Last reviewed: June 2017
American writer, teacher, and anthologist
In the middle of the 1970s Shawn Wong made two major decisions; to begin the Before Columbus Foundation and to remove himself from his California roots and form his future along the misty shores of Puget Sound, near the University of Washington. The Before Columbus Foundation, a group cofounded by Wong to develop multicultural literature, grew with the guidance and care of its lettered professionals. Wong and his group would later publish two anthologies, The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology and The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology. These publications honored the authors who had won the American Book Awards held by the Foundation beginning in 1980. Wong’s Foundation was a success; his reputation for boldness and creativity grew.
He sympathized with the Asian American youth in the San Francisco Bay area (the locale of Wong’s youth) who were searching for an identity. Wong grew intensely aware of his need to learn of his past to affirm his future. He attended San Francisco State University after graduating from high school across the bay in Berkeley. After two inspirational years, he returned to the Berkeley campus of the University of California to attain his B.A. in English. Three years later, in 1974, he earned his master’s degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. The same year, he published the anthology of Asian American literature Aiiieeeee!, coedited with Frank Chin; the cover caricature of a screaming yellow man, the stereotypical Asian, offered Wong an icon for Asian American silence. Wong’s followed his first anthology with another, The Big Aiiieeeee!, despite criticism that the book was a political weapon against the Asian writers who sold out with fake stories, manufactured cultural misrepresentations, and fairy tales. With several anthologies to his editorial credit, Wong has been highly influential in publicizing and promoting writing by artists—not only Asian American—who might otherwise be overlooked, as well as honoring established icons of American literature such as Allen Ginsberg. Shawn Hsu Wong.
Shawn Hsu Wong.
Wong began his own writing career editing a monthly Methodist church newsletter while in college. He taught creative writing, became an assistant stage manager, directed Frank Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman (pr. 1972), and developed an interest in race cars. He began lecturing on media stereotyping of Asian American identity; Wong’s intellectual approach to the Chinese American and Japanese American social position gave him unique control of his media and audience.
In 1979, Wong began publishing his own work as well as that of others. Homebase was only the third Chinese American novel to be published in the United States, preceded by Diana Chang’s The Frontiers of Love (1956) and Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961). Homebase, written just as Wong had settled in Seattle, defines the American homebase of four generations of a Chinese American family. In his continuing attempt to define the ethnic American experience, the author educates his readers about the subtle stereotypes presented in the media. Homebase portrays the episodic life of Rainsford Chan as he comes of age in the 1950s, removed from his past by a society that does not recognize his past, his culture, or his values.
In Wong’s next novel, American Knees, children taunt a boy, wanting to know if he is Chinese, Japanese, or “American knees.” The author begs the reader to view and accept the cultural image of a new Asian man. Wong explores cultural dilemmas of identity, tradition, and even philosophy—the ironies of ethnic existence in a foreign world. The protagonist, Raymond Ding, is a Chinese American whose insistence on finding some kind of authentic Asian identity in his romantic partners inevitably sabotages the relationships as one partner or the other becomes obsessed with which one is the more “authentically” Asian. Eric Byler adapted Wong’s novel for a 2006 film, Americanese, which Byler also directed.
In 1984, Wong began teaching in the American Ethnic Studies program at the University of Washington, where he has also taught creative writing and served as the chair of the English department. His steadfast mission is to expose cultural stereotypes, to develop creative outlets for expressing multicultural voices, and to assimilate Asian American identities into the American culture without losing the thrill of the homeland.