Assunta Ng: Girl from Hong Kong, Newspaper Publisher, Chinese/Asian Community Leader (June 8, 2012)
Some things always go together. You can’t talk about Seattle, for instance, without talking about Starbucks or Space Needle. Similarly, you can’t talk about Seattle’s Chinatown International District or Seattle’s Chinese and Asian communities without talking about Assunta Ng and her twin newspapers: the Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly
Yes, Assunta Ng（吴静雯）is an establishment, a leader, and a force to be reckoned with.
But Assunta doesn't look forceful in any way. She is petite and slender. In fact, the middle character of her Chinese name means quietness. She is, of course, anything but quiet. She speaks to hundreds of thousands people through her newspapers and blogs everyday and a packed audience at each of her many events.
She is so much part of the Seattle scene that one easily forgets that she was once just a girl from Hong Kong seeking an American education. So how did that girl end up owning two popular newspapers and one big American success story? Find out with me in this interview, in three parts:
Part 1. From a Traditional Chinese Daughter to an American Newspaper Entrepreneur
Wen: I read that you grew up in Hong Kong a traditional Chinese daughter, obeying your parents. Then in 1971, at 18, you said to yourself, I am not going to obey anymore and I am going to go to college in America. What happened that made you do that?
Assunta: I didn't want to end up like my mother, an unhappy housewife. In those days, my role models were nurses, teachers, secretaries and housewives. I rejected all those models and wanted to create a new model for myself. Only in America could a girl be free. I didn't know why I thought only in America could a girl be free. This perception or revelation had given me great comfort and courage to fight my parents to let me leave Hong Kong.
Wen: Your parents supported you for one year. You had to work several part-time jobs to support yourself through college at UW. Could you tell us what jobs you did, how much they paid you to help you pay for your education?
Assunta: My first job was a dish washer at the school cafeteria and I made $2.50 an hour. I didn't have any job skills when I first came. I was happy being a dish washer. Other jobs I had were babysitting; selling ice cream in a department store, and clothes in a boutique; cleaning house and dormitories, waiting tables. In my junior and senior year, I was hired as a staff reporter for the UW Daily. It paid well. Later, the head librarian of East Asia Library, saw my byline, and called me one day to offer me a job as his research assistant, since I read Chinese.
Wen: Your parents hoped, as many Chinese parents did, that you become a doctor or lawyer and make a lot of money. But you chose teaching after getting your BA in East Asian studies. Why?
Assunta: My parents had little expectations of a daughter. So they didn't expect me to make much money. My bold wishes and determination to come to America for an education shocked my parents.
I studied journalism while working on my BA in Chinese and Japanese politics and histories. Although I never took a class from the late Prof. Isbella Yen, she recommended me to apply for the program manager/teacher for a new education program at the Seattle Public School, SPS. I am grateful to her. At the time, I wasn't sure of my career goals. I took the job because I knew I could make a difference. The reward was, my boss wanted me to continue after a year, and offered to sponsor me a green card to stay in the U.S. Whatever I do, I look at challenges first, money second.
Wen: You were teaching social studies at Mercer Junior High. What made you decide to leave the job and go back to UW to pursue an MA in Speech Communication?
Assunta: I have always wanted to have a master's of art degree. I loved teaching, but also wanted to have a bigger impact on the community. Then, the first strike of the SPS hit the district. I didn't want to strike so I stayed in school with my students, while teachers were picketing outside the school. After that, I didn't feel right to stay in SPS.
Wen: You got the idea of a Chinese newspaper because you saw a need. Tell us about that need and how you came to see it?
Assunta: The need for a Chinese newspaper existed after living in the U.S. The Watergate incident in 1974 made it more urgent for the community to have a newspaper. I waited for others to start. Then, nothing happened. After I received my M.A. degree, I followed my dreams to start the paper.
Part 2. Thirty Years of Publishing and Perseverance
Wen: So in 1982, you put down $25,000 of your savings and started the Seattle Chinese Post. You gave yourself two years to sink or swim. Tell us what it was like. Were you excited, scared, uncertain?
Assunta: I should have been scared, but I didn't. Why I didn't? Most people are afraid of failure. But I don't. I see no shame in failing. The only shame is you don't try your best. What's important is you know how to rebound, change course quickly and learn from your mistakes.
Wen: There was a newspaper serving the Asian and Pacific population when you started yours. It was and is still called International Examiner, which began in 1974. Did you know about them? What did you think of them?
Assunta: I knew the IE editor Ron Chew at the time. In fact, he asked me to volunteer for the paper in the 1970s. I declined. But I did give IE my students' articles to print when I was at Mercer Junior High School. It's a blessing for the Seattle's Asian community to have different media outlets. The more voices we have, the more empowering it would be for the community. We have a different approach in presenting stories in our papers. We are proud of our balanced approach.
Wen: 1983 you started the English version of the Seattle Chinese Post. 10 years later, you changed the name of the English version to Northwest Asian Weekly. Tell us your decision process on that ambitious change, from Chinese community to Asian community?
Assunta: Just want to clarify that the Asian Weekly had existed in some form before 1983. English articles were in the Seattle Chinese Post's first issue. Later, we added a 4-page English insert inside the Chinese Post. In 1983, we separated the English and Chinese editions. We aimed at different readership for both papers.
Wen: You were a pioneer in Asian community papers. Nowadays there are many community papers. There is a Seattle Chinese Times, a Seattle Chinese Journal, for instance. There are also Vietnamese papers, Japanese papers, etc. What do you think of this "proliferation of Asian language media" as your paper described. Are they your competition?
Assunta: Even before we existed, competition among Asian media was keen. In the Korean community, there are television and radio station, two local daily newspapers and 10 weeklies. We are raised by competition, which means we become better newspapers and media company because of our competitors. We strive to do better in every sense of the word, such as covering news, giving back, and bringing people together through organizing events.
Wen: You said that your newspaper publishing was your baby and the baby now turned 30, "established at 30," as Confucius said. Five years ago, when the baby was 25, you admitted that newspapers were a dying business. So today, do you see your baby grow into middle age?
Assunta: The "baby" is getting older, but wiser. She is having more fun than ever, enjoying the moment of living and contributing to many.
We realize the print media is dying, but Asian Weekly's web site is drawing lots of readership and increasing every month.
Part 3. Asian and Mainstream, Achievement and Future
Wen: One reason you started your newspaper was that the Asian community was greatly ignored by other newspapers in Seattle. Did you mean mainstream papers like the Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I before it stopped printing? What's the situation today in terms of mainstream papers' coverage and the Asian community?
Assunta: Before our papers, the mainstream papers loved to focus a lot on food and cultural stories in the Asian community and less on real issues. Now, they are doing a good job of covering the Asian community because of us. Still, there are a lot of stories the mainstream won't cover, and we fill in that niche. For example, we cover a lot more on politics.
Wen: I understand that all ethnic groups should thrive, especially minorities like Asians. But if every community has its own papers, or members of a community read their own papers, how does that help integration, which is very important for all immigrants?
Assunta: I am not getting into the issue of integration, it will be a topic to debate for weeks.
Wen: On the other hand, Asian community has gone mainstream and is not ignored anymore. We have had our two-term governor Gary Locke, new mayor of Bellevue Conrad Lee, and many other successful Chinese and Asian Americans locally and nationally. Do we still need special services or attention as 30 years ago?
Assunta: As long as our immigration policy welcomes immigrants, the role of our papers are still valid. Gary Locke and other Asian elected officials are still less than .001 percent of the Asian population, there are still issues and challenges facing many in the Asian community. A newspaper carries the role of speaking out for the community and building bridges with the mainstream.
Wen: You have received numerous awards, from Citizen of the Year by Municipal League of King County to Hillary Clinton and Maria Cantwell Women of Valor to Charles E. Odegaard Award from the UW for distinguished work on behalf of diversity. Which award do you cherish most and why?
Assunta: I cherish not so much about getting awards, but the difference I made in the community. I am humbled by all the recognitions I've received. Each award has a different meaning. Each represents one aspect of my work in the community. The community still has a lot of needs. If my recognition can inspire other people to do more, then it serves a good purpose. I don't go out and publicize what I do. I am grateful to all those organizations which recognize me and my papers.
Wen: You started the papers to fill a void of news and information for the Chinese and Asian community. You have done much more. You promote Asian Americans, women, youth, and support many community causes. You are in fact a political force. So, will you run for office, which would be for all Americans, not just Asian Americans?
Assunta: No, I won't run for office, though I love to write about politics. It's a privilege if you understand where I was raised. In Hong Kong and China, we were not allowed to talk about politics when I was little. So now, I speak about politics and write on politicians. I even make money through the First Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That's amazing.
Wen: A bonus question: You obviously have a very fitting English name. Assunta is Italian in origin, meaning ascension. How did you get it?
Assunta: My name is Catholic in origin. An Italian priest gave me the name when I baptized. My mom wanted me to go to a missionary school (perceived as a quality school) in Hong Kong even though she is a Buddhist. Now, I believe in Buddhism and Christianity, but I don't really practice that much.
Wen: Thank you so much Assunta.