The masthead from an issue of the International Examiner during its ACWA-era • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

In its infancy in 1975, the International Examiner (IE) newspaper was bought by the Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA) from its founders for the token sum of $1.

Over the next four years, with the ACWA as its publisher, the IE found its focus as a community and social justice-focused newspaper.

As the IE celebrates 50 years, this unique piece of trivia from its history is worth a second glance. 

Nemesio Domingo Jr. was head of the ACWA, a legal advocacy group headquartered in the Chinatown International District (CID) that was fighting for fair treatment of predominantly Filipino workers in the Alaska seafood industry. The canneries were powered by Asian American labor, but forced workers to survive in unsafe conditions and subjected them to discrimination. In 1973, Domingo, his brother Silme and others had filed class action lawsuits against some large companies in Alaska.

Domingo was aware of the Asian Family Affair newspaper, a short-lived pan-Asian journal focused on the Asian American movement, run by activists like Al Sugiyama, Frank Irigon and Nemesio’s brother, Silme Domingo.

When the Family Affair stopped printing, Nemesio Domingo saw a gap in community ethnic media. He met with the IE’s owners about the ACWA taking on ownership. “I told [them] that we wanted to change the paper to a community oriented paper,” he said in a recent interview with the IE.

The owners agreed. To make the contract final, Domingo reached into his pocket and pulled out 95 cents.

Domingo said he and other young Filipino activists like his brother Silme, and Gene Viernes, had an interest in community newspapers because of their role in Filipino labor and social justice history.

In the first half of the 20th century, Filipino men came to the United States for a college education during the American colonization of the Philippines. Known as the pensionados, these men found no jobs available when they graduated.

“And so they would get into the labor movement,” Domingo said, “the canneries and farm workers. These pensionados established papers in the towns that they lived in. So there were Filipino newspapers in virtually every community up and down the West Coast.”

Intimately familiar with racism and discrimination, the pensionados’ newspapers published stories about organizing and labor rights. “The printed press was always an important part of their history and their social involvement,” Domingo said.

“It’s no accident that the most famous Asian American writer, Carlos Bulosan, was a local writer who was a cannery worker and activist. So, many of us, particularly the Filipinos, saw this as continuing that tradition of activism. And part of that activism was the printing press.”

Not everyone in the ACWA was eager for the group to take on the IE at first, as the organization was already in the midst of three class action lawsuits. But Viernes liked the idea because he was a historian himself. “We had the printed word and that was really important to the community,” Domingo said. “He saw the value of that.”

As publisher, Domingo was focused on finding an editor and keeping the paper financially sustainable through advertising. He recruited his friend Tessie McGinnis, who had edited one of the Filipino community newspapers.

The front page of a June 1976 issue of the International Examiner • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

After McGinnis left for the Philippines, Domingo recruited Mayumi Tsutakawa and Rita Fujiki (later Brogan) to serve as co-editors. Tsutakawa recruited Ron Chew, a journalism student, who himself became editor in 1977. Other students and contributors, including Gary Iwamoto, became important for the newspaper.

Tsutakawa, a Seattle writer, curator and grants manager, became one of the first editors of the IE after she completed her MA in Communications from the University of Washington. The types of stories the IE covered after it was acquired by the ACWA were a departure from the former, business-oriented paper.

“We were the young activists, we were going to write articles and details about the burgeoning activist movement and the support for the residents, and the support for the beginning of these really key human service organizations that had never existed before,” Tsutakawa said.

During this time, organizations like International Community Health Services (ICHS) and Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) were born. The Wing Luke Museum and Donnie Chin’s International District Emergency Center were young.

“The Cannery Workers themselves didn’t have an effect on the content of the newspaper, per se,” Tsutakawa said. “We supported what they did, what their goals were, but they in no way wanted to decide and manage the day-to-day content.”

That task lay with Tsutakawa, then with Chew, and an army of volunteers and contributors who worked for free or for very little.

Chew, now an IE board member, devoted a chapter of his memoir, My Unforgotten Seattle, to the ACWA era of the IE. As editor, Chew’s responsibilities were endless but the work became satisfying and meaningful.

“In the back, past a set of double doors, was a storage space with leftover newspapers, picket signs, old leaflets and an offset printing press,” Chew writes in his memoir of the shared IE and ACWA office. “Upstairs was a partitioned mezzanine with a low ceiling. People crashed there for the night if they had too much to drink at the Dynasty Room or were visiting from Eastern Washington.”

The ceiling leaked if toilets overflowed in the apartments above. “Tim Otani, a UW student volunteer, traded jokes with me around the theme of ‘How cold is it today?’ Even with the electric baseboard heaters cranked up, my puffs of breath were visible,” Chew wrote.

The ACWA office was also a center for groups fighting against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, such as Domingo’s brother Silme.

Domingo always expected the IE would one day be able to sustain itself one day and part ways with the ACWA. By 1980, the IE had become a nonprofit organization and the ACWA no longer appeared on the masthead.For an ethnic newspaper to be published by a group of union organizers like the ACWA is highly unusual, said Tsutakawa, who studied ethnic media in graduate school.

More commonly, ethnic newspapers were “the vision of one person who had some economic means to invest in getting their newspaper started,” she said.

It was also, possibly, one of the early factors that has allowed the IE to survive and succeed, Tsutakawa said along with its nonprofit status, thoughtful news coverage by early editors such as Ron Chew and the late Bob Shimabukuro, and exemplary arts coverage from arts editor Alan Chong Lau.

The inside of a June 1976 issue of the International Examiner • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

“Just the pure fact that the Examiner has subsisted, and also excelled, through this many years, I think is really a tribute to the consistent progressive movement, including so many artistic, diverse professionals really grassroots people, and excellent writers,” she said. “It just absolutely stands out nationally among Asian American media and newspapers, and among all ethnic media as an outstanding, excellent source of news and showcase for the talents of our community, our own community, in service to the International District.”

After decades working as grants manager for the Washington State Arts Commission, Tsutakawa herself has been writing arts stories for the IE again, “mainly because of the influence of Alan Chong Lau.”

“I can’t emphasize enough how important he has been,” Tsutakawa added.

“The Examiner, as compared with other ethnic newspapers nationally, has had the most solid and consistent coverage of the arts ranging from traditional to the young, emerging artists and the avant garde….It’s been just excellent.”   

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