By Derek Lieu
Ben Fong-Torres doesn’t willfully keep things from his mother anymore, but she still has never read the eight books he’s had published. Nor the hundreds of articles he’s written over the years for Rolling Stone, GQ and Parade. And, she certainly doesn’t follow his blogs.
The son of two Chinese immigrants, Fong-Torres, 65, attended San Francisco State University in the late 1960s and became music editor at Rolling Stone during the publication’s golden years – a time when few Asian Americans worked in mainstream media, much less covering rock ‘n’ roll. Trailblazers have a hard time keeping their parents happy, it seems.
AAJA Voices spoke to the pioneer before the convention over the phone from San Francisco.
When you first started writing, did the fact that you were going against your parents’ wishes factor into the decision?
Being young means rebelling, basically, and that was kind of a natural thing. Once I learned that this was something I really, really wanted to do, there was just no turning back. There was just no way to say, “Oh, I love this whole writing and music and radio and media and all this stuff, but gee, maybe I should go to law school for six years, just to be sure.”
Would you have benefited from an AAJA-type organization in the 1970’s?
I was always up for learning about and reaching out to fellow Asians in media. The sad thing was that there just weren’t any. Nothing on television, just one or two bylines here and there. Bill Wong, of course, came along pretty early on over at the Tribune in Oakland. It was always good to see those names, and hear the occasional voice come on the radio, and identify it as an Asian. So yeah, the idea of AAJA, any kind of brother- or sisterhood of like-minded Asian Americans, would have been great to be a part of and get support from.
You’ve written about how free-form Rolling Stone was in the 70’s. Have we entered the age of corporate journalism?
[Rolling Stone] was much more free-form, but those were the times. … Now of course it’s all strategic from public relations people, or record labels, or movie studios, or network or whatever it is, who decides that it’s time for a story on so-and-so, and they’ll choose a couple of magazines and late-night shows through which they will begin to market that person.
Thirty years ago, obviously it was a different world, and so yes an editor could sit there and say, “Ray Charles! Why not?” That’s it, “OK, off you go!” And then you spend on and off, several weeks getting the story. Now you’re going backstage somewhere, given 30-45 minutes with a subject, and then you’re done … but there’s no point really complaining about how things are today. If you’re enterprising, good enough, passionate enough, you can get that story no matter what your circumstances.
You published your biography in 1995, and in it you mentioned that your parents still weren’t entirely satisfied with your career choices. Has that changed since then?
Three years after “The Rice Room” came out is when I started doing the Chinese New Year’s parade here on Fox 2 in San Francisco, and that’s when I think things improved decidedly for my mom. My dad was gone by that time. For her to be able to say her son was doing the Chinese New Year’s parade, that was a whole different level. These are the things that are important to parents. I’m just glad I finally found a job that pleased her, one day a year.
If you go
What: Opening Reception
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Highlands, Fourth Floor
Highlights: Among the AAJA founders scheduled to attend are Tritia Toyota and Frank Kwan, both formerly with KNBC-TV News; and Bill Sing, Nancy Yoshihara, and David Kishiyama, all formerly with The Los Angeles Times.