April 30, 2024

An Interview With Journalist and Author

William Gee Wong

Regarding His New Book

Sons of Chinatown: A Memoir Rooted in China and America

Interviewed by Leonard Chan

William Gee Wong was a print journalist that worked for many newspapers including the Oakland Tribune, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Asian Week, and more. He was born and raised in Oakland, California, went to UC Berkeley and Columbia, and also did work in the Philippines for the Peace Corps.In the 1990s, William Wong was an occasional guest commentator for the PBS news program The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. He is also the author of the book “Yellow Journalist” and two books in the Arcadia “Images of America Series,” one on Angel Island and the other on Oakland Chinatown.

I’m not sure when I first made contact withWilliamWong. It’s possible that Florence (Hongo, head of AACP) knew him long before I did. I know for certain that he did a signing for us in 2007 at an OCA Convention (Organization of Chinese Americans, now called Asian AdvOCAtes) and I even had a chance to meet his sister Li Keng in 2006 when she did a presentation and signing for her book “Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain.”

William was even a subscriber to this newsletter before it went on hiatus in 2011. Over the years we lost touch. With all the people that he has known, I’m not even sure if he remembered us when I finally heard about his new book and tried to reach out to him. Thankfully, he did reply and agreed to do this interview and some book signing with us.

Hello Bill. Great to reconnect with you. Thanks for doing this interview.

Back in 2012, in our last email correspondence until recently, you mentioned that you were doing some research on your father. Was that when you first got started on your new book “Sons of Chinatown”? What motivated you to write this book and when did you decide to make it also about you and your family?

The idea germinated in early 2011 just before my wife and I hosted our Gee-Wong clan’s annual Chinese New Year celebration. I wanted clan members to know that our leader, my father who we called Pop, had come to America in 1912. I told them that I wanted to give them a written history of Pop at our celebration the next year, 2012, to mark his 100th anniversary of arriving in America. I couldn’t fulfill that promise because as I got deeper into my research, I knew it was going to take longer than a year.

The design of my project changed many times. It started as a family history – specifically about Pop’s life in China and Oakland, California, where he settled in its Chinatown in 1912. After reading one of my early drafts, my son asked me pointedly, “But, Dad, where are you?” That’s when I decided to include my story too. That’s why Sons of Chinatown is a memoir about Pop and me, cast in a larger historical political and cultural context – an American story that isn’t all that well known even among Chinese Americans.

The beginning of your book includes a history on Chinese immigration to the United States and the Chinese Exclusion Act. I had forgotten that you co-wrote a book in the “Images of America” series on Angel Island. Did working on that book spur your interest in family history? How much of that work helped you with researching and writing your father’s story? I noticed that you gave credit to some people at the San Bruno National Archives office that I happen to know too.

Before I worked on the Angel Island photo history book, I already had an interest in my family’s history, but it was on a personal level without any intention to write a book about my family. I enjoyed learning more about the Angel Island immigration experience in working on that photo history book and reading the great works on Angel Island and Chinese immigration of Judy Yung, Erika Lee, and Him Mark Lai. Separately, I heard through the Northern California Chinese American grapevine that there was a regional office of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) near San Francisco that had Chinese immigration records. I went there years before I started my book research to retrieve the immigration records of Pop and Mom and my three oldest sisters, all of whom were born in Hoisan (Toisan, Taishan) County, Guangdong Province, China, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and went through the Angel Island Immigration Station to land in America.

Your book has some parts that are quite revealing about your family. I’m not sure how much you’re willing to get into this for this interview, but it goes into your family’s tactics for immigrating to America, your father’s illegal work, a violent incident that nearly killed your father, and miscellaneous family details such as issues between your siblings and with your parents. Was it hard to write this part of your story? How did you decide on which parts to include and leave out? It seems that you were able to take a journalistic approach to this project which allowed you to delve deep into a lot of personal details.

My journalism mindset was foundational to my research and writing process. I sent one of my drafts to an editor at a well-regarded San Francisco Bay Area publisher. She liked part of my manuscript but felt others were too journalistic (my word, not hers) and not memoirist enough. I proceeded to dig more deeply to express feelings and emotions to build upon my journalistic research to include details of our family’s dynamics including the often-contentious relationship between Pop and Mom and how my sisters and I felt about each of them.

Overall, I wanted to convey the idea that my immediate clan members lived an ordinary life beyond stereotypes of what Chinese/Asian people are often portrayed as, if at all, in an America that all but ignores our lived-in experiences, that we have very human interactions with one another, that we have interests and experiences that aren’t one dimensional. I also wanted to assert that our life experiences were and are within a broader context of Chinese and American history, politics, and culture. Hovering over us the whole time were the dark clouds of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the secrets and lies we had to tell to survive the systemic racism.

As for whether it was “hard” to write about my family and other personal reflections, I learned it is mentally and emotionally taxing to write a memoir because I had to delve deeply into memory and feelings that could expose me to possibly hurtful “secrets” and revive publicly tense personal relationships that many people of Chinese or Asian descent don’t want aired outside of the family, or aired at all. I didn’t reveal every inside-the-family relationship because very few, if any, reader would be interested in all that I could recall about these family “secrets.” I carefully chose anecdotes that help a reader understand my clan without going overboard in possibly violating privacy rights.

I believe I read somewhere in your book, how you thought of yourself as being anintrovert. Throughout your life there were examples where you showed a lot of gumption too. For example, you went to the Daily Californian’s office (or Daily Cal, UC Berkeley’s school newspaper), even before you started taking classes, to see if you could work there. At that time, you didn’t even pass the basic Englishentrance test and had to take “Bonehead English” (it was called “Subject A” when I went there; it’sthe remedial English class for Cal freshman; FYI, I took it too).Then early in your post graduate career of working as a journalist in local papers, you decided to quit and join the Peace Corps.

There are other examples too, but since I’m trying to work my questions chronologically, let’s start with these. How did you summon the courage to do things like this? Did you always have this ability or could you remember a time or incident where you sort of turned a corner and knew you could do it?

It may seem counter-intuitive for an introvert to also step out of his comfort zone to explore new and different experiences. I developed a curiosity about a lot of things outside of my young Chinatown days, having taken easily to learning English at my elementary school. (My first language was Hoisan-wa, the dialect of my parents’ China region.) I enjoyed listening to English-language radio, reading English-language newspapers, books, and magazines, and later watching English-language TV and movies, so much so that I began to lose my Hoisan-wa and Cantonese speaking-reading-writing abilities.

I wrote sports articles for my (largely white) high school, which nurtured my growing affinity for newspaper journalism. I was happy to get a summer job at the San Francisco Chronicle after I graduated from Cal. After two years of working at several Bay Area newspapers, I grew restless and questioned whether newspaper journalism was the be-all, end-all for me. At the same time, something inside me kept questioning in a vague and murky way my Chinatown Chinese identity. Another strain of my still developing life was attraction to the political idealism unleashed by John F. Kennedy becoming president in 1961 and his creation of the Peace Corps. Coincidentally, the Vietnam War was heating up and the possibility of me getting drafted to possibly fight in that war. Altogether, these factors led me to join the Peace Corps to try to serve humanity in a country as close to China as possible, not destroy humanity in a country of people who looked somewhat like me.

Your Peace Corps assignment was to the Philippines and then when you ended your service, you took a four month world tour that took you to Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Nepal, Israel, Greece, London, and then on a road trip through parts of Europe and then back to London and then Ireland. What did you think you learned and gained from all of this and how do you think it help you when you restarted your journalism career in America? Did this whole experience quench the wanderlust you were feeling?

It did. My early years were in this tiny Chinatown bubble. By sheer coincidence, with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion laws when I was two years old, I was able to gradually integrate into the white-dominated American mainstream. My Peace Corps service in a Southeast Asian nation and subsequent months-long journey home via many different countries outside of my previous life experience in the relatively “diverse” San Francisco Bay Area exposed me to so much more about the wonders and complexity of life. One benefits from wide travel and different experiences beyond his or her immediate circumstances. I’m proud of my racial-ethnic heritage, but life today shouldn’t be defined by only one aspect of who I am.


LC: I’ll just quickly list your path from this point in your life and fast forward up to your career at the Oakland Tribune. Upon coming back to America, you marry your girl friend Joyce, who you met while working together in the Peace Corps. She and her friend were also your traveling companionson your around the world adventure. Then you get your masters degree from Columbia. You get a job with the Wall Street Journal at their satellite office in Cleveland, then move on to their office in the Bay Area, and finally land a job with the Oakland Tribune working under notable Oakland Tribune editor, and later owner, Robert C. Maynard. Excuse me for leaving out any details. I just wanted our readers to have a sense of your literal career journey.

Along your career path you started writing more on Chinese and Asian American topics and making everyone see race issues as being more than just Black and White. In your first book, “Yellow Journalist,” Darrell Hamamoto describes you in the foreward as being the Dean of Asian American Journalists (I can’t find the place in “Sons of Chinatown” where you mentioned your many nicknames). In any case, you gained a reputation for such writings.


Many people that write and do blogs on AAPI topics today may feel that they have been breaking new ground, when you were doing this for over 50 years (over 60 if we count your relatively brief experience with journalism out of college). In your book, you were humble enough to mention some earlier “Yellow Journalists” that came before you. But you on the other hand came along during the formative years of the AAPI social movement of the late 60s and 70s.

They say that the news is the first writing of history. You had a front row seatfor many things and had many brushes with history and historical people.“Sons of Chinatown” mentions many of these experiences. What else can you tell us about those days from your vantage point – maybe in a more general sense than detailed particulars? What was it like to be one of the early Asian American print journalists and to occasionally have the chance towrite about your own ethnic community?

Thank you for noting that I was a pioneer in being one of first Chinese Americans/Asian Americans in white-dominated American newspaper journalism in the post-World War II years. You are also correct in citing the fact that I was among the earliest journalistic chroniclers of Chinese America/Asian America’s growth and development. I’m proud that I wrote about Chinese America/Asian America on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in the 1970s, long before almost anyone else in mainstream American journalism – print, radio, TV, now digital – ever did. I continued doing so at the local level (Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle) and the specialized level (East-West Chinese American Journal, Asian Week, International Examiner, etc.).

Many of us tend to have historical, political, and cultural amnesia. In my heyday as a print journalist, I had dedicated readers of my Oakland Tribune, East-West, and Asian Week columns (1980s-1990s). Tribune readers were of course local, but my East-West and Asian Week writings were widely if thinly across America. But my heyday was before the internet became ever present in our lives.

Moreover, my “platform” was in print journalism, not in the more popular visual journalism (TV) and long before the ubiquitous “social media” platforms today (TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, etc.), where many young people get their “news”. Thus, a relative smaller number of people read me in my prime than what might be the case were I actively writing today in cyberspace. I wonder whether teenagers and those in their 20s and even 30s read newspapers and print magazines at all today. I doubt it.

Another factor: In the early 1960s, America didn’t recognize us (Chinese America/Asian America) as much of anything. Our numbers were very small, less than one percent of the nation. Chinese America/Asian America was visibly invisible. It wasn’t until the enhanced civil rights movement in the mid-1960s led by courageous Black and white Americans inspired other non-white communities, women, and LGBTQ communities to liberate ourselves. Sharp changes in America’s racial-ethnic demographics really accelerated in the late 1960s after the liberalization of immigration policies and in the 1970s after the Vietnam War. Collectively, Chinese America/Asian America is about 7 percent of the American population, still rather small, but much larger than the less than 1 percent in the 1960s when I began my work life after college.

Unfortunately, your writings that you did as a journalist and columnist couldn’t be included in “Sons of Chinatown.” But if anyone could get their hands on your earlier book, “Yellow Journalist,” they’ll see some of it. The newspaper “AsianWeek” recently uploaded their archive to the Internet. Have you seen this and can you recommend any of your articles that you wrote for them? Are there other places where people can find your writings online? Do you have a favorite article that you wrote that can only be found by digging through newspaper archives at libraries? If so, tell us about this article.

I have not seen a digitized Asian Week. That’s a valuable resource for those seeking to find old print AW content. One memorable AW column of mine had to do with the volatile Black-Korean conflicts of the early 1990s (republished in my Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America, Temple University Press, 2001). I went to New York City for an Asian American Journalists Association convention about 9 months after a tense dispute broke out between two Korean-owned grocery stores and Black activists in Brooklyn. I visited the scene, even though it was well after the dispute erupted. My AW column illuminated that conflict that had not yet been resolved almost a year later. Several other AW columns highlighted a movement by San Francisco Bay Area Chinese American family-history advocates protesting the proposed removal of original Angel Island immigration files from the San Bruno regional office of the National Archives and Records Administration. My AW columns helped the activists successfully lobby to keep those files at the San Bruno facility.

“Sons of Chinatown” also includes some of your thoughts on recent issues with the AAPI community, such as the attacks on AAPIs that got pretty bad during the pandemic. Since your retirement, I would imagine that there are a number of things that you wish you had a forum to express your thoughts with. I noticed that your son even added a section for a blog on your website, but that you haven’t utilized it much yet. Is there an issue that you’d like to comment on now that we can bring to our readers?

While we’re on the subject of “Asian Hate” what do you think can be done about it? My parents used to always say to me that I didn’t really experience racism like they had to cope with. Is racism cyclic and will we always have to deal with it from time to time?

When I was fired from the Oakland Tribune in 1996 – a firing that triggered loud protests from my readers and Asian Americans in the Bay Area – I was no longer active fulltime in public life as a writer and commentator. No Bay Area newspaper hired me even though I had a loyal readership. I became a freelance writer (mostly for nonprofit organizations, not news organizations) and occasional journalism lecturer at several Bay Area institutions of higher learning. I retired in 2008 and occasionally blogged on the internet, but never steadily or persistently. Got too old and wanted to chill to enjoy my grandchildren…and then I got immersed in my book process.

I had my day writing about issues and people that interested me and I was gratified that my writings and points of view resonated with many people (in a pre-social media era). Today, many Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are expressing in different forms their anger and frustrations at the persistence of anti-Chinese/anti-Asian hate. I applaud the fact that many of our cohort – generations younger than me – are speaking out, while in my prime, I was one of the very few doing so in old-fashioned newspapers and magazines.

It saddened me, of course, to learn of a resurgence of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian sentiments and actions during the Covid pandemic. I say resurgence because anti-Chinese, anti-Asian hate date back to the Gold Rush in 1849 that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 with recurrences throughout American history. When many individuals and organizations in Chinese American and Asian American communities all over the country spoke out forcefully and organized political action against this hate in 2020 onward, I felt what I had done decades earlier as a newspaper commentator and what some of my contemporaries did from organizations like Chinese for Affirmative Action and many others was paying off in that now our numbers were much larger, our political consciousness was much more alert, and our courage to speak out was much more intense.

There’s good and bad news on the anti-hate combat front. Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are now fairly well integrated into the American mainstream. Many of us are highly productive contributors to the American system. To be sure, some of us remain marginal and needy in unique and universal ways. But as we have seen over the past few years, we remain vulnerable based on appearances alone to stereotypes, hostility and anger from some Americans who refuse to regard us as Americans too and who fear being replaced by those of us who don’t look like them.

There’s much more I wish I had the time to discuss with you. Many are revealing details with the book that our readers wouldn’t be able to follow without reading the book first or us having to explain it.

Readers, do come to our event on May 19 (2024) at the San Mateo Main Library, where you’ll have your own chance to ask William Gee Wong some questions.

Thank you so much for doing this interview Bill.