Sewell Chan is the editor of the editorial pages at the Los Angeles Times. Before moderating a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute event, “Does a New Wave of Anti-Asian American Racism Require New Ways of Fighting Back?,” Chan stopped by the virtual green room to talk about how the Los Angeles Central Library has been a source of inspiration in COVID, why he loves the No. 2 bus, and whether Queens is the San Gabriel Valley of New York City.
You’re originally from Queens. What’s your favorite spot in the borough that people might not know about?
One is the Voelker Orth house, which is this 19th-century historic house in Murray Hill. It’s very, very cool because it is a reminder of how old Queens is, and connects the experiences of late 19th-century German immigrants to those of their modern-day Asian, Arab and Latino counterparts, who continue to make Flushing such a fascinating community.
The second is the Louis Armstrong House [in Corona], a neighborhood that’s been very hard to hit by the virus. But the house is really amazing. Armstrong really considered Corona his home, and he really loved it there.
The last one I’ll say is the John Bowne House, which is a 17th-century site relating to John Bowne, who was essential in the so-called Flushing Remonstrance, which is a 17th-century document from the Dutch era that helped establish the principle of religious freedom and respect for religious pluralism, and freedom of worship in America.
Did you go to these places as a kid, or later on?
Later. As a kid I was doing kid things. I went to places like the Central Library in Jamaica. I spent a lot of time there. It’s really an amazing collection. A lot of stuff on Queens’ history. For me, Queens is really about the diversity of neighborhoods there. I sometimes joke that it's the San Gabriel Valley of New York City.
The older I’ve gotten, the more I feel sentimental about Queens. I want to make sure Queens doesn’t have a bad rep. There’s a very famous Queens native who’s in the news a lot these days, and I want to make sure that he’s not our sole image of what Queens is all about.
You mentioned the Central Library in Jamaica. What is your favorite public library?
Well, I live literally next to the Los Angeles Central Library. In fact, I can see it from my writing desk—the desk where I do all my Zoom calls and all my work and honestly, you know, that 1926 Bertram Goodhue edifice really has kept me going these last seven months. It’s sustained me. It’s closed, of course, which is very sad. But being able to look up from my computer and see this majestic building, which obviously survived the tragic fire in the ’80s and was rebuilt. In a city that sometimes can feel a little bit rootless, it’s been something to literally look up to and feel inspired about. And I can’t wait until I can physically reenter.
Your dad was a cab driver in New York. What is your best cab story?
My father didn’t tell a lot of stories. His command of English is limited, so I don’t think he interpreted driving as being kind of an anthropological experience. But once in ninth grade, I actually ran into my dad while I was waiting for a bus in midtown Manhattan. Being the son of a cab driver, I always knew to look at the very top of a cab and the side where it has the medallion number. It’s one letter, one digit, and then two more numbers. So I was in midtown, and I saw a cab pull over, and I noticed that it was the medallion number 3F76, which was my dad’s, and I was just really delighted to run into him. How rare is that? Now he had a passenger or a customer in the back. So he certainly was not going to do anything more than just say hello, and he had to continue going out his way. But in a city of 9 million it’s very, very cool to run into someone so serendipitously.
At one point, you were the international news editor in the London office of the New York Times. What’s the best Britishism you picked up there?
I love all the different words because you learn so much about how the vocabulary is slightly different—especially in areas around babies. A pram instead of a stroller. A nappy instead of a diaper. A dummy instead of a pacifier…
You’re known for your prolific pen. At one point you had 422 bylines in one year as the city hall reporter for the New York Times. Where do you get your energy?
Oh gosh, well it’s certainly fading as I get older. But I think the energy really comes from the people around me. Having fantastic colleagues at the Los Angeles Times, which has been my primary source of inspiration at work. Secondly, hearing from and engaging with readers, which is always really, really, really fun. And third, the chance to be a journalist, ask questions, to be curious, to read books and to get paid for all that along with, you know, some writing, editing, and managing. It’s really a privilege and a blessing. And I recognize that it’s one that in some ways is increasingly rare. And I think that inspires me to think about setting journalism on a more sustainable path, so that there can be such opportunities for others.
Speaking of that, the Los Angeles Times just published its own reckoning on racism. What's one thing that you're thinking of following this internal look at where the L.A, Times was to create more sustainable path forward?
I'm thinking about how institutions have histories. As journalists we’re taught to think about, hey, what's going on today, what’ve you got coming? And that immediacy is part of what makes journalism so energetic and fun and timely and relevant. But our readers have longer memories. So if we abused our power, or if we are not careful, or make errors or are sloppy or are disrespectful, or are slanted, that leaves a giant impression with readers. For example, the endorsement of Gov. Pete Wilson for re-election in 1994 at a time of great division over immigration—sound familiar?—that left a big imprint in the memories of our audience.
This is a time when we have to really think about rebuilding trust in the media. And I think part of that can come about if we're introspective about where we've been. If anything, I just wish we had had more space. We were obviously trying to do this at a length that would still be digestible, but so much more can be written about the Los Angeles Times, about Los Angeles media in general and its relationship with communities. There are many, many communities where we really have not had a chance to dive deeply or to excavate those histories. But I'm hoping that this project might inspire others to do so. Because it's only by understanding the mistakes of the past that we can hopefully create a better future.
Do you have a journalism hero of your own?
Quite a few. This year especially we've all been thinking about some of the journalists of color who’ve most inspired us, they include Ida B. Wells-Barnett, famous for her anti-lynching activism and her investigative journalism. And it’s great to see her name now being used for Nikole Hannah-Jones’s organization to support more investigative journalism by people of color. I would add, of course, Ruben Salazar, whose history in Los Angeles is widely known, but who I think is getting more broad recognition nationally as a pioneering Chicano journalist. I’d also add a guy named Stan Chen, who was a mentor to me, starting when I was a teenager trying to get into this field, and really one of the parents of the Asian American Journalists Association. His passion for mentoring and in nurturing a young journalist really left a big impression on me, and I miss him very greatly.
Do you have a favorite memory of him?
Well, he was just very funny. I can only imagine how irritating I was as an enthusiastic young journalist. I met him at an AAJA conference in Honolulu, of all places, where I was working on a student journalism project. And I just remember that he had a terrific sense of humor. He had that combination of warmth and encouragement that is so much needed. He really understood the value of mentorship. He didn’t do it with a heavy hand. He just showed you that he saw you as a person, and that he cared about your work, and was excited that you were going to go into journalism. And that infectious energy, the humor, the big laugh, all of that has stayed with me these past 25 years.
A pressing question for you from the Zócalo team: Is punctuality overrated or underrated?
Underrated. It’s really important, and as someone who often arrives late, I recognize the importance of showing up on time, and I appreciate that reminder from my good friend, Joe Mathews.
What would you say is the biggest difference between being meeting new people in New York City and in L.A.?
Well, I would just say that here, I think owning a car is a kind of a prerequisite to having any chance to meet new people. So it took me a while to accept that, but I have finally have thrown in the towel, and I’m the owner of a car for the first time ever.
That said, you’re still a huge public transportation person. Last question: What's your favorite bus line in L.A.?
The No. 2. I love the rapid buses, but I think that there’s something about these workhorse bus lines that go east to west and traverse so many different neighborhoods, such stunning varieties of the human experience. The 2 for sure. And I highly recommend Frank Shyong's column about the 2 because it was really a terrific tribute.