By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
I felt proud and afraid when the publisher called me in about a story I had written. The story had gotten so much negative feedback from the community, I was abashed and even afraid I was going to lose the opportunity to write for the newspaper any longer.
Decades earlier, I had written for a magazine overseas, but the office was on the 47th floor of a skyscraper in Hong Kong. Now, for the first time, I would be going into a real newsroom, meeting with the publisher and editor. I knew the situation was bad. But I somehow strangely liked the attention. And I told myself: now I’m a real reporter because I’m going to get a real dressing down from the publisher herself, a very prominent feature of the media landscape in our region.
The front of the building was dusty. The glass windows and doors were unwashed. But this was as it should be. I had not been writing for the newspaper long, but when I stepped into the atmosphere, I felt caught up and absorbed in something much older and greater than myself.
…the newspapers have been the fundamental way of keeping us all united and informed. In the advancement, protection, and integration of the Asian community…”
— Gary Locke
Cubicles showed signs of wear from decades of use. I imagined editors and writers over decades toiling there to churn out the newspapers. Though it was relatively empty (a few of the staff from the Chinese newspaper floated in and out), I could see signs of hard work everywhere. Boxes, stacks of papers, notebooks. I saw the desk where the editor worked.
In the conference room, we sat down—the publisher and the editor and me.
It had a large oval table and there were stacks of materials scattered and stacked around.
The publisher said what I had expected her to say. She addressed all the negative feedback I had gotten—and the newspaper had gotten—from the article I had written, which had put a damper on a major community initiative to bring increased measures of surveillance to the neighborhood.
But she said, with a gleam in her eye, “They were so mad that everyone is reading your article.”
Taking the cue from the community
A former editor of the newspaper, Tiffany Ran, said the hardest thing for her, being editor, was to have the patience and humility to wait and listen for the community to shape the story. Rather than try to put her own imprimatur on the issue at hand—she said she had to learn to take her cue from community members.
“I learned to step back and let the story come to us. There is a widely held belief that editors should know what makes a good story. With community papers, the story lies with the community. I was merely there to keep it going and keep my hands on the pulse of what matters to them. It requires a different lens, one focused on inclusivity and sensitivity. It took way more patience and empathy than I imagined to have to pause with issues and events that at first glance would not mean much to me, and fully consider how it would be meaningful to others. It was a constant exercise of putting myself in various shoes, always examining what matters most to different age groups, ethnicities, income brackets, etc.,” said Ran in an email.
The community assesses the impact of 40 years
As we contemplate the end of the Seattle Chinese Post (SCP), after 40 years, and the end of the printed version of the Northwest Asian Weekly (NWAW), after the same amount of time, it is time, as Ran reminded us, to take our cue from the community in understanding the impact of both papers—and the impact of their cessation.
I reached out to community leaders, members, writers, and others, who had in some cases witnessed the arc of justice that the newspapers embodied since Assunta Ng founded the SCP in 1982 and the NWAW the year after. Some owed much of their careers to the papers. All said, the community and the region, if not beyond, had been transformed by the papers. Asian American officials had been elevated to leadership positions across the region and beyond. The Chinatown-International District (CID) had survived major incursions and disasters and thrived. Everyone, in big and small ways, had had their lives transformed. For some, the newspapers were their link with the outside world. For others, they allowed the community to organize, and forced mainstream politicians to take the concerns of the community seriously.
“I can’t praise Assunta and George enough for their commitment for these past 40 years. They are such pillars. They have informed and galvanized the Chinese and AAPI communities with political involvement and political action,” said former Gov. Gary Locke. “They and the newspapers have been the fundamental way of keeping us all united and informed. In the advancement, protection, and integration of the Asian community, much of that has been made possible with Assunta.”
As a writer for the paper, I came full circle from my early days, when I had been reprimanded by, it seemed, almost the entire community.
It was the summer of the protests against the mega shelter the county was planning to install on the border of the CID. I had learned that writing articles was more about simply drawing upon the expertise and bravery of community members.
I learned the way to do journalism was to allow myself to become a witness, even a fan, of the community members who were leading the charge. All that I had to do was to find out what they were doing (and very often, they would invite me to join them or share with me updates or technical information) and I would simply write it down. Those became articles.
I learned to be led—both literally and metaphorically—around the CID. I followed community members to King County Council meetings, to Seattle City Council meetings, to the homeless shelter itself. My job was simply to record what they said. And many times, they were kind enough to send me their materials themselves.
I was witness to acts of fearlessness, nurturing, dedication, and devotion.
One role the newspapers played in all this was to give voice to the community, one of its core missions.
Again, it was during one of the first protests against the mega shelter. In case you’re reading about this for the first time, the CID already had 18 homeless shelters in a one-mile radius (this was ascertained by a community member using his professional expertise).
Most other neighborhoods in the county have no shelters. And a wave of violence had besieged the community from elements connected with the shelters while the police said they did not have enough staff to protect the area.
I was talking to a resident in Chinese when a woman in her 50s came over, hesitatingly.
She was from Guangzhou, her husband was a dishwasher, and she mostly stayed at home taking care of her young kids. She was so nervous about talking to a reporter that after our conversation, she insisted I go with her to one of the community leaders, speaking at the front of the rally, and be identified as a reporter.
We went to the front of the crowd, in Hing Hay Park, as the demonstrators were dispersing and heading off, under the direction of Tanya Woo and others, to walk toward the site of the proposed shelter.
Fortunately, Bettie Luke was still there, along with another speaker, and they vouched for me. The woman from Guangzhou allowed me to take her picture. She told me her 7-year-old daughter had been spat upon in the face.
The story was published, with her photo. I was fortunate that the SCP sometimes translated these articles into Chinese, to supplement their own coverage.
A few weeks later, I witnessed a remarkable transformation. I was covering a King County Council meeting. Most of the community advocates were giving testimony against the mega shelter—Frank Irigon, Tanya Woo, Betty Lau, Amy Chen Lozano, and many more who had devoted themselves to speaking up on behalf of the community and the hundreds of seniors who had come.
But this time, there was someone new. The shy, nervous woman from Guangzhou was there—giving public testimony. She fearlessly held a phone to the microphone with a recording of her daughter talking about her fear of going outside after the incident. The entire council could hear.
When she stepped away from the podium, she saw me and stuck out her hand to give me a big handshake.
I realized what had happened: she had read about herself in the newspaper.
Seeing her voice printed in black and white in the medium of the community had given her the courage—had “empowered” her, to use the language that describes the second goal of the newspapers—to now speak truth to power—and in a country that wasn’t originally her own.
Multiply her voice by several thousand and multiply that by 40 years and you have some idea of the impact of the two newspapers.
“The newspapers played a key role in informing and mobilizing people in the face of redevelopment and displacement threats,” said Domenic Vitiello, professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, University of Pennsylvania, who has studied the Seattle and Philadelphia Chinatowns.
A reputation for probity
Still, what made this possible was coverage by the papers that was fair and unbiased over the long decades, giving them a reputation for probity, according to many community watchers. Covering her own community and friends, Ng never pulled punches, said numerous longtime business owners and community leaders.
“The key for Assunta was unbiased professional journalism. I don’t know if I could say that about others. Good or bad, she would report it,” said Jerry Lee, board chairman of MulvannyG2 Architecture. “Sometimes if she were reporting about someone she knew as a friend, it may have involved negative reporting, but she would say, ‘It is what it is.’ If she reported news in a manner that offended a friend, we knew she was just stating the facts in a professional manner. She would say, ‘Hey, I’m just following the facts.’”
He emphasized, “A newspaper can’t exist unless you have professional, factual information, otherwise it becomes a rag, once you are tainted, that’s it.”
James Wong, CEO of Vibrant Cities, while a student at the University of Washington, wrote a column for the NWAW called, “Wong’s World.” He remembered writing an article called, “Ashamed to be Chinese.” But when he went on to lead development projects in the CID, decades later, the newspapers’ coverage was always “fair and unbiased.” Stories would detail both the positive and negative sides of his projects. The faith he had in Ng’s probity made him bristle less when less than flattering aspects of his work were exposed.
“She wrote from a fair, critical perspective, you didn’t feel favoritism,” he said.
So trusted was the voice of the newspapers that Lua Pritchard, executive director at Asia Pacific Cultural Center, once described them as “the news of record of the Asian community.”
A bridge with the outside world
Because of their unique position, this meant they became a bridge with the outside world.
“So many of the mainstream media outfits actually look to the NWAW to understand what’s going on in our community,” said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos in a video celebrating the newspapers’ 35th anniversary. “We don’t stop often enough to say thank you for doing that.”
A recent visit by Sen. Patty Murray to the CID, as she was facing a reelection challenge by Tiffany Smiley last year, was covered on page two of the NWAW. Danny Westneat, columnist for the Seattle Times, referred to the article, written by Ng, with careful attention to its tone.
“When Murray made a surprise visit to Seattle’s Chinatown International District, the Northwest Asian Weekly dryly noted it was the senator’s first stop there in five years,” he wrote.
Fighting for AAPI in politics
In online interviews, Ng said she had founded the newspapers to fill a need (she declined to be interviewed for this article). According to a history of the paper, by Jolene Jang, before the appearance of the SCP in 1982, if a restaurant wanted to hire a Chinese-speaking cook, the only recourse was to advertise in the only Chinese-language newspaper then existing: in San Francisco. Ng founded the NWAW the following year, initially for the English-speaking children of the Asian American community.
Like other ethnic media, the newspapers became the currency with which the community communicated with itself. The initial concept of the SCP was to help immigrants who were not conversant in English to understand mainstream news.
But Ng had other ideas in mind for the newspapers. Perceiving a dearth of Asian Americans at leadership levels in local government, Ng took this as one of her missions.
“Back in the early 1980s, not that many politicians paid attention to the CID and our needs. I used to work for many years for the city. There were not many Asian Americans on a leadership level,” said Kwan Wong, finance director for the City of Bothell. “It took the newspaper and Assunta to remind newly elected officials to appoint Asian Americans.”
A little more than five years after the founding of the newspapers, Wong recalled an example of Ng fighting for the appointment of Asian Americans.
“I remember at the inaugural dinner to honor newly-elected mayor Norm Rice, Assunta went up to him with a list of qualified Asian Americans,” he said.
Over the following years, and decades, Ng, through news coverage, editorials, and a steady stream of community events, fundraising, charitable giving, and other public activities encouraged public officials to continue.
“Assunta, through the newspaper, both newspapers, pushed them to hire more,” said Wong.
The foundation Ng established alongside the newspapers also sponsored regular events that trained younger leaders from the community, encouraged networking, raised money for scholarships, and supported community enfranchisement.
At a celebration dinner for Mayor Bruce Harrell last year, Ng danced on the stage with the mayor-elect, but ended with a half-joking, half-ominous, “Don’t forget us.” Grinning, and looking a little abashed, Harrell nodded to her. Harrell appointed a number of AAPI officials.
Celebrating and empowering the community
Locke and other leaders expressed a sense of profound loss at the changes in the newspapers. But Locke ended an interview on a humorous note, perhaps mirroring an aspect of Ng’s personality.
“I will admit, she won’t be haranguing us any more to buy ads to celebrate the accomplishments of people in the community,” he said. “She was notorious in the community. She would call us up and say that so and so reached this level of accomplishment, and she would ask, ‘Are you willing to buy an ad to celebrate this person?’”
He added, “She was a master at it—laying a guilt trip to get us to buy ads.”
But, Locke said, that aspect of her personality reflected the drive she had to celebrate and empower the community.
“But the flip side was that she wanted to recognize the accomplishments of people in our community. That was a demonstration of her caring,” he said.
Indeed, the newspapers, for all their acts of political empowerment, also embodied the daily happenings of the community, from birthday parties, to deaths, to the opening of new businesses, to AAPI movies, to food, to warnings about scams, to everything that made up the lifeblood of the district—and beyond.
“[They] became the common forum where you can exchange ideas and you know what’s going on,” said Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu in the 35th anniversary video.
Vitiello said the SCP and NWAW, besides their political force, also had played a role similar to other such newspapers: keeping the community alive.
“Community newspapers in Chinatowns are crucial for mediating all sorts of things that keep ethnic enclaves vital and sustain the many functions they play in supporting immigrants and their descendants: in employment, housing, mutual aid, cultural preservation, education, and numerous other aspects of incorporation and social support,” he said in an email. “They serve not just Chinatown residents, workers, and business owners, but generally much larger Chinese diaspora audiences across a metropolitan area, partly since many downtown Chinatowns like the CID [in Seattle] or ours in Philadelphia remain the social, cultural, economic, and in other ways centers of their region’s Chinese immigrant and Chinese American community.”
Dennis Su remembered his personal involvement.
“I was the architect who designed the first SCP and NWAW store front office back in the 1980s, and was the consultant in the development of the current building from the old Kokusai Theater building,” he said. “Throughout these eventful 40 years, the newspapers have been the media that informs the community of all the important issues and happenings.”
Others praised the connection the SCP had provided to seniors living in the CID and beyond with the outside world.
“We have a large number of senior residents in the community and the printed version of the newspaper, especially the Chinese edition, could be a lifeline for them in terms of connecting to the outside world and the community,” said Jeff Hou, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington (UW).
Such connections also reached those who had already moved outside the community.
“It’s not just about the Seattle area, it’s about the entire Puget Sound Asian American community. Many of us live in suburbs, but our hearts, roots, are in the CID, and every issue has brought us back to our roots,” said Kwan Wong.
The business community was also deeply empowered by coverage and features.
“[Assunta] also influenced and supported many businesses in the CID and beyond. She was the Asian American voice for the rest of us.
We are timid and don’t talk much—she brought us to the light,” said James Wong.
Spotlight on activism
Throughout their long history, the papers chronicled and reflected the activism in the community against countless development projects, offering a platform, and empowering and encouraging leaders. Editorials and commentaries, as well, brought the issues to the attention of mainstream officials and media.
As recently as the past few months, the newspapers have reported on and reflected countless community views about opposition to Sound Transit’s original plans, which included building a transit hub in the heart of the CID, shutting it down for a decade and spelling its “death knell,” as some said. The transit agency, as a result of protests, extended its timeline for making a final consideration.
As for the expanded homeless shelter, the county made a decision to cancel its development and rely on shelters in other areas. The UW Ethnic Studies Department and other departments are using articles and commentary published in these newspapers to create a graphic novel with the title, “How Protests Saved the Asian American Community.”
A ”devastating” loss
For many, the loss of the SCP and the printed version of the NWAW is devastating. Many said their parents relied on the Chinese newspaper for information about the outside world, while they read the English version in tea houses, dim sum parlors, or noodle shops.
“When my parents were alive, they looked forward to seeing the Seattle Chinese Post,” said Locke. “It’s going to be hard not to see the Northwest Asian Weekly at our favorite community centers. Overall, it’s going to be a huge loss to the community.” Many said they empathized with the publisher and her team for the spiraling high cost of printing and other challenges with distributing the newspapers.
“I know it’s a tough decision for Assunta and her family and team,” said Kwan Wong. “But personally as a reader and a community activist, losing the Seattle Chinese Post and the English version will be a tremendous loss to the community.”
Others reflected on the many decades of columns and blogs that Ng wrote personally and that provided strong advocacy for the community, nurturing, and not infrequent literary moments. “Assunta is an insightful, gifted writer,” said Locke.
It was, however, during the pandemic, that the papers began to hemorrhage money. And with the violence and anti-Asian hate that followed, she was forced to write about the mass exodus of businesses from the CID. They “broke their silence” and shared their troubles and shame with her.
Some said the loss of the Chinese newspaper would be a hardship for senior citizens without familiarity with technology. Others said they wouldn’t know where to advertise anymore.
“It is a disaster,” said co-founder of Transit Equity for All, Betty Lau.
But Kwan Wong said it was time for future generations to pick up the torch.
“Assunta has really lifted us up, but every generation following, we need to pick it up,” he said. “Generations come and generations go, and the burden cannot be only on Assunta. I call on us, the newer generation, to pick up the burden.”
“The hope should not be lost.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.