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Hawaii-born journalist, whose newspaper spoke to Chinatown in English, dies at 103


    William Yukon Chang working in his apartment in Manhattan in about 1949.

William Yukon Chang, a Hawaii-born journalist whose English-language newspaper for the children of Chinese immigrants in New York sought to promote an American identity in them, died Sept. 4 in San Francisco. He was 103.

His daughter Dallas Chang confirmed his death, at a rehabilitation facility.

For 17 years starting in 1955, Chang’s monthly Chinese-American Times chronicled life, culture and politics in the Chinese community in New York, particularly in Chinatown, though he defined the broader East Coast as his coverage area.

“New York’s Chinese-American community was pretty small at the time and not powerful politically, and Bill spoke for them,” Charlotte Brooks, a history professor at Baruch College in Manhattan, said in a phone interview. “He was determined to give the community a voice and something they could be proud of.”

His was one of the few English-language newspapers in operation in the 1950s and ’60s that were aimed at a multigenerational Chinese American readership. “He wanted them to feel they were American, yet still Chinese,” Chang said, “that they belonged to America, and that there were others like them.”

Chang’s stewardship of the newspaper coincided with his other endeavors in Chinatown, where his local profile and fluency in English made him a sought-after translator, a confidant to old-school Chinese familial associations, a go-between in landlord-tenant disputes and a voice on the neighborhood’s community board.

“If card games turned into gambling dens and got busted, he could translate with the police,” Chang said. “If someone got caught by immigration, he knew bail bondsmen.”

By 1964, when he said he had about 3,000 subscribers, Chang felt that he had helped educate Chinese Americans and brought respect to them.

“After 50 years in New York,” he told The New York Post that year, “we are finally a minority group. We are no longer just an oddity. Now I’d like to help speed up our assimilation.”

William Yu-Kon Chang was born Jan. 1, 1916, in Honolulu. His father, William Sang Chang, was a merchant seaman; his mother, Kui Kyau Lee, was a homemaker. He learned to speak both Chinese and English fluently.

After graduating from high school in Honolulu, Chang left for Shanghai. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at St. John’s University, an Anglican school founded by American missionaries.

He returned to Hawaii after war broke out between China and Japan in 1937, but went back to Shanghai three years later, when The China Press, an English-language newspaper, hired him as a sports writer.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, occupying Japanese forces in Shanghai shut the paper down, and Chang, though he was not incarcerated, had to wear an armband to identify himself as an enemy.

“I eked out a living buying and selling on the black market everything that had a value and demand, including firewood, rice, quinine, bicycle tires, mothballs and woolen yarn,” he was quoted as saying in “American Exodus: Second-Generation Chinese Americans in China, 1901-1949” (2019), by Professor Brooks.

The China Press reopened after the war, and Chang was hired back as its city editor and society columnist. But after flying to the United States on an advertising junket in 1947, he decided to stay and settled in New York, where he worked for government outreach groups and restaurants.

He also wrote briefly for The Saturday Evening Post, but he could find no other journalism work. One of his articles for The Post focused on the structure and tactics of China’s army.

“Young or old,” he wrote under the byline Yukon Chang during the Korean War, “the Chinese Red soldier holds the key to World War II. Soon or later, he will be the man whom Far Eastern anti-communist armies will meet in battle, should his leaders pursue their present course.”

In 1954, when a Chinese American real estate delegation met with Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. of New York, Chang went along as a translator.

“After solving our problem nicely, Wagner said, ‘You must come around more often. We don’t know what’s going on in your community,’” Chang recalled in the interview with The New York Post. “Somebody spoke up. ‘But we have four newspapers!’ ” But they were all in Chinese.

“Shouldn’t you have at least one in English?” Wagner asked.

Chang agreed, and soon after, using his own money, he started his newspaper. He was a one-man operation: He was editor and publisher, wrote nearly all the articles and sold the advertising. Each issue was produced at his home, first in Forest Hills, Queens, and then, after he moved to Manhattan in the 1960s, in Chinatown.

“All of us would sit and fold the paper, in halves and quarters,” his daughter said. “He had subscriptions — he typed out the addresses and glued on the stamps.”

Chang closed the paper and retired in 1972 to travel with his wife. By then Chinatown was changing. According to the Museum of Chinese in America in Manhattan, Chinese Americans were leaving the neighborhood and new waves of Chinese immigrants were moving in.

In 2000, Chang received the museum’s Legacy Award, along with author Amy Tan and actor Jackie Chan.

In addition to his daughter Dallas, he is survived by two other daughters, Priscilla Chang and Marina Chang Harrison. His wife, Tang Kou Mei, a daughter of the Chinese Nationalist general Tang En-po, died in 2000.

About a year ago, Chang’s archive — including a full set of issues of the Chinese-American Times — was acquired by Columbia University.

“What’s clear is that it gives you a wonderfully rich depiction of the social life of Chinatown,” Thai Jones, curator for American history at Columbia’s rare book and manuscript library, said of the newspaper. “He was doing the work of normalizing and Americanizing people who, to outsiders, was this community of others.”

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