why I Hate Asians," Eng, an "Asian Supremacist" (his own description), told "why I hate many of my own kind." One reason is Asians sucking up to whites. Another is "how little pride" Asians have. A third is how "apathetic" Asians are "in terms of honor."
Then there is the now infamous "Why I Hate Blacks" column that has created a storm on the Internet, a bit of one in the San Francisco news media, both mainstream and ethnic, and even among high-profile San Francisco politicians like Mayor Gavin Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
I won't quote from that column, but suffice it to say, it's filled with blatantly racist drivel and the worst kind of generalizations and stereotypes of African Americans.
So what can one say about Kenneth Eng, based solely on some of his own writings (not his science-fiction novels, but come to think of it, isn't his other writings a kind of science fiction too)?
Is he trying to be satirical or ironic? I don't detect any subtlety or writing skill of that sort.
I don't mean to psychoanalyze him I'm no trained head-shrink but one wonders what kind of an upbringing he's had, what kind of a childhood and adolescence he's experienced?
We know New York City to be an enormous human cauldron with people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, and religions packed together in five boroughs that each have histories of segregation, bigotry, and violence. But New York City is also a place to experience humankind, even with all of our warts and foibles, in humane and wondrous ways.
Kenneth Eng apparently hasn't had the latter kind of experience. Someone who so freely expresses his "hate" can't be someone who's had much joy, fun, and caring and loving relationships.
One also wonders whether he simply wants to stand out from the crowd with outrageous opinions about race and religion. He's certainly accomplished that.
Being outrageous and screaming at the top of one's lungs are tactics that any number of people use to stand out in our media-saturated culture. But beyond the attention that brings, what else is compelling or uplifting about being a media shouter?
If he has ambitions to be taken seriously as a writer, I think he's miscalculated. Maybe he doesn't care since today's technology especially the so-called blogosphere -- allows anyone to say anything they want.
AsianWeek has published in English in San Francisco since 1979. John Fang, an immigrant interested in journalism, started it. At the time, AsianWeek had competition from East-West News, supported by some prominent San Francisco Chinese. East-West had a more liberal/progressive reputation. AsianWeek's identity was generally more moderate/centrist, or in some circles, opportunistic.
I first wrote for East-West, beginning in 1987. As a journalistic writer finding my own voice, I seized the chance to say what I felt about my own ethnic community in the context of a changing America, taking into account America's racist history.
East-West went defunct in 1989, and the AsianWeek editor at that time invited me to write for AsianWeek. I agreed.
I may have met John Fang once. He was nice enough to write a brief personal letter, thanking me for writing for his newspaper and praising me for what I wrote. He passed away in 1992, and his widow, Florence, and two of his sons, James and Ted, took over different pieces of the Fang family empire in printing, publishing, real estate, restaurant, and, most notably, power politics.
Along the way, I met both James and Ted, but never felt close or connected to them. I don't ever recall either one of them having anything to do directly with my column. They left that to whoever was actually editing AsianWeek during my nine years. (What I don't know, of course, is whether either or both Fang brothers voiced their views about my column to their editors, out of my earshot.)
I can recall at least six different editors, perhaps more, that I answered to in the nine years I wrote for AsianWeek. The majority were white men, with one white woman. They were, for the most part, cordial, friendly, and professional.
I stopped writing for AsianWeek in 1998 because its editor at the time, an Asian American woman, was maddening to deal with.
When I wrote several columns about a plan by the U.S. Archivist to possibly close the San Bruno branch of the National Archives and Records Administration a branch that houses thousands of original documents of Chinese immigrants who were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station from 1910 to 1940 this editor told me she thought I was writing too much on that subject.
Another time, she matter-of-factly told me AsianWeek was looking for younger voices to feature, implying in no uncertain terms she (or the Fang brothers?) thought I was way over-the-hill. (Hmm, did she make AsianWeek vulnerable to an age-discrimination suit?)
By this time, 1998, I had been freelancing for two years after I was unceremoniously fired by The Oakland Tribune and after I had no luck getting a regular writing job on any other San Francisco Bay Area newspaper.
I cite these facts not to elicit sympathy, but to point out that I was writing my AsianWeek column not for the money ($100 per column), but because I still had things to say related to the Asian American experience and, while The Tribune, a mainstream newspaper, gave me chances to discuss the Asian American experience, AsianWeek was a relatively better forum to reach a largely Asian American readership.
Thus, when this Asian American woman editor of AsianWeek was giving me grief, I decided to simply stop writing for AsianWeek. I didn't need the headache and unnecessary stress, not for $100 per column.
In the subsequent years, I have noticed more younger voices in AsianWeek. Here's the irony: Kenneth Eng is one of those young voices. Is that what the Fang brothers want?
Ted Fang and AsianWeek have since apologized for running Eng's anti-black column. They've also said they would stop running Eng's "God of the Universe" column.
That hardly seems enough accountability. After all, severing its relations with Eng isn't exactly a big deal. Unless Eng had a different deal than I or other AsianWeek freelancers did, ending his column isn't a huge financial hardship for Eng or any other writer. A hundred bucks, or even less, remember?
For those who think that this little action make things right now, well, guess again.
I know the current AsianWeek editor, Samson Wong, but not well. When I was writing for AsianWeek, Samson wrote a local political gossip column. (He still does.) We saw one another on rare occasions.
I do wonder what went through Samson's mind when Kenneth Eng offered to write for AsianWeek, or did Samson (or one of the Fang brothers) seek Eng out?
Some at a public forum held last week in San Francisco called for Samson's dismissal. Will the Fangs do that? As of this writing, that hasn't happened, and we know the Fang brothers aren't going to fire themselves.
Moreover, the public apologies and the fawning nature of Ted Fang's statements don't exactly ring sincere to my ears.
Of course, he and AsianWeek have to appear to fall on their own swords. (Where is James Fang in all of this hubbub?) After all, the Fangs are legendary in San Francisco for their power politics.
They are part of the sometimes impenetrable labyrinth of San Francisco Chinese politics. They and their mother, Florence, are well known to curry and seek political power. They seek to represent San Francisco Chinese to the white (and black) power establishment, as do other San Francisco Chinese individuals and families.
Indeed, the Fangs aren't alone in San Francisco's large Chinese community to maneuver for power and glory and riches and fame, not necessarily only to truly help the "community," but also motivated by crass self-interest, ego-stroking, and an attachment to power and celebrity.
Once thought to be Republicans, the Fangs supported that famous Democrat, Willie Brown, when he ran for San Francisco Mayor and stayed with him during his mayoralty.
This isn't the first time the Fangs have been in the middle of a public controversy. After they bought the San Francisco Examiner from the Hearst Corporation, Florence and Ted got into a legal battle against one another over their family financial empire.
Now one has to ask whether ending Eng's column is really enough accountability on the part of AsianWeek and the Fangs. Even if the Fangs fire Samson Wong, the matter of appropriate accountability for running Kenneth Eng's racist columns may not be fully answered.
After all, why did AsianWeek agree to run Eng's "God of the Universe" columns to begin with, given their content and racially charged screeds?
Why did it take public outrage over the "Why I Hate Blacks" column to force Ted Fang and AsianWeek to apologize and make nice with San Francisco African American leaders?
The Yellow-Black Thing
Oh, this business of multiculturalism, intergroup relations, racial tension and/or harmony are such difficult topics for we Americans, or perhaps human beings as a whole, to deal with on a sane, reasonable, rational and equitable basis. They are inherently fraught with emotions, fears, prejudices, stereotypes, and unknowns.
Kenneth Eng's writing indicates a certain kind of street-level tension along racial or ethnic lines. I hear about incidents of racial crimes or racial targeting by young black men in Oakland, my hometown, or San Francisco and other cities. There too are stories about Asian and Latino gangs, either fighting one another or committing crimes that affect people of different backgrounds.
When I was writing a column for The Oakland Tribune (1988 to 1996), I dealt with yellow-black relationships a number of times.
Once I witnessed an almost altercation at an Oakland Chinatown restaurant where two apparently besotted black men came in to eat. After they were ignored (by a racist Chinese wait staff?) for about five minutes, one of them got up to loudly protest the lack of attention. His companion knocked over the table condiments and they got up to leave. Suddenly, a group of young Chinese men appeared, ready to take on the two black men. Luckily, no violence ensued and nothing further happened in the restaurant.
Another time, during a public Chinese New Year celebration at an Oakland Chinatown gathering place, several young African American women walked through loudly and made taunting and mocking noises, causing a small commotion. They left without further incident.
A third time was in New York City itself, in the early 1990s, a time of widespread racial tension in America's most populous and famous city, Kenneth Eng's city. In 1990, I was in New York for an Asian American journalists' convention and decided to see for myself a months-long boycott of two Korean-American grocery stores in Brooklyn by some African Americans. This boycott had drawn national publicity and well-intentioned efforts by civil-rights leaders of different ethnicities went for naught.
I hear and I know that some Chinese people, and other Asian people, think lowly of black people, perhaps even express a kind of racist hatred not too far from Kenneth Eng's brand.
Bigotry and prejudice and fear and ignorance aren't a one-way street, however. Chinese and other Asians are indeed the subject of some of this blatant and subtle racism too, yes from black and white people and from others as well.
So it's not as though Eng is making bad stuff up out of whole cloth. But racial tensions, taunting, indeed hatred aren't the sum total of the American and human experience.
There were more upbeat stories I wrote about in The Tribune, like a Japanese American and an African American teaming up to coach a mixed race teenage basketball team to a tournament victory usually dominated by all-black teams in Oakland.
In 1997, I was invited (along with several other yellow Americans) to join an NAACP "conversation on race." It was the African American civil rights group's attempt to explore racial relations in the post-civil rights era when the American racial equation was no longer just black and white.
And I personally know of everyday interactions between and among black and Chinese and other Asian people that are good, loving, caring, positive, and just plain humane. These decent and universal stories almost never make the mainstream news media or the blogosphere. Everyday good news or neutral news is too boring and not attention-grabbing enough, I guess.
Let me cite one final example, involving my sister Flo Oy Wong, an installation artist and visual storyteller. There's a Sacramento art gallery called 40 Acres. It's in an area being developed by Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who is trying to rebuild his mostly black, but now gentrifying Sacramento neighborhood.
Kim Curry-Evans, an African American woman, is director of the 40 Acres Gallery. A white woman, Jane Hill of the Sacramento Symphony, and Kim invited Flo to show her art work at 40 Acres, an African American space.
Flo's show, "Whispers of the Past," went up in February, which happens to be Black History Month, and it features the very touching story of her Chinese American husband, Ed, who grew up among poor black people in Augusta, Georgia, and how Ed and two black brothers became friends, despite the barriers that tried to separate them.
Think about that: a Chinese American artist with mostly Asian American themes shows her work in a gallery targeted to African Americans. Kim Curry-Evans has received ample praise for her broad multicultural vision, but some African Americans in Sacramento have also criticized her for showing a Chinese American artist during Black History Month.
As I said, this interracial, intergroup, multicultural stuff is fraught with both peril and pregnant positive possibilities.
Despite my earlier comments, there is room in America for an AsianWeek and countless other ethnic publications, whether in English or other languages. That's in large part because the English-language mainstream news media outlets (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television) still don't include sufficient numbers of quality, in-depth, well-reported stories that tell what's really going on in America's many ethnic and racial communities.
For the longest of times, the American news media were almost wholly serving a white readership and audience. Over the past quarter century or so, they began to get the fact that the United States is more than all-white, all Christian. Slowly, they've been hiring editors and writers and photographers and graphic artists who come from various racial and ethnic groups.
But even those efforts aren't enough because the hires "of color" tend not to represent the entire strata of the multicultural populations that now make up a significant (but still "minority") portion of the American population.
Which is why AsianWeek and countless other English- and other language publications, radio stations, and television shows exist to connect more directly with this country's many "minority" and non-English proficient readers and viewers.
It's tempting to ascribe noble motives to all of these news outlets on the margins of America because they better serve the black, brown, yellow, red and other non-white colors of America's Technicolor palette of people.
There's no way that I, or almost anybody else who isn't into deep research on the content and quality of these outlets, to tell whether some or all are doing a good job, a fair job, of reporting the news and commenting on the news to their niche readers or audiences.
There is indeed a fine line that separates ethnic pride and ethnic arrogance. Bringing to light something that is compelling or interesting or noteworthy in one's ethnic group may be considered a genuine service to some people. Or it could foster separatism and exclusiveness to others. Or it could do both.
I can't think of a formula that will satisfy both the desire on the part of undercovered communities to "tell our stories" and the need on the part of many Americans not to hunker down in ethnic enclaves, impervious to the common good of this society, this world, of humanity itself.
Will the Fang family and AsianWeek really learn the important lessons from their recent errors of judgment? If not, then they should change the name of their publication to AsianWeak.