Making headlines: Assunta Ng goes after what she wants
Seattle Times staff reporter
You may have seen Assunta Ng at one of her many banquets. If you look close enough, you'd probably see her juggling all the details, too — seating people, checking the sound system and snapping pictures for a story that she will print in her English- or Chinese-language newspapers.
Ng can be seen all across the Seattle area wearing one of her many hats: newspaper publisher, Rotarian, volunteer, mother. If you stop by her office in the Chinatown International District, she's practically running from room to room. She doesn't waste a second.
She tirelessly promotes the Asian community for what seems to be no personal gain. But her motivation comes in two forms: One is to find a story and the other is to sell an ad.
"She's very persistent and forceful. It's really easier to say yes," laughed Martha Choe, a friend and director of the state Office of Trade and Economic Development. "She will use guilt. She'll use any arguments. For most people, they don't stand a chance."
Carol Vu, who works for Ng as editor of Northwest Asian Weekly, said Ng isn't what people expect. "She definitely has her own personality, and she's unusual in that she doesn't fit the immigrant model by being passive or quiet," she said. "She's outspoken, and knows what she wants and does all she can to get it."
Ng admits she surprises a lot of people. "They see a petite woman, who is quite ordinary, but under that there's an extraordinary determination."
This week Ng's celebrating the 20th year of publishing the Seattle Chinese Post, a local paper that prints international news and other features in Chinese. Soon after founding the Chinese Post, she started the English version, Northwest Asian Weekly. Ng is holding an open house in the papers' new offices at 412 Maynard Ave. S., from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Since the papers' inception, the Asian population in King County has grown from 58,712 in 1980 to 187,745 in 2000. Likewise, Ng's creation has grown from a 16-page tabloid pulled together by four people to two weekly editions that are twice as thick and produced by a staff of 11. The combined circulation today hovers around 15,000.
Through their history, the papers have covered controversial stories such as the 1983 Wah Mee Massacre in which 13 people were killed in a Seattle gambling club, the 1995 Pang warehouse fire in which four firefighters died, and more recently, a disputed case of racial profiling by the police involving her own youth summer camp.
Ng's made sacrifices to get the papers where they are today. In the early days, she spent long hours at the office and had two sons at home. Her son Jason Liu, now 23, remembers Wednesdays in particular because that was the day the paper went to press. Typically, his father would bring home McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Sometimes, his mother didn't come home at all. Other nights, he remembers his mom working at home.
"I just remember sitting on her lap reading as she typed out her article in our living room," he said.
Jason credits his mother with encouraging him to start his own business in international trade. "In the community she's a leader and role model and at home she's a mother, and also a great leader and role model," he said. "Having that person as your mother is very helpful. You can learn from what she's experienced, and she can give a lot of advice."
Immigrating from Hong Kong at 19, Ng defied tradition by leaving home to pursue a professional career. She attended the University of Washington, and while teaching in Seattle schools, saw the need for a Chinese newspaper in Seattle. With $25,000 in savings, she started the paper.
Since then, the business has moved several times — most recently from its cramped headquarters to a building that Ng bought in 1988 and just finished rebuilding after it collapsed during a snowstorm in 1997. The building has three or four times the amount of space, but the mortgage and responsibility of owning it weigh heavy, she says.
Her large office easily fits her desk and a two-person couch. But it's nothing compared with what most company heads expect after 20 years. The curtains don't reveal a view, but rather hide a stack of papers and pictures that she has not yet sorted. She usually makes phone calls from home because the telephone lines at work are tied up by her reporters.
Scattered on her desk are business cards — ranging from Eddie Bauer and Elliott Bay Book Co., to Bank of America and the Department of Social and Health Services. They are less a reflection of her business than of how many activities she manages.
At her desk, Ng answers the phone, swiftly transitioning from English to her native Chinese. The man on the line wanted to call U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn but was hesitating given the language barrier and Dunn's political position.
"What he doesn't understand is that she is an elected official and we are taxpayers," Ng said. "It's very difficult to understand a democracy when you are an immigrant, so I told him I'd be happy to make the call for him."
She's not shy about making a call, or shy about much of anything — friends expect her to say what no one else will. Choe, the former city councilwoman, remembers once when she was getting her hair cut downtown and Ng leaned over to say matter-of-factly that Choe should dye her graying hair — so she would "look more energetic."
"I told her, 'I won't dye my hair!' " Choe said. "Some people would tiptoe around it, but that's Assunta. She says exactly what's on her mind, which I like because I know she doesn't have any hidden agendas."
In 1986, Ng was one of 15 women who joined the Seattle International Rotary Club before the parent organization allowed women to join. She started Women of Color Empowered, a local networking group that recognizes the accomplishments of women from all ethnic backgrounds. Through her newspaper, she began a nonprofit foundation that awards scholarships to high-school students and sponsors an annual Summer Youth Leadership Program for Asian-American teens (this was the group that filed a complaint last summer, accusing a Seattle police officer of stopping them on the street and harassing them because of their race).
Most recently, Mayor Greg Nickels appointed Ng to his transition team, which she continues to meet with quarterly.
One of Ng's many sayings is that "if you don't speak up, everyone assumes that everything is OK." So when mayoral candidates Mark Sidran and Nickels came to Rotary during the elections, and the only faces she saw lining up to ask questions were white and male, she stood up. "I see them all the time," she said of the candidates. "It's not that I wanted to ask them a question. I got up there to represent," she said.
But sometimes speaking out has its ramifications. She fears she may have lost a friend during the 1996 Democratic gubernatorial primary when she endorsed Gary Locke over Norm Rice. She was torn.
Norm Rice "really supported people of color," she said. "He wasn't a person who just said he would through empty words. He really did." But Locke had a chance at making history by being the first Asian-American governor in the continental U.S.
Rice, president of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle, said he understands what Ng had to do. "I think she's one of the more dynamic people in the city and has a firm commitment," he said. "That commitment resounds in everything she does."
When she first came to the United States, she said her parents pictured her becoming a lawyer or a doctor — someone who would make lots of money.
But, for her, it wasn't about the money. When asked what her next challenges are, she answers both for her newspapers and for the Asian community. On her to-do list: more Asians attaining the position of chief executive and competing in sports. A distant second: to publish the papers in color and revamp the Web site, www.nwasianweekly.com.
"To be a journalist, we get very little in return. For the type of commitment and energy that you must put into the work, you can make 10 times more in another field," she said. "But you have to realize, you are fulfilling a very special role."
Tricia Duryee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.