April 15, 2021
By Ben Fong-Torres
Friends, Strangers Respond to ‘The Year of the Rat’
When I posted my piece about why, as an older Asian American, I’m nervous just walking on the street these days, I expected a mixed reaction. Especially since I told about getting less than friendly stares from some Black people at a restaurant early in the pandemic, in February, 2020. But I was wrong. My article, published on Medium, AsianConnections.com, and my Facebook page, drew more than 100 comments on Facebook alone, from strangers and friends, including classmates from Oakland High, fellow staffers at SF State’s daily paper, where I was a reporter, then editor; fellow Rolling Stone and KSAN employees, broadcasters, and musical pals, including Naomi Eisenberg, singer-fiddler with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.
(L) Photo Credit: Dianne Fong-Torres
Here’s a sample of the thoughtful, heartfelt, even emotional comments, just ever-so-slightly edited.
Cheryl Serame-Turk: Wow, Ben. Well said. As an Asian American myself, I always thought that my affiliations (glide memorial ensemble, Oakland music community, Silicon Valley tech community) would shield me from most “other” perceptions but this Covid situation is something else altogether.
I now tread carefully which I never have. No matter the age, walking, driving, biking while Asian right now can put you in danger. Never have experienced that in my life. I’m Filipino...
By Ben Fong-Torres
The Year of the Rat
Being an older Chinese American, I am no longer, as Roy Orbison sang, “Running Scared.” I am walking scared, constantly looking around and behind me.
Stop AAPI Hate, the advocacy group, knows of nearly 4,000 cases of violence against Asian Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s time to stop the beatings and shootings, the blaming and finger-pointing.
For me, it’s also time to think back just over a year ago.
It was February, a few days before the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco. 2020. Word of the coronavirus had started to spread, as we awaited the Year of the Rat.
I was in Oakland for script readings at KTVU, which broadcasts the parade, and has had me as a co-anchor since 1997.
At our meetings, which take place around lunch time, we are offered deli sandwiches one day; tepid ravioli and salads the next. It’s enough to drive one to actual restaurants.
That’s how I found myself at a soul food place in Jack London Square.
It wasn’t busy when I entered, around 2 p.m. A couple of parties were there. They were Black, as were the staff. But when one of the customers saw me, I got a most unfriendly glare. It felt like a “What are you doing here?” look.
I tried to shrug it off. But then, as I waited for a waiter, I had a thought. At the meeting earlier at KTVU, we’d addressed the issue of the coronavirus,...
The Year of Sheltering Dangerously
By Ben Fong-Torres
Well, hasn’t THIS been a fun 365?
As we approached the anniversary of the shelter-in-place orders for the San Francisco Bay Area, on March 16, I thought of some of the changes we’ve been through.
In February, our calendar was packed with restaurant dinners and a large, loud gathering at Harbor Villa, saluting our friend, the civil rights attorney Dale Minami.
And there was my 24th time as co-anchor of the Chinese New Year Parade, on KTVU. The Year of the Rat. Indeed.
Early in March, we had more restaurant get-togethers, including dinner at the House of Prime Rib (almost as hard to get into as Hamilton) and a family luncheon for Chinese New Year at the stellar dim sum restaurant, Yank Sing. One evening, I went to the dive bar, El Rio, for the monthly jam staged by Los Train Wreck, and did my usual, a parody of a Dylan classic, “Rainy Day Women 12+35,” with lyrics I ripped from the headlines:
They’ll stone you when you come to see the band
And make mistakes, like shaking people’s hands
Los Train Wreck’s easy going, and all they ask:
Is when you’re talking with them, use a mask
And you will not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned!
On March 13th, I went to the Record Plant, the fabled studio in Sausalito, to be interviewed for a documentary about the Plant.
Just three days later, on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, this most festive of towns was...
Fears for Tears: Turning a Memoir into an Audiobook
By Ben Fong-Torres
“In the funny parts, laugh. In the sad parts, go ahead and cry.”
That was advice I got, on the eve of my recording sessions for an audiobook version of my memoirs, The Rice Room, from Susie Bright.
Susie is a producer and personality at Audible, the leading producer of audiobooks, and she’s done her share of laughing and crying.
So when Audible contracted me to turn two of my books – Willin’, about the band Little Feat, and The Rice Room– she was on the case.
I’d never recorded a book before. Public speaking? Sure. Radio DJ? That’s moi. Voice work for radio and TV shows? No problemo.
But audiobooks are a whole ‘nother world. First, it’s long-form. A radio DJ show is a bunch of bits; a radio or TV program, or a podcast, involves segments that might add up to an hour.
A book? Think ten hours. And, as I learned, it takes about double that time to record enough, after editing, to get those ten hours.
The editing is immediate, with a director, Jesse, listening and directing by Zoom from Los Angeles. Also listening is Miik, the engineer, who’s in a control room, across from me. I’m in a small announcer’s booth (which seems only right, since I’m a small announcer).
While I’m reading, off an iPad on a music stand, the two men catch every error, every stumble, every extraneous noise, whether it’s foot...
Ben Fong Torres
February 22, 2020
Last year, just about this time, I lost my Radio Waves column, soon after the San Francisco Chronicle brought in a new arts and entertainment editor. I’d been writing it every other Sunday for 15 years (plus another three-year stretch earlier on, before I took a break to publish a couple of books).
He gave me a reason that made no sense. Radio Waves wasn’t getting enough clicks on the digital side. But the Chronicle never featured the column on its sites. Readers had to search my name, or drill through the TV and movies windows to, with luck, find Radio Waves.
My readers found me the old-fashioned way, but like so many major papers, the Chronicle is going new-fashioned, trying to drive readers online, where the advertisers are.
The new editor was open to my doing pieces on media in general; on music; on my life and times in music and broadcasting. I thought that would make for a decent column. But he asked me to pitch him for every article.
I had no interest in becoming a freelancer, especially given the paltry fees doled out to non-staffers. Fifteen years of being underpaid was quite enough.
I moved on, accepting a consulting gig with the Music City Hit Factory, a hub for musicians and fans, encompassing, in one building, a hostel, a music school, a suite of rehearsal spaces and recording studios, performance spaces and cafes, and, throughout, exhibits celebrating the history of San...