An Interview with Sharon Ho Chang
October 15, 2021
Interview by Sarah Neilson, TSW staff
Sharon H. Chang knows her way around community journalism. She is the managing editor at the South Seattle Emerald, a digital news and culture publication run by and centering the BIPOC people and communities who live, work, create, and are experiencing displacement due to gentrification in the city’s Central District and South End. The Emerald is a beacon of thorough, complex, and vital reporting for the immediate area, as well as an example of how journalism can embrace multifaceted local stories that have regional, national, and even global importance.
In addition to editing the Emerald, Sharon is also a writer, artist, and documentarian with a lot of storytelling under her belt, including the publication of two nonfiction books — Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children in a Post-Racial World (Routledge, 2015) and the memoir Hapa Tales And Other Lies: A Mixed Race Memoir About the Hawai’i I Never Knew (self published in 2018) — both of which explore in academic and personal ways the experience of being mixed race. She is also a photographer and videographer, and is dedicated to documenting underrepresented and underreported stories of the people and places in her community in Seattle, her family and elders in Taiwan, and her own multiracial transnational experience.
Sharon spoke with Sarah Neilson over Zoom about her many, many journalism projects past and present; her experiences with feedback and creative inspiration over time; voting in her first Taiwan presidential election; and what Economies of Harm means to her.
Sarah Neilson: How did you get involved with the South Seattle Emerald, and what does the publication and your work there mean to you in the trajectory of your career?
Sharon H. Chang: I’m not sure of my origin story at the Emerald anymore, but I know that it had to do with community because I’ve been in community for a long time. I’m a longtime South End resident, was on the ground a lot participating in marches and protests or eventually photographing them, and just involved with different activities.
I published two books and I also started writing short form at the same time. I wrote for some national publications, did some journalism, some editorial, and part of that process was also writing for hyperlocal publications like the International Examiner, and eventually the South Seattle Emerald became part of that. I really dialed it back to hyperlocal writing. That’s just where my heart was. I didn’t feel like writing for national publications was necessarily as fulfilling, I really care about community work, community-based writing, community-based journalism, storytelling that’s based in lived experience and uplifting voices that we don’t hear too much. So that’s the best origin story I can give at the moment. I really want to say that it was Marcus [Harrison Green] who recruited me. I feel like most of us have that story.
Sarah: How long have you been there?
Sharon: I guess that first piece that I wrote for them was at least 2016, so five or six years, you know?
Sarah: When did you step into the managing editor role?
Sharon: Just last year, so it’s been almost exactly one full calendar year; it was September of 2020 that I stepped into this role. I was doing some freelance editing before that, and prior to that was a longtime community journalist and photojournalist with the Emerald.
Sarah: I want to ask you about your photography and your books too, but I also want to ask if there’s any short form story or journalism reporting that you are really proud of, that you really like, or that had some kind of impact you can remember, whether it’s for the Emerald or another publication?
Sharon: Oh my gosh, how do we answer questions like that? You know, you’re a writer, we write so much stuff. Some of the editorial stuff earlier on, when I was maybe a little angrier and younger and had something I needed to say about social justice, some of the stuff that went viral, which is always a mixed bag.
But that was impactful and it was important to know that as a woman of color, I could make statements about these injustices, and that if written in a way that was accessible to readers, it could be really compelling and could be read by a lot of different people. I guess to some extent, we all know that that pen can be powerful, but I think with digital technologies, things taking off that way was definitely an experience worth having. That is not my goal, but some of the editorials I wrote about racial justice, and I had some big opinions about Seattle’s pseudo-progressive Pacific Northwest liberalism, those were… I guess fun could be a word to describe it, but eye-opening experiences. Then there are things that I’ve written that are really community-driven, really about uplifting voices or issues that might not normally get tons of airplay that I’ve been really proud of. I got a couple grants to work on a women of color farming series [called Farming for Change] where I went and photographed and interviewed a ton of women of color and queer farmers of color and that was really cool. A couple of those articles went viral, but just working on a longer series like that was really great.
Sarah: I would like to hear more about the women of color and queer farming series if you want to talk about it. I also wanted to ask you about the COVID-19 Safety Not Stigma series. Could you tell us a little bit about those projects, how you conceived of them, and what impact you’ve seen them have?
Sharon: COVID-19 Safety Not Stigma was a visual portrait campaign rolled out primarily on social media, a project that I conceived of pretty early on in the pandemic when we were seeing a lot of racial bias specifically towards Asian Americans and African Americans wearing masks in public. When Americans and people who live in the US were still trying to get used to the idea of wearing masks, there was a lot of racial bias against specifically Black and Asian people for wearing masks.
So, I conceived this idea to create a portrait campaign of different community members – often a lot of them were pretty influential Asian American and African American folks – wearing masks to normalize the sight of Black and Asian people wearing masks, but also to humanize us. I definitely had friends who were dealing with racism in public, being discriminated against for wearing masks, Asian friends maybe even experiencing some threat of violence or actual violence, so it was really important to normalize and humanize us wearing these masks. There was always a portrait of the person in their mask; then I did posts that also included portraits of them with the mask off and some personalizing information, usually a quote and some information about who they were, because I think with the mask you can’t see people and you don’t really know who’s there sometimes. They all went together on social media and were published in the Emerald, also in the International Examiner.
With Farming for Change, that was started earlier, and unfortunately I didn’t finish all the things I wanted to finish because of COVID. But I had friends and I had heard of people through friends who were really getting into farming. It seemed like growing locally and growing sustainably and growing in a smaller format was a way that a lot of BIPOC folks and women of color were trying to reclaim their health, their well-being, and were resisting. Of course, feeding our bodies what we’ve grown ourselves – this is not a revolutionary idea, taking back control of our flesh and what we’re putting in our mouths. A lot of these folks were using farming in a really radical way to build community and be really innovative and creative, and I wanted to contribute to trying to help document that in our region, so I traveled around and talked to a bunch of different farmers. That was a really cool experience. I published at least three articles in the Emerald about some of those farmers.
Sarah: Have you had any feedback? What has the response been to some of your photojournalism campaigns?
Sharon: The Safety Not Stigma campaign got a really positive response. People were grateful to have some visual imagery, to have a more artistic approach to dealing with the bias. There were a lot of folks trying to address it in different ways, and I think approaching it from a creative and visual standpoint on a social media platform that could be shared widely – that was part of the concept, is I can put these photos out there and then they can be shared really widely on digital media. And if we’re trying to normalize the sight of an Asian person or Black person wearing a mask, what better way than to try to get these photos out there. I remember pretty unanimous appreciation for that campaign at the time. It’s interesting how much things have changed not necessarily for the better since then, but we’re definitely in a different place now. It was a wonderful way to capture a moment in time, even though it was a really tense time and there was so much conflict, to help remember what we’ve been through and what we continue to go through.
Sarah: Both of the books you’ve published – Raising Mixed Race and Hapa Tales – really dig into the nuance, or lack of nuance, in conversations about being mixed race. There’s a line in Hapa Tales that reads, “Being Mixed Race in a highly racialized, fissured, and fractured society is often about searching for where we belong. But belonging within division is complicated and painful…” Can you talk about that line?
Sharon: I think that’s still true. We live in a racially divided world where things are often organized by categories, by the way people look and by the way people perceive others to be based on the way they look.
When you are a person who doesn’t fit neatly into those categories or are ambiguous looking, it’s in a world that is so racially divided where there are very real consequences and impacts on people’s lives for those racial divisions. It’s complex to navigate, and I don’t want to play violin for myself, I have privileges to. Most mixed folks I meet are dealing with this to some extent. Like, how do I exist as a person across boundaries in a world that is defined by these boundaries? This is ongoing, I think. I was living abroad in Taiwan for last school year with my son because of COVID, and that was interesting. There were a lot of these similar issues that I faced there just being a person that wasn’t easily identifiable, there were a lot of questions constantly, so that remains true I guess. I like that quote. That’s a good point. I was like, “Oh, I wrote that?”
The other thing I will say is the US census is rolling out their results now from 2020 and it’s looking like the multiracial identified population has jumped enormously in the last decade. So these are questions we do need to look at. That data is complicated and needs to be disaggregated. We only just started letting people tick off multiple boxes. I think the conversation about now disaggregating that a little better is next level. It can get messy, it can get complex. The relevance of that quote still remains for me as far as the books go.
How do I exist as a person across boundaries in a world that is defined by these boundaries?
Sarah: How did you approach writing these two books, which are similar in topic but they range in terms of what they’re actually covering, and how did those writing experiences overlap or diverge from each other?
Sharon: The first one is more of an academic book. It was a research project that I started in graduate school. At the time, I just had my son and I thought as a mixed race person, and my partner’s also mixed race, that it would be really easy to raise a mixed kid. I realized pretty quickly I still didn’t have any answers.
I wasn’t sure what to say to my kid when I was looking around for kids’ books or adult books or movies or TV shows or toys that reflected our experience. I wasn’t finding much. I was like, “Oh no, I don’t know what to do. I’m going to go out into the field and interview other parents because they must know what to do.” So, I went out and started with a smaller group of interviewees. It was pretty fascinating. Wrote my graduate thesis and I thought, I have more. I think this could be a bigger project. I think this could be a book. Went out and interviewed more parents and then eventually turned that into a book that was published through Routledge. Mostly interviewed Seattle area parents of young mixed race children, asked them questions about how you’re going to raise your kids to have positive multiracial identity. At that time, I pretty much discovered most parents don’t know how to do that and don’t even know what that means quite frankly. That was 2016. Have we made more progress? I definitely see more materials, more people are writing books on these subjects; also I’m seeing more of a reflection of mixed-race children in movies, in shows, in kids’ books and all kinds of things. Definitely, the needle is shifting. I’m not sure which direction it’s going.
The second book that I wrote a couple years later, Hapa Tales, is more personal narrative. There’s still a lot of research because I love research. I’m a very research-driven writer, maybe that’s the journalist part of me, but there’s more of my story in it. In that book I wanted to unpack the way that I’ve been racialized my whole life which is usually by being told I’m Hawaiian, which I’m not. I’ve never lived there and I’m not from there. But it seemed like there was something that needed to be explored in that constant racialization. It was a tricky book to write because I’m not Hawaiian and yet I’m assigned Hawaiian identity all the time. So I had to be really thoughtful about approaching that subject in a way that still centered Native Hawaiian voices and Indigenous voices. I think the other reason I wanted to do that book in that way was because some of the feedback I got from the first book was that academic writing can sometimes feel really dense. Some folks found it was hard to get through all the theory. It’s a critical race theory book, right? I wanted to write something that was more pocket size and more like a page turner and more about storytelling. I also self-published it because I wanted to see what it was like to work outside of the really traditional mainstream publishing and that was a cool experience. Those are how those two books came to be.
Sarah: Has your relationship with those books changed over time since you’ve published them?
Sharon: I think most writers, artists, anybody feels that way about stuff they make at a certain stage of life, like, “I don’t know if I can look at that anymore.” But I’m grateful I wrote them. I haven’t dove back into either of them deeply yet.
With the first one, I was a young first-time mother and particularly concerned with early identity development for my child because I’m formerly an early educator and I really believed then, and still do, that pouring a really strong foundation in those first critical learning years is key to developing all kinds of positive identity later in life. Now my son just started sixth grade, and identity is a whole different ballgame for a middle schooler. It’s fun and interesting and fascinating to reflect on how us doing that work early on, and him doing that work on his own now, manifests as a tween. I wouldn’t have been able to see how that would play out when I was younger. It’s really cool. I’m here to vouch for the value of doing that, my son can talk about himself and his identity and things in a way I certainly never could at his age.
Hapa Tales is interesting. I’m still fairly close to that book and trying to navigate a bunch of stuff and unpack a lot of stuff. That’s an ongoing story; it was almost like I was stepping closer to Taiwan. I spent the last year abroad in Taiwan with my son, doing a lot more identity exploration, and realized I learned a lot about Taiwan from writing about Hawaii because the analysis we use for understanding race and colonialism in the “mainland” doesn’t really work for island nations and communities and cultures. What I learned from Indigenous Hawaiians and Native Hawaiians about how to think about island communities and island nations that have been taken over by successive colonizers really helped me start to understand the history of my family in Taiwan, and that is ongoing. I don’t know if this is confirmed, but I think there are very strong theories now connecting Native Hawaiians to Taiwan. Interestingly, it is thought that Indigenous folks from Taiwan were maybe the first ones who made their way to Hawaii. That felt even more intense when I learned that.
I learned a lot about Taiwan from writing about Hawaii because the analysis we use for understanding race and colonialism in the “mainland” doesn’t really work for island nations and communities and cultures.
Sarah: I read on your website that you’re working on a memoir about that.
Sharon: I hope. I started a few times. It’s a little tricky to figure out how to write about that, but that is my pie in the sky dream.
Sarah: Related to that, do you want to say anything about the Taiwanese Daughter video project and what it’s been like to learn more about your family and your family’s history in Taiwan, and Taiwan’s transition to democracy? You just voted in your first Taiwan presidential election, right?
Sharon: Last January before COVID got really bad, I had this very strong instinct that I wanted to go vote in Taiwan’s presidential election. I’m a dual citizen so I can do that. I’ve never voted in Taiwan before. We have the same presidential election cycle in the US as Taiwan, but they vote in January where we vote in November here in the US.
My dad grew up during what’s called the White Terror Báisè Kǒngbù in Taiwan, which is the second longest martial law period in world history and pretty much his entire young life was earmarked by this martial law period. He was never allowed to vote for president under martial law and tons of Taiwanese people died for that right. So, it was really important to him and my elders to always vote in the election when they could, and I realized that I was probably taking that for granted. I was like, Okay, I need to go do this at least once. I need to show some respect and also appreciate, like we do in the US, appreciate this right for which so many people fought and died. And also, the incumbent was running again, who’s a woman, Tsai Ing-wen, and well, I haven’t gotten the chance to vote for a woman here, but I voted for her there and then got to see her win, which I haven’t gotten to see yet in my lifetime in US so that was really important.
I only went for like 10 days, but I got it in my head that I was going to go video and film as many of my elders as I could about our family and our history. My dad was amazing, he was my ambassador, because most people in Taiwan are multilingual so there were a lot of languages that I couldn’t speak. Some of these interviews were in English, some were in Mandarin, some were in Taiwanese, some had a little Japanese sprinkled in there. I have all that footage. I was able to put together one video so far. But I hope to put together a lot more about that really unique time in history, that transition period when Taiwan went from being a country who had been ruled by successive colonizers for many, many, many years to transitioning suddenly to a democracy which is still pretty new. That’s what I collected in January and then the world fell apart so I’m still playing catch up.
Sarah: What draws you to the type of storytelling you do in journalism, writing, photography, and documentation generally? What’s your storytelling origin story?
Sharon: Maybe it’s a little cliché, maybe a lot of folks of color would say something like this, but I really do think it just comes from growing up and never seeing stories that felt like they reflected my experience, or never getting to interact with stories that I felt like I could relate to… just looking around and feeling like there was so much missing, number one. Number two, knowing personally and also seeing around me that a lot of people’s voices weren’t getting heard. It’s not only my story that needs to be told. There are ways we can help lift up other people’s stories.
For example, like my father, who is an immigrant: folks who are maybe not going to be that comfortable writing their story in English. There is a way that someone else just needs to step in to support that person. There are times where it is really inappropriate to be talking for somebody else or telling somebody else’s story, and there are also times where it needs to take a village to tell that story. Some of it they’re going to tell on their own in their own way, and some of it maybe needs to be amplified by others in respectful, authentic ways. Also, being a multicultural mixed race, maybe even transnational person, seeing that there’s such a lack of nuance in the way we talk about things in this country and really wanting to complicate that more, ask some tough questions, maybe even some controversial or upsetting questions.
There are times where it is really inappropriate to be talking for somebody else or telling somebody else’s story, and there are also times where it needs to take a village to tell that story.
Sarah: Lastly, the theme of this issue of TSW is Economies of Harm. As an editorial team we’ve been talking about this theme as an exploration of capitalism’s expectations of time and the matrix of values we hold both as individuals and societies. From an outside perspective, it seems like so much of your work is about dismantling capitalist, imperialist harm and building and nurturing more humane values systems, but I’m curious about your thoughts on this. What does the phrase “Economies of Harm” bring up for you, what does it make you think of? How would you characterize your work within that framework?
Sharon: I definitely saw the word “economy” and thought of capitalism. I could not get away from that. I kept thinking about imperialist capitalism. It’s not only about money, but the ways that dictate so many values about, as you say, the ways we use our time, the ways we’re expected to produce certain things in certain ways, and how that is often harmful for those of us who this system is not designed to serve. Because our oppression serves people who have the power.
My work is a lot about storytelling – telling my own stories, trying to support and uplift the stories of others, usually as the stories that we’re not hearing. It’s about rewriting narratives, counter-narrating, and undoing a lot of those expectations. A lot of the stories I like to tell and that I’m trying to support and uplift are about resilience and reclaiming a voice, identity, life, well-being, all the things that our current social structures really take away from us. I’m thinking as we’re talking about burnout culture and overworking ourselves. Earlier in my career, I always got asked to do things for free. Just learning to say no to that and learning to value my work and stand tall and proud and say, I have a strong voice. I have experience. I have skills. Look at all this. Look at this body of work that I just did out of love, a lot of times. Undoing personal harm and systems of harm. I think storytelling is really powerful for that. I can’t even take any credit. I’ve heard women of color say that over and over. Once we can start changing those narratives and altering the story we tell about society and ourselves, then we start shifting the way we think about interacting with each other and the ways that we care about each other.
Once we can start changing those narratives and altering the story we tell about society and ourselves, then we start shifting the way we think about interacting with each other and the ways that we care about each other.