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Broadcast Pioneers

 

(continued)

The Early Days

     Broadcasting was born in the twentieth century. Books, magazines, newspapers, and advertising were already established. European and American political, economic, and cultural imperialism dominated the world.

     America media perpetuated false and mostly negative stereotypes of the Chinese print. Song, and pictures.  Around 1882, the year of America's first anti-immigrant law - the Chinese Exclusion Act - the cry was the "Chinese must go!" The chorus of labor unions, politicians, and news media bred a climate of fear, hatred, and ignorance. The 56th anniversary of the repeal of sixty-one years of Exclusion laws (1882-1943) barring the immigration and naturalization of first the Chinese and then other Asians to the United States takes place December 17, 1999.

     "The Curse of Dr. Fu Manchu" is not only a pulp fiction and movie title but a symptom of Chinese American condition depicted by media. Chinese and therefore Chinese American men were stereotyped as evil, devious, inscrutable, exotic creatures preying upon white women. Chinese and therefore Chinese women were stereotyped as pliant, mysterious, exotic prostitutes who existed to serve white men.

     Charlie Chan on the surface depicted the crafty, wise Chinese detective. But its true subliminal message was, Chinese at best speak fortune-cookie English and real Chinese American actors were not good enough to play themselves in the movies. Cultural emasculation at its subtlest best. The prevailing perception was that Chinese were inarticulate.

     Our image on television can be summed up in the name of the continuing Chinese character in that famous TV western Have Gun Will Travel: Hey Boy! That was Paladin's valet, played by Sammy Fong. This was during the 1950s and 60s, following the Red Scare, McCarthyism, "Who Lost China," and the Confession Program, when FBI and INS scoured the community looking for Communist spies, sympathizers, and illegal aliens.

     During the Cold War we lived in fear of going to war with China over Taiwan or some obscure little islands known as Quemoy and Matsu. The horrific Korean Conflict had concluded with no peace treaty and Vietnam was coming to the fore.

Earliest Broadcast Pioneers

     How did a young ham radio operator, fresh out of Samuel Gompers Technical High, named Howard Yuen become one of the first Chinese and ethnic minority Americans to break into commercial radio as an engineer (KSF0), and then go into television and be one of the pioneers to put KPIX-TV on the air in 1948? It was the first television station in northern California, and he was the first Chinese American TV engineer. It had to be more than luck.

     How did a young speech-radio graduate of San Francisco State (who minored in business for insurance) named George Lum break in as a floor director at KPIX-TV in 1954, and then become the first Chinese American director in 1956? In those early days of live television when there was no videotape to cover mistakes, Lum produced and directed Shell News at 6, Morning Show with Sandy Spillman, Captain Fortune, The Del Courtney Variety Show, and even commercials! Lum says that in his thirty-plus years in broadcasting he knew only four, maybe five Caucasian managers who were not prejudiced in their employment practices. It had to be more than being in the right place at the right time.

     Or, how did a very young David Louie break into television as a regular panelist on a weekly Sunday school program in Cleveland, Ohio (KYW) in 1955 at the prodigious age five? It had to be much more than his cuteness.

     In the sixties, the cradle of the civil rights movement, a Chinese man could be regularly seen in Bonanza, the most popular TV show at its time. It was an hour "in full, living color on NBC" about a white widower and his three sons cavorting on the Ponderosa Ranch, with the Chinese houseboy, Hop Sing, bopping in now and then to say his sing-song lines. He was played by the veteran actor Victor Sen Young.

     These guys apparently took the credo of the Declaration of Independence at face value when they launched themselves into mass media: that all people are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

     By the 1960s, Chinese Americans had become successful entrepreneurs, engineers, businessmen, and scientists, but none were respected as social or cultural leaders. We had no newsmakers or news storytellers.

     But this was an era of change. Social, political, and racial unrest tore up the nation. Race riots destroyed black ghettos in Los Angeles, California and Detroit, Michigan, and flared in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders issued the Kerner Report that declared one root cause of racial unrest and inequality was the omission of minorities from coverage in the media, and the utter lack of even token representation in the ranks of reporters, editors, and owners of the nation's mass media.  The search for minorities was begun in earnest.

     So it should not be surprising that San Chu Lin, David Louie, and Mario Machado would break into on-air television news in 1967 and 1968.

     The year 1968 saw the birth of the innovative in-depth TV news show with real journalists sitting around a real news editor's horseshoe-shaped desk talking to each other about their stories, and not just reading from the teleprompter. It was called Newsroom.  Anchored by Mel Wax, it was also distinguished for the work of Victor Wong the actor, who had begun photography after his brother Zeppelin Wong gave him his first camera. Victor Wong merely established the genre of the TV photographic essay, marrying his still pictures with music and spiced with his own on-camera, in-studio narration. Wax described him as "a superb photographer who did it all in his own initiative."

     And following the Kerner Commission Report came new federal guidelines that mandated employment diversity among broadcast stations. By early 1970, local stations began to integrate their technical staff. In the case of KTVU, a gruff, loud, bit lovable Willie Kee, an erstwhile still photographer on the Peninsula, took a news photographer's suggestion and tried his hands at TV news film. He was a natural, picking up the technique from watching the pros do it, and seeing his first stuff ever shot actually aired in the news. Kee went on to win twelve Emmys, including two in producing and one in writing, putting many a reporter to shame. Yet it remains an indictment of media and society that Chinese Americans had to wait over a hundred years to get into wielding the world's most powerful instrument of education and information.

 

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