Renaissance man Ben Fong-Torres remembers Loni Ding, filmmaker & activist, & Barry, his late brother.
Loni Ding got a wonderful sendoff the other day in San Francisco. It was a brilliant, beautiful day, perfect for a celebration of a beloved pioneer filmmaker and community activist.
An old calendar of mine tells me that I had dinner one evening in 1968 with Loni. That would be when I was doing a little work for East-West, the bilingual weekly in Chinatown, and Loni, a native of the neighborhood, worked with youth groups, many of whom were looked on with suspicion by the establishment.
The next thing I knew, I was at Rolling Stone, and she was making documentaries, always with an eye on people she thought were under- or misrepresented in American media. Her documentaries included Nisei Soldier and The Color of Honor: The Japanese-American Soldier in World War II.
Since no one can make a living doing documentaries, Loni was also a pioneer teacher in the Ethnic Studies department at U.C. Berkeley. She was also a vital part of the creation of NAATA, now known as the Center for Asian American Media. She produced the Ancestors in the Americas series, broadcast on PBS in 1996 and followed by Chinese in the Frontier West.
In short, she was something.
And a packed room at the Green Street Mortuary in North Beach – actually, the crowd spilled into the aisles and outside the chapel – let her know it. Judge Julie Tang presided, and a parade of family and friends extolled her to the heavens. Her husband, David Welsh, a singer, told about her upbringing in Chinatown and in the Mission District, where her parents had opened a second herb store. Later, he joined the Freedom Song Network in joyous songs, some of the lyrics rewritten for Loni, who died February 20 at age 78.
Loni, we were reminded, was a filmmaker, but never thought of herself as an artist. She kept the focus on her subjects, and on the work she felt needed to be done. As she once asked, What is history when the reporter does not record and the camera does not see?
She saw. L. Ling-chi Wang, the esteemed Asian American professor and historian, was in China, but his wife Linda read his eulogy, saying, in part, Her life and her works are powerful testimonies to what media are all about and how they should be used to liberate and enlighten people in a fight for racial equality and economic justice. There is no greater tribute we can pay her than to follow her example and carry her torch.
After the service, mourners followed Loni through parts of her beloved Chinatown, past her birthplace and her family’s original herb shop. She was accompanied by a brass band—and by many, many friends.
A few days later, I was at another celebration. This one was for the 40th anniversary of the Community Youth Center. Until recently, it was the Chinatown Youth Center. And, in 1972, when it was still the Chinatown North Beach Youth service and Coordinating Center, it was where my brother, Barry, served as the executive director, until he was murdered in June. His killing, police believed, was connected to Chinatown gangs.
Today, a plaque in the lobby of the CYC offices honors his memory. What honors him even more is what the CYC has accomplished over the years, evolving to provide a wide range of services that deal with delinquency, unemployment, health and behavioral problems, violence prevention, financial counseling, and more.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the CYC and some 300 supporters gathered at the Westin St. Francis to celebrate its achievements, and to honor various youth who had earned special awards. I was happy to serve as MC for the evening. There was plentiful food, from about 15 restaurants, led by chef Chris Yeo of the Straits Restaurants, and entertainment, ranging from CYC’s own lion and ribbon dancers to glo-light and hip-hop troupes. There were a couple of beauty queens, decked out in their tiaras and evening gowns, greeting the crowd.
But the CYC’s executive director, Sarah Wan, and board chair, Jaynry Mak, were equally gorgeous, handing out awards and reminding the audience of our common goal – as Sarah put it, to motivate youth to succeed so they can reach their highest potential.
AsianConnections columnist Ben Fong-Torres is a true Renaissance man. The former Rolling Stone writer and editor is also an Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, writes the radio column in the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of eight books, including The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese American.
Related: Loni Ding Remembered