Monday, March 5, 2007

Should AsianWeek now be called AsianWeak?

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. I explored numerous angles, tangents and pathways of the complex Asian American experience, including uber-sensitive yellow-black relationships.

I even included some of my AsianWeek columns 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.”
  • “…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 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 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 published in the Feb. 23, 2007 issue that has created a storm on the Internet, and in parts of the local San Francisco news media, both mainstream and ethnic.

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?

Is he trying to be satirical or ironic? I don’t detect any subtlety or writing skill of that sort.

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.

Does he simply want 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 journalist, started it. He passed away in 1992, and his widow, Florence, and sons James and Ted took over the Fang family empire of printing, publishing, real estate and power politics.

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.

For instance, 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.

In recent years, I have noticed more younger voices in AsianWeek. Is Kenneth Eng one of those young voices they wanted?

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. Since AsianWeek pays its freelance writers a pittance, ending his column isn’t a financial hardship for Eng or any other writer.

The big questions remains: Who made the decision to run Kenneth Eng’s hate-filled columns to begin with and why did this person or persons (Ted Fang? James Fang? Samson Wong, listed as Editor in Chief?) not think twice about Eng when his columns regularly spewed hate, even before the “Why I Hate Blacks” column was published?

If one of the Fang brothers – the owners – decided to run Eng’s columns and didn’t pull the highly offensive “Why I Hate Blacks” one, it’s highly unlikely they are going to fire themselves. If it was Samson Wong’s decision alone, then he needs to be held accountable.

The Fangs, after all, are one of San Francisco’s prominent Chinese American families. Among other things, they are local legends in how they play power politics.

They are part of the sometimes impenetrable labyrinth of San Francisco Chinese politics. They are well known to curry and seek political power. They want to represent San Francisco Chinese to the white (and black) power establishment.

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.

No one is sure whether they are Democrats or Republicans or Independents. That’s how they want it, I believe – mysterious and murky.

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.

One more relevant question: 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 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 suggests a certain kind of street-level tension along racial or ethnic lines. I hear about 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.

I hear – and I know – that some Chinese people, and other Asian people, think lowly of black people. They even express a 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 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, and raw hatred aren’t the sum total of the American and human experience.

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.

As I said, this interracial, intergroup, multicultural stuff is fraught with both peril and pregnant positive possibilities.

Telling Stories

Despite my earlier comments, there is room in America for an AsianWeek and other ethnic publications, whether in English or other languages. That’s in large part because the English-language mainstream news media (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, 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 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 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 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.
William Wong is author of Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America (Temple University Press, 2001), Images of America: Oakland’s Chinatown (Arcadia Publishing Co., 2004), and co-author of Images of America: Angel Island (Arcadia Publishing Co., April 2007)

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