For Fred Katayama, it was a moment of profound inspiration. As a Monterey Park fifth-grader in the early 1970s, he came home from school one afternoon and encountered a figure on television who would change his life.
"I ran into the kitchen and I said, 'Mom, there's a Japanese-looking man on TV!' " Katayama recalls. "It was Ken Kashiwahara, who at the time was a reporter for Channel 7 'Eyewitness News.' It was a strong reaction. In hindsight, it was because of the paucity of Asian Americans on television. The only Asian guy I saw on TV in those days was Bruce Lee playing Kato [on the action series "The Green Hornet"]."
Katayama began tuning in to "Eyewitness News" just to see Kashiwahara, considered the dean of Asian American broadcast journalists. By the time he was in high school, the galvanized teen was a full-fledged news junkie, bent on forging a career in journalism.
Today, Katayama is an anchor and correspondent for CNN Financial News. He is just one in a sizable group of Asian American reporters and anchors now working in television news.
Like Katayama, many of them were inspired to enter the field after witnessing such pioneers as Kashiwahara (who recently retired from ABC News), KCBS-TV Channel 2's Tritia Toyota and, especially, ABC's Connie Chung.
"I clearly remember when I moved to the United States [from Singapore] at the age of 7, turning on the New York City news and seeing Kaity Tong anchoring the newscast," says Sharon Tay, who co-anchors the early morning news at KTLA-TV Channel 5. "Seeing an Asian face on the television screen was a big deal, especially for my parents. They thought, 'Wow, what a role model.' "
Asian Americans are still largely absent from the expanding television landscape. Thirty-one years after Bruce Lee appeared as "The Green Hornet's" sidekick, it's still rare to find an Asian American featured prominently in episodic television. Indeed, the only television genre in which one can regularly spot Asian faces, with the exception of foreign-language programming, is broadcast news.
Every major TV station in Los Angeles has at least one or two Asian American news reporters or anchors. KCAL-TV Channel 9, KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 all feature Asian American female anchors on Saturday and Sunday nights. Thanks in part to the influx of cable news channels, this group is also a visible part of the national television news picture. ABC News currently employs five Asian American reporters and anchors.
In Los Angeles County, where the Asian Pacific population has tripled since 1980 to more than 1 million, many local Asian television journalists have become prominent symbols of success in their ethnic communities--at least in part because of the relative dearth of well-known Asian American celebrities in traditional glamour fields such as film, episodic television, pop music and sports.
"I go to about three or four Asian Pacific community events a week," says Tim Dang, the artistic director of Los Angeles' East West Players, the nation's oldest Asian American theater company. "It's always great to see people like [KABC-TV Channel 7 sportscaster] Rob Fukuzaki and Sharon Tay at these events. Most of the time they are emceeing the event, but a lot of times they are just there to support it. They are our stars and celebrities. It's amazing the number of people who are around them wanting to get their autograph or wanting to talk to them."
One of the few Vietnamese Americans working in the field, Leyna Nguyen says she's been surprised by the open support she's received from the local Vietnamese community since joining KCAL-TV last December.
"Most Asians, especially Vietnamese, are very quiet," she observes. "If they see something they like, they don't tell anyone about it. They just sit back and appreciate it. But I get a lot of letters and phone calls from people in the Vietnamese community. It's flattering."
That propensity to be taciturn is something many Asian American broadcast journalists have had to grapple with. Toyota admits that she struggled as a young and inexperienced reporter at KNBC-TV Channel 4 in the early 1970s, partly because she was too quiet and unassertive in the newsroom. She had to learn how to be outspoken and aggressive.
"I hate to generalize about us, but I think we do tend to be quite demure and polite," echoes Chung, who is currently a correspondent for the ABC newsmagazine "20/20." "In the beginning I was in no way, shape or form aggressive naturally. But I pushed myself. There are times in competitive news situations where you have to push yourself to the front of the crowd and shout out questions."
Television journalism as a career continues to be a far greater allure to Asian American women than Asian American men. The latter group tends to receive more parental pressure to choose practical or traditionally prestigious careers prized by many Asian families. Indeed, news executives often cite a lack of qualified male Asian talent as the main reason for their small representation in the profession--which in turn can perpetuate the disparity.
"There are still more Asian women who are interested in getting into the field," states Nara Weng, a recent broadcast journalism graduate from USC, whose parents originally wanted him to become a doctor. "It's probably because they see Asian women on the news. There are a lot more role models for them."
The "Connie Chung phenomenon" is often mentioned as a key reason why the Asian American talent pool is dominated by women. An anchor at KNXT (now KCBS) in Los Angeles between 1976 and 1983, Chung remains the most well-known Asian American in the profession. She went on to host her own prime-time newsmagazine and to co-anchor the "CBS Evening News" with Dan Rather.
So prominent is Chung's shadow that Asian American female reporters have grown accustomed to--and often weary of--being associated with her.
"When I used to tell people that I was a broadcast journalism major, the thing they always said was, 'Oh, you're going to be the next Connie Chung.' It's probably the most common sentence I've ever heard," says Catherine Gelera, a Filipina American who also recently graduated from USC with a broadcast journalism degree.
In the Los Angeles market, hiring Asian American talent is part of a larger attempt by television news stations to achieve a stronger on-air ethnic balance. But because there are so many minority groups locally, some industry observers believe stations have adopted an unofficial quota system that can both help and hurt minority journalists.
"General managers want to hire people who appeal to viewers of all colors," offers Sophia Choi, a reporter and occasional anchor at KCBS-TV. "But ultimately it comes down to, 'If we don't have Hispanics on the air, then the Hispanic community will be up in arms. If we don't have any Asians on air, then the Asians will be upset. . . .' So it's like trying to achieve this ideal and trying to keep each community happy. So how do you do that? Ultimately, it comes down to quotas."
John Culliton, KCBS vice president and general manager, believes his station's on-air staff should reflect the ethnic makeup of the community. He also says that anchors and reporters are hired for their ability to appeal to a broad cross-section of viewers, and not just their own ethnic communities.
KCAL's Nguyen feels that Asian American television reporters face a more difficult challenge landing jobs than some of their non-Asian colleagues.
"If there are more than one or two Asian reporters [at a station], I can usually count my chances out," Nguyen says. "If you are white you just apply everywhere and your chances are greater because there are more 'white' openings."
Nonetheless, KABC's Fukuzaki believes race is playing less and less of a role in terms of how these anchors and reporters are perceived by the non-Asian public. That's something to celebrate, he says.
"I hardly think that people are going to look at an Asian doing the news or a Caucasian doing the news and think that one can do the job better than the other because of their color," Fukuzaki says. "I don't think it's like that anymore. The more Asians that have entered the field, the more [those prejudicial] perceptions have changed. It's a snowball effect."