Founding a newspaper is rarely easy, but when Assunta Ng was preparing to launch the Seattle Chinese Post in 1982, she faced an unexpected challenge: The Chinese-script typewriters ordered from Taiwan were lost in transit.
The typewriters eventually turned up at the Port of Seattle, eight days before the newspaper was due to publish. A short window to train typists on the hard-to-use equipment.
But they got the job done, Ng said. In the early hours of January 20, the Post went to print and became the first Chinese-language paper in the Pacific Northwest since 1927.
Forty years on, the paper’s weekly circulation is in the thousands, but its small size belies its significance as one of the few independent Chinese-language outlets to offer local news in the United States.
Mandarin and other Chinese dialects combine to make up the third-most-common language in the U.S., with some 3.5 million speakers, according to a Census Bureau report.
And while major papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal publish in Chinese, they typically don’t provide hyper-local news.
That is where outlets like the Seattle Chinese Post and the New York-based website NYChinaRen come in.
Both cover typical community news – a mix of local politics, crime, weather, business and culture.
That focus is what separates them from the broader — though still narrow — Chinese-language media landscape in the U.S., which Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang says is politically polarized.
Some Chinese news outlets have ties to Beijing. Others are backed by opposition groups, such as the Epoch Times, which is reported to be aligned with Falun Gong. a religious movement banned by Beijing. Followers of the group are surveilled, detained and pressured, says Freedom House.
Finding accurate, unbiased outlets can be a challenge, says Wang. And while American media publishing in Mandarin provide independent coverage, their reporting doesn’t necessarily target a Chinese audience living in the U.S., Wang said.
Rare outlets like the Seattle Chinese Post and NYChinaRen, both of which publish in Mandarin, provide a snapshot into the small landscape of independent and impartial Chinese-language media in the U.S.
In Seattle, Ng is proud of her paper’s independence and neutrality.
Before the Post was founded, members of the city’s large Chinese population would gather at bulletin boards in Seattle’s Chinatown to get the latest news. Ng, who moved to Washington from China for college, wanted to fill that gap.
The local community was initially skeptical of Ng’s newspaper until she assured them that it would be politically neutral.
“We’re not pro-Taiwan or China,” Ng said. “We want to serve the community, and we want to write stories, and we write stories that other newspapers have not been able to see.”
That local knowledge and connection with the community in Seattle came into play in 1983, when 13 people were killed at a gambling club.
“The mainstream media – I wouldn’t say they didn’t cover our community – they did,” Ng said. “But they always liked to feature us with food. So I always laughed at them. ‘Boy, we look like a very hungry community.’ You always write about us about food and nothing else. And now there’s this murder – biggest murder in the state – and you didn’t know how to cover it.”
“Overnight I had so many mainstream media calling me to ask for help because they couldn’t communicate with the Chinese immigrants in Chinatown,” Ng said. “I was like a bridge between our community and the mainstream media.”
The Seattle Chinese Post is an outlier, but Ng doesn’t really view it that way. For her, its neutrality is not a political statement. Ng views the Post first and foremost as a local newspaper, one that just happens to publish in Mandarin.
“We are an American newspaper, except written in Chinese,” Ng said.
In leading NYChinaRen, Cheng Yizhong was similarly motivated. He worked at state-run and privately owned outlets in China before an arrest in 2004 on corruption charges, a move seen widely as retaliation for his outspoken reports.
Being jailed in China is behind Cheng now. “It doesn’t really matter to me anymore,” he told VOA in November. “It only makes me believe firmly that our industry is extremely important.”
Cheng acted as editor-in-chief from when NYChinaRen was founded in 2019 until he stepped down in January, citing "political risk and pressure" but reaffirming in a statement that the website is independent. For him, media play an important role in reporting on local Chinese communities
“Their news may not be reported by mainstream American news channels. But that’s what we care about,”’ he said.
For the past decade, China has worked to extend its influence over global media, using training opportunities, content sharing agreements, media trips and funding to try to curry favor with foreign outlets, all while restricting and expelling correspondents in Beijing.
Experts including the International Federation of Journalists believe China uses such tactics to influence global media coverage in its favor.
Wang, of Human Rights Watch, said Beijing made similar efforts to influence Chinese-owned media in New York and other cities “through ownership or making the businesspeople who are close to Beijing buy those newspapers.”
In an email to VOA, China's Washington embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said that Chinese media "should not be assumed to be led or interfered (with) by the Chinese government," adding, "The Chinese government supports closer cooperation between Chinese and foreign media."
Being relevant to Mandarin-speaking audiences can bring challenges, including whether to connect via the popular app WeChat.
With more than 1.2 billion active monthly users worldwide, the Chinese social media, messaging, and payment app is a powerful tool. It is also under the reach of Beijing’s censors.
Rights groups have cited how sensitive topics, like criticism of the government and human rights, are suppressed on the app.
The WeChat question is an important tradeoff, according to Sheng Zou, a University of Michigan postdoctoral research fellow. Chinese-language outlets can access more readers, but at the expense of editorial independence.
“If you want to cater towards the Chinese community, then you inevitably have to use WeChat,” Zou said.
Embassy spokesperson Pengyu denied that Beijing censors web content and said that "Chinese people have extensive access" to online information.
The website for NYChinaRen is blocked in China, but it has two public WeChat accounts with about 250,000 subscribers, according to Cheng. The accounts act as a news portal or blog page that app users follow.
Ng decided to not disseminate Seattle Chinese Post content on WeChat.
But despite challenges of adapting in the digital age, local news remains at the core of both media outlets.
Although some mainstream media in the U.S. publish in Mandarin, they do not concentrate as closely on what’s happening in the Chinese diaspora communities, Zou said. That’s what makes local-language media all the more important.
“Identity — this sense of belonging, this sense of rootedness — is a very important factor in their consumption of the media,” he said. “Identity politics is crucial to understanding why people want to consume Chinese media.”
And, as Ng says: “People are hungry for information and what’s going on in the community.”
Bo Gu contributed to this report.
Editor's note: The 10th paragraph of this article has been updated to clarify details of the Falun Gong movement.