By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When people ask if deadlines are the cause of my stress, I shrug. What I am still dealing with is, the Northwest Asian Weekly’s constant state of crisis.
Even after 35 years, every week brings a new challenge.
We often have to put out fires. Sometimes, the fires were so big, it took a lion’s strength to fight it. At times, it was conquered through luck. Once in awhile, it seems impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Our challenges are daunting. You might wonder how we function during those times, and how we go through crisis after crisis, and are still able to laugh .
The answer is never straightforward or simple. But we understand what we’re getting into, and that our work has never been easy.
When all the invitation cards were sent out with the printed date of the inaugural issue of the Seattle Chinese Post, we found out that the two Chinese typesetting machines we ordered from Taiwan were lost through customs.
The machines were found only eight days before the publication date. We didn’t have enough time to train the two typists we hired. We already planned for it to be 16 pages. It wouldn’t give the community a good first impression if we had reduced our first issue to 12 pages. What to do?
“Go out and sell advertisements to stuff the newspaper,” said the Chinese Post editor Szeto Hung. What the ads did, was fill up space — and it meant fewer articles for typists to type. But ads were challenging to produce. We didn’t have a Xerox machine, layout table, or camera to screen photos. We had to go to a neighborhood print shop before we could do the layout on our conference table, which was also used for other purposes, like eating.
Our first issue wasn’t done until 3 a.m. Over the next few months, we were able to speed it up, but only by a little — 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. The consequence was, I was physically and mentally drained, and constantly sick.
It was only when we bought the Xerox machine and later our own camera that we wrapped up early on production day — 11 p.m. or midnight.
Recalling the issue
A year after we were in business, the Wah Mee Massacre happened. It was 1983, 13 people were killed, and one was injured in a Chinatown gambling den. We worked really hard to gather information which the mainstream media didn’t have, and even got quoted in The Seattle Times.
Two suspects, Benjamin Ng (not related to me) and Willie Mak, were named. I remembered capturing a photo of Benjamin standing next to another guy at a random community event. Could that be Willie? No one in our office knew what Willie looked like, and we asked several people and received no confirmation. The deadline approached, we had no choice but to send it off to press on Wednesday night, hoping we were right.
In the morning, the nightmare began. After the fresh papers arrived on Thursday after 9 a.m., our source called back, “The guy wasn’t Willie!”
Our editor panicked. I walked in the office at the Bush Hotel, and saw his face in agony. “What are we going to do?” he asked.
It didn’t take me long to decide, “Reprint the whole issue,” I said.
“Three or four readers already bought copies,” he said.
“Get the newspapers back,” I told him.
He rushed out, snatching all of them around Hing Hay Park, some people were still holding the newspapers in their hand. One refused to give it back initially, he was suspicious and kept asking why.
Our reprinted version with the whiteout on top of the unknown guy in the photo was done in the afternoon. I made that decision because the photo was on the front page. Yes, we could have done a correction the following week, but this was about murder, not anything light. The financial loss of the issue was minor compared to the impact on our reputation.
I didn’t know why I was so calm during the whole ordeal. My team and my husband supported my decision 100 percent. If he grumbled about the cost, I might have felt terrible about my mistake.
If there’s a problem, we will find solutions to fix it. The unknown guy heard about the scenario at our office, and he thought it was interesting that his photo caused that much attention. Had we distributed the issue, he might have had a different reaction.
The current Asian Weekly building was the home of the former Kokusai Theater. Built in 1918, it was also called the Atlas Theater. It was a movie house since the 1930s, showing Asian movies. But the Kokusai couldn’t compete with Asian video cassette tapes available for rental in the International District (ID) in the 1980s.
My late father-in-law, who visited me in Seattle, said, “Your office (on the Bush Hotel basement) is not your own property. If the landlord kicks you out, then what?”
It inspired me to find a permanent home for the Asian Weekly. The theater was right across the street, and it was on sale after owner Dan Woo’s death. (He also donated the land for the ID’s Danny Woo Garden.)
“What’s the price?” I called up Woo’s partner. He gave me a number. When I agreed, he changed his mind.
I complained to Woo’s late widow, Wilma, about the partner playing games. I didn’t really know Wilma, but I didn’t have any other options. Surprisingly, she took my side, and said I was a go-getter.
My friend said, “If you want the building that badly, you should hire a lawyer.” My friend was right. The lawyer eventually outsmarted the manipulative partner, and the deal was closed.
The cost of remodeling the old building was too high. We had to put our dream on hold. In the meantime, people grumbled about the eyesore. “When are you going to build?” many pushed us.
In 1997, the theater’s rooftop collapsed after a snowstorm, but no one was hurt. We didn’t have insurance. Other media knocked on our doors for an interview. I was willing to talk to the mainstream press, but not in front of television cameras. Fortunately, many colleagues respected my wishes. The challenge was how we reported the story. It was much harder to cover when it hit home.
One of the ID banks offered us a loan for $150,000 for the demolition cost. It was stressful, but I didn’t lose any sleep, as we were doing everything we could to make the community feel safe.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We knew we couldn’t procrastinate anymore. It forced us to plan for a brand new building. After a few years of getting permits and working on the design, construction began in late 1999. Then, another disaster struck.
A 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit Seattle on Feb. 28, 2001. Our building was still under construction. I was at home that Wednesday morning. It was like the quake sent a jolt to my heart, and I shouted, “Oh no, the building!” The unfinished building might collapse! I called my husband in the office immediately. (By then, we had moved to the former home of the Wing Luke Museum at 414 8th Avenue South.)
“The building is fine, but our office is not (we had lost power),” he said. Quickly, my fear changed to joy.
In the middle of getting the latest coverage on the quake for our Wednesday print day, a Hong Kong Chinese daily newspaper called us to help. So we had to grind out two stories, instead of one, to help our colleague.
The Asian Weekly moved into the building in late 2001. We are grateful to Wilma Woo for her support. Without her, we would likely not be able to secure the new home for the Asian Weekly.
Many dignitaries have visited our office, including former governors Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke, Gov. Jay Inslee, famous athletes like Michelle Kwan and Apolo Ohno, Attorneys General Bob Ferguson and Rob McKenna, and Supreme Court Justices Charles Johnson and Charles Wiggins.
The younger generation might not be aware of our building’s history — a crumbling Asian theater turned into a multi-purpose home for a media company, physician’s office, and two nonprofit organizations. It took us many hardships to get to where we are today. Our experience is part of this community’s history. Thank you for being a part of our history.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.