By William Gee Wong.
Before Judy Yung became a highly respected professor, scholar, and author of Chinese American history, she wanted to be a journalist. That is what she told me on June 19, 2008, the last time she and I had a lengthy, in-depth conversation.
Since I hadn’t been in contact with her in quite some time, I was stunned when I learned of her death in mid-December at the age of 74, a great loss to her family, friends, associates and students. See SF Chronicle obituary Judy Yung, S.F. Chinatown native and early scholar of Chinese American life, dies at 74.
Judy Yung, who co-authored Angel Island – Immigrant Gateway to America, with Erika Lee. Photo by Rita G. Mah.
I had many interactions with Judy over the past four-plus decades. She was always friendly and more than willing to share her considerable knowledge about Chinese American history, especially those parts dealing with the status of women, and immigration. And she was “lo sit,” a Cantonese phrase meaning “down to earth,” “unpretentious,” “honest,” “sincere,” a high compliment.
We weren’t close personal friends in the sense that we never socialized together, had one another over for dinner, exchanged stories about family, or otherwise hung out. We were more professional colleagues. I met Judy in the mid- to late 1970s when she started the Asian Branch Library in Oakland, California, my hometown which is 10 miles east of her hometown of San Francisco.
The two of us shared a lot in common. Both of us were born in Chinatowns, hers being the mothership of American Chinatowns, mine in Oakland’s cozier, less imposing, but nonetheless substantial enclave.
Our elders were from China’s Guangdong Province, more specifically the Pearl River Delta region (the so-called “Greater Hong Kong” area). We Cantonese – really our forebears – were the core of American Chinatowns from the Gold Rush days to today, even while ethnic Chinese with varying and different ancestral roots have greatly expanded the Chinese American universe.
Both of us also authored photo-history books about our respective Chinatowns. I did “Images of America: Oakland’s Chinatown” in 2004, she did “Images of America: San Francisco’s Chinatown” with the Chinese Historical Society of America in 2006 (updated 10 years later). In the original version, she signed it to me, “Your book on Oakland Chinatown was my inspiration.”
And both of us have connections to the same newspaper. More on that in a moment.
Cover of Judy Yung’s Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.( UC Press 1995)
One major difference between us was that she was bilingual (fluent in Cantonese and English), while I lost almost all of my Chinese language skills (Hoisan-wa, a Cantonese offshoot dialect).
I’m five years older than she is, but both of us felt the deep impact of the thunderous political, social, and cultural explosions of the 1960s that led us to loving Chinese American history.
We grew up during a time when Chinese America and Asian America were just beginning to be liberated from white-supremacist America, a time of snail-like transition from the yellow Jim Crow era of our parents and grandparents engendered by the Chinese Exclusion Act to becoming a teeny part of a more integrated America where yellow folks like us could live, work, and love outside of the Chinatown bubble partially imposed on us by exclusion.
After learning of her death, I searched my computer’s archives and found a transcription of a recorded conversation I had with Judy in 2008. In reviewing it, I felt comforted in learning about her young-adult evolution that eventually led to her high status in the rarefied world of Chinese American scholars and historians. This latter portion of her life is much better known to her friends, colleagues, and students.
Her wanting to be a journalist was an ironic revelation to me since newspapering was almost all of my working life. “I had always wanted to be a journalist. I had always wanted to write,” she told me. “In high school, I was associate editor of the Galileo High School paper. I loved writing.”
She never pursued journalism as a profession, however. “I went into librarianship because it’s a good, safe profession. No one encouraged me to go into journalism.” She said she didn’t know of any Chinese American who had gone into mainstream (meaning white-dominated) broadcast or print journalism in the days she began her working life.
(Another personal irony: I had begun my newspaper journalism career in 1962, as a “summer replacement” reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, one of her hometown newspapers. I was 21 years old, she 16. I was told by an older white reporter that I was the first mainstream Chinese American/Asian American reporter in the city. I quit newspapering two years later to join the Peace Corps. By the time I resumed newspapering in 1970, my visibility to her as a possible role model was at best foggy since I worked for The Wall Street Journal that decade. The Journal wasn’t a newspaper well read by just plain folks. In that time, I managed to write some front-page news features with Chinese American and Asian American themes, a rarity in national mainstream journalism at that time.)
The occasion for our 2008 conversation was my research into the history of East/West, the Chinese American Journal, a weekly newspaper in both English and Chinese published out of San Francisco Chinatown. Judy was one of its English-section editors. The Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), based in San Francisco Chinatown, had asked me to write a history of East West for CHSA’s annual journal.
East/West was the publication that Judy and I shared in common. Indeed, other Bay Area Chinese American figures of note had strong connections with East West. They included L. Ling-chi Wang, a towering presence in Chinese American/Asian American academia and activism; Him Mark Lai, the biliterate, bilingual engineer whose diligence, intelligence and dedication earned him the title of dean of Chinese American historians; Ben Fong-Torres, one of East/West’s earliest English-section editors who later went on to prominence as a rock-n-roll Rolling Stones writer, author, Elvis impersonator, and local TV personality; Diane Yen-Mei Wong, who later held executive positions with the Asian American Journalists Association and the multicultural journalists’ organization called Unity; and Serena Chen, who became a strong health and environmental-justice advocate. A non-Asian named Richard Springer worked for East West for many years, serving as Gordon Lew’s go-to guy for editing, writing, and selling advertisements,
I wrote freelance articles and columns for East/West in the mid- to late 1970s, while I was working full-time at The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau, which was in the city’s financial district, a short walk to Chinatown, where I’d head for a yummy lunch once or twice a week.
It was on one of those occasions that I visited East/West’s narrow, almost subterranean office in one of Chinatown’s famous alleys between two of its main streets, Grant and Kearny. I met the aforementioned Richard Springer. We became friends, and he encouraged me to write for East/West. Judy, who I hadn’t yet met, had departed by that time.
On that June day in 2008, Judy came to my home loaded down with bound volumes of old East/West newspapers, principally those she had a direct connection to. We talked for several hours around my dining room table, the bound volumes open and spread out in front of us.
After college, Judy became a librarian at the San Francisco Chinatown branch in 1969. Prior to that, her early life in Chinatown insulated her from the outside world. “I was never aware of politics,” she said of her youth. “The ‘60s caused me to have a political awakening. I had been unaware of civil rights, women’s issues, racial discrimination, all of this.”
But the anti-Vietnam War uprisings, civil-rights protests begun in the American South, and sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll countercultural movement, squarely centered in San Francisco, awakened her (and many others) to percolating political, social, racial, gender, and cultural issues.
The major immigration reforms in 1965 began to manifest themselves in greater numbers of Chinese and other Asian immigrants to San Francisco and other Bay Area cities.
“One reason (the San Francisco Public Library) hired me at this time was that libraries were feeling they weren’t meeting the needs of underserved, disadvantaged minorities, immigrants, and non-English speakers. They wanted me to come in to make the library an inviting place and change services and collections to answer the needs of Chinatown, which after 1965, saw a big influx of immigrants. Me being bilingual, they thought I would be good link to the community.”
In the process of improving her branch’s services to Chinatown, she paid special attention to the news media and found East/West, the Chinese American Journal, which began publication right in her ‘hood in January of 1967. “I saw East/West, and said, ‘God, I could use this newspaper to promote the library.”
She started writing stories for East/West about the Chinatown branch services. Gordon Lew, East West’s founder, publisher, and editor, asked her to write a column to fill in for a columnist who got ill. Her column was called “Chinese American Corner.” Its byline was Jade Fong. Why the pseudonym?
“Being a librarian, I felt there was a conflict to be writing about the community,” she said. But using a pseudonym such as Jade Fong, “I had no feelings of such conflict. I felt very conspicuous when people knew it might be me writing these things. If I had used my real name, I wouldn’t have said half the things I said. I wanted the liberty of saying things as I felt. I wanted to feel free to speak my mind. When I became associate editor (of East/West) about a year later, I outed myself.”
Cover of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940. Edited by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. 2nd edition 2014 Univ. of Washington Press.
In those columns, Judy, in her mid-20s, displayed an outspoken feistiness and a liberal-progressive perspective, something that she carried proudly in her later academic, scholarly life as an American Studies professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and as an author and co-author of books about Chinese American women, poems found in the Angel Island Immigration Station, and about the immigration station itself.
She found the prospect of writing a column for a community newspaper exciting. “I was so naïve and idealistic still,” she recalled. As she awakened politically, she knew writing a newspaper column would be “meaningful, but fun.” She even gave thought of doing it full-time, switching from librarianship to journalism, a calling as related earlier she had dreamed about.
A few months after she started her column while still working fulltime as a librarian, Lew offered her a job as associate editor. That was in 1973.
“I told Gordon if I was going to do it, it had to be fulltime. He had to pay me so I could live off it. I had moved out from my parents’ house and was on my own. I couldn’t be a volunteer. He agreed.”
She took a pay cut to work for East/West, but that was fine with her. She was able to cover her modest expenses. “I was happy with it. I trusted him (Gordon), I wanted to work for him, I had great admiration for him.”
Lew gave his new associate editor “a lot of leeway,” she said. “I could do anything I wanted. It was probably the most exciting job, a meaningful job for me, in my whole life. I learned on the job. No one trained me. I learned on my own. I loved doing it.”
She “did everything, cleaning the office and the john, delivering paper to the print shop at 3 in the morning, working crazy hours, working seven days a week, at home, in the office. I enjoyed it.”
Being associate editor at East/West was a way for her to get to know her own community better and to advocate for political issues she thought were important.”
It wasn’t easy, she added, in part because East/West operated on a “shoestring budget.” Even without many resources, Judy had a lot of power overseeing the English section, from deciding what stories to cover to who would write them. “I had to make sure everything got in on time, got typeset, got pasted up, what were front-page stories, what pictures to use,” she said.
Lew left those decisions to her as he managed the business side of the paper, oversaw the Chinese section, while also teaching fulltime at the City College of San Francisco and being a Christian minister on Sundays. The only part of the English section Lew controlled were the editorials, the newspaper’s official point of view which he wrote. Judy continued writing her column, which was her point of view.
Judy recruited freelance writers, who got paid a small fee per article. “I wanted to make the English section worth the paper it’s printed on.” She wanted “substantial articles and investigative journalism, articles that told what was going on in the community, what the “hot issues” were.
She initiated special issues on education, health, and the so-called “new Chinatown” in the Richmond district on the western edge of San Francisco, far from the “old” Chinatown, which is on the northeastern side of the city. “I tried to make (the English section) not just newsy but investigative and interesting.”
Overall, Judy loved covering Chinatown as a community journalist. “Being bilingual, I could go to meetings and I could interview people in Chinese and I knew what was going on. I took (the work) personally: this was my birthplace, my community.”
Many community issues cropped up during her time at East/West. They included ideological battles between Chinatown’s conservatives and liberal-progressives on local, national, and international fronts. A number of labor strikes broke out in the restaurant and garment industries.
“There were fights over who could use Portsmouth Square (San Francisco Chinatown’s central outdoor meeting place) between the October First group and the October Tenth group, or the People’s Republic of China vs. Taiwan,” she said. “We covered all of it. By covering it, we were helping (the community understand itself). Those were exciting political times.”
Judy said Lew trusted her “because he could see that I was really hard working, and he was getting more than his money’s worth, and I was going to help improve the paper. He didn’t question my credentials. I was smart enough to know not to stick my nose into wrong places and he knew that too.”
One topic she and East/West stayed away from was initiating its own coverage of Chinatown’s youth gang phenomenon, after the paper was threatened when one of the paper’s staff members originated coverage about it. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Chinese American and Chinese immigrant young men formed groups or gangs that sometimes warred among themselves and at the behest of tongs run by older men. After the threat, East/West instead rewrote such stories published in the city’s metropolitan daily newspapers.
Judy told me she and East/West “stayed away from gang coverage. I knew (original reporting) would be stupid. That would not only hurt me but also the paper. There were plenty of other things we could cover that the Chronicle and Examiner (the city’s two largest daily newspapers) were not covering.”
She had high ambitions for the English section, wanting to make it national. “I wanted us to grow. We had stringers in Texas, Boston, New York. I encouraged them to send stories in. Some were volunteers. I asked Gordon to pay them, $5 for a photo, maybe $25 for a story.”
Her tenure at East/West ended early in 1975, less than two years after she took the associate editor position. Judy said Lew told her the paper was under severe financial pressure, so he had to let her go.
She was on unemployment insurance for six months, then went back to librarian work, with a job at the Oakland Public Library as its first Asian Branch librarian. She got a grant to do a Chinese Women in America project, then went to graduate school. The rest is history, as they say, as she became a highly regarded professor, scholar, author and authoritative factotum of Chinese American history.
Judy Yung, speaking at the podium, at the Angel Island Immigration Station. October 17, 2014. Photo from Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website.
I will miss her presence and generosity of spirit. I know many others feel the same. Thankfully, her insights and wisdom will live on through her books.