I arrived in Seattle on July 4, 2012. As a transplant — a journalist and editor from Hawaiʻi — I made the move on a whim. With no job lined up and a $500 rent bill due at the end of the month, I sent emails to just about every Seattle publication I could find looking for writing opportunities. The first to respond was Diem Ly, then the editor of the International Examiner.
A bit too intimidated to catch the bus from Lower Queen Anne during my first week in Seattle, I walked 45 minutes to the IE’s office, which at the time was up on the hill on South Washington Street, next door to Nippon Kan Theater. Diem introduced me to Ryan Catabay, a graphic designer with whom they shared an office, who also designed all of the IE’s covers. “He likes to rearrange the office once a month,” Diem told me.
New in town
In talking with Diem, I was able to hear for the first time about the IE’s history as a nonprofit newspaper that dated back to the 1970s. It was created out of necessity, because the stories about our community, the history, activism, arts, and the issues that mattered to us weren’t being covered anywhere else. Like the very existence of the Chinatown International District (CID) itself, the IE represented a coming-together of different generations, cultures, and peoples. It owes its resilience to the community it works for.
Diem, who was mentored by the previous editor, Nhien Nguyen, had led the IE through a difficult time; when newspapers across the country were folding with the arrival of online news. And when Craigslist had dried up the classifieds section of most print newspapers.
Diem was in need of a news writer and I was happy to take on as many stories as I could to make rent, and to learn about the city. My first story, titled, “National Businesses May Have a Future in Seattle’s ID,” looked into the perceived change in the neighborhood’s perception of national businesses. The McDonald’s sponsorship of Dragonfest that year stood in stark contrast to the protests which saw hundreds speak out against plans for a McDonald’s opening in the CID just 12 years earlier.
I interviewed business owners, the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, and Doug Chin — who I simply introduced as “a longtime activist and author.” As a transplant, I hadn’t understood the history that defined the context of the neighborhood, much less the impact of the people I interviewed.
Under Diem, as well as her successor Christina Twu, I’d go on to write news stories on everything from the rise in parking prices, how cuts to food benefits were affecting the Marshallese community, marijuana legalization, to social isolation and mental health for ANHPIA seniors. With every interview, I was able to learn just a bit more about the diversity of our community and how complex our history and issues were.
Back to grassroots media
I had my chance to be editor near the end of 2013. The IE was in trouble financially, still feeling the effects of the recession and a decline in advertising sales. In 2014, we had to make drastic changes in order to adapt. I made cuts to our expenses in every possible way. With help from Donnie Chin and his pickup truck, Ron Chew and I moved 20 years worth of office clutter into an office space at the Bush Hotel, thanks to an arrangement with the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.
Board members made calls to the IE’s supporters for emergency fundraising. OCA Greater Seattle gave us a loan to help pay the bulk of our outstanding debt. The community came through and gave the newspaper a chance to continue on.
Under the mentorship of Doug Chin, Maria Batayola, and Ron Chew, I was able to learn the ins and outs of managing a budget during a crisis, writing grant applications, and doing more with less by operating the IE as a grassroots newspaper.
My counterpart Lexi Potter became a familiar face in the community, leading the organization in its outreach, advertising sales, and distribution. Lexi was integral in making the IE a welcoming place for all people during my time there.
A community-powered organization
Putting out the paper was only possible because of the support of the community — because the community was what we covered and we (the staff, board, writers, and readers) are the community.
The IE was a place where activists, storytellers, and volunteers would gravitate to. In the spring of 2014, three University of Washington students — Jacob Chin, Jacqueline Wu, and Angelo Salgado — walked through the door. They wanted to speak out about the university’s elimination of its Southeast Asian Recruitment Coordinator position, which had seen protests on campus. The three of them collaborated with the IE on a special issue that highlighted the underrepresentation of ANHPIAs, particularly Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. They advocated for the disaggregation of ANHPIA data, which can leave the disparities hidden when “Asian American” is treated as a monolithic term.
That fall, thanks to the voice and activism of young people just like Jacob, Jacqueline, and Angelo, the Southeast Asian Recruitment Coordinator position was reinstated.
Over the next four years of my time as editor, I would go on to train and mentor two dozen young people who would write, edit, design, make social media posts, and update the website. They came to the IE as interns, volunteers, and contractors and were essential in the production of the newspaper. Izumi Hansen and Alia Marsha served as news editors. Rhea Panela and Anakin Fung served as digital media editors. Chetanya Robinson would go on to be managing editor and interim editor in chief in the years after I had gone.
Former IE intern and filmmaker Tuyen Than collaborated with us on a number of projects, including the 2016 documentary film, Cathay Post, American Legion #186: A Legacy of Camaraderie, Community and Patriotism.
The IE’s deep bench
Hundreds of writers, photographers, artists and columnists from the community make up the backbone of the IE, without whom there would be no newspaper. Regular writers during my time included Tamiko Nimura, Roxanne Ray, Jasmin Eng, Leilani Leach, Carlie Stowe, Pinky Gupta, Taylor McAvoy, Nicholas Nolin, Imana Gunawan, Kamna Shastri, Bunthay Cheam, and so many others.
I was also grateful to have learned from and worked with a number of people who had deep histories with the IE, including former editors Dean Wong (who was also our photographer for our most important coverage) and Bob Shimabukuro (who in his column “‘Fo Real,” challenged us to be thoughtful about current events by remembering our past). Arts editor Alan Chong Lau, whose network with so many artists is always on the pulse of the community’s arts and culture happenings, opened my mind to the essentialness of arts coverage. Board members Gary Iwamoto and Arlene Oki helped me to learn the history and the human connections of our community’s activism.
Finally, there was Ellen Suzuki who taught me about resilience of spirit during adversity. Ellen had served as the IE’s office manager and bookkeeper for over three decades. During that time, as editors in chief and other staff and board had come and gone, Ellen had been the personification of the IE’s longterm organizational memory. She made sure we took care of what was vital for the IE as a business, but she also made sure we took time to take a break and enjoy each other’s company over lunch at Tai Tung.
The sense of community and life energy brought to the newspaper by everyone involved has made the IE as resilient as it was over the last 50 years. It’s something that my successor Jill Hyesun Wasberg, Auriza Ugalino, and Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program coordinator Bif Brigman carried on right through the pandemic after my time as editor.
The current staff, Editor in Chief Alexa Strabuk, Community Relations Manager Carmen Hom, and Managing Editor Chetanya Robinson, bring new energy and love of community as they lead the IE into the next 50 years. With your support we’ll continue to open new doors.