Documentary of America’s First Asian American Music Editor, Ben Fong-Torres
“You never really do escape the full circle of life.”Ben Fong-Torres, America’s First Chinese American Music Editor.
This man, with an ethnic last name, is held in reverence by some of the most influential names in rock and roll. Elton John. Ray Charles. Marvin Gaye. Sir Paul McCartney.
Ben Fong-Torres is the son of a working class Chinese immigrant family, born in Oakland and raised around his father’s restaurant.
What would he grow up to be?
America’s first Chinese American music editor, working for Rolling Stone Magazine since its eighth issue, published in 1968, playing a significant role in crafting its musical identity, in a time where music was a force to enact cultural change.
He is an Asian American who sat across the table from Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles. Speaking about the intersection between music and race relations, he wrote their stories for the magazine cover.
As Asian Americans question our place in the second part of that word – American – there was someone like us who had a hand in shaping the cultural zeitgeist over half a century ago through music – and that is why filmmaker Suzanne Joe Kai wants you to know his name and his story.
Telling the story of America’s First Asian American Music Editor
Like A Rolling Stone is Kai’s feature documentary, telling the story of a man who shaped music journalism and pop culture.
In addition to being a documentary filmmaker, Kai is a prominent journalist herself. In fact, she was one of the first Asian American journalists to appear on-screen on mainstream broadcast media.
She came from a family of activists. “I grew up in Berkeley, and as a child I saw picketing as a ‘normal’ activity,” Kai tells us.
The people around her were the same. “My older cousin was the third student arrested during UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, and my uncle, a Judge, was bailing students out in the middle of night.”
This same uncle provided useful advice for her media career that fueled the fire in her to tell break barriers and represent the under-represented in her stories. She recalls him advising her: “go into industries where there have been no Asian Americans or women before.”
The Making of the Documentary
Developed over 10 years ago, Like A Rolling Stone is Kai’s labor of love. It is star-studded and intimate, like jamming with an old friend. Making the rounds in the film festival circuit including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the documentary reflects the same intersection of race and music.
Snippets of Fong-Torres’ interviews with music icons interspersed his personal history and contributions to the Asian American community. We hear audio from interviews this Chinese American had with music legends through his career as the music editor for Rolling Stone. Elton John and Steve Martin appear on-screen to recount Ben’s legacy.
Kai creates the documentary with the younger generation in mind as she saw there was an eagerness to learn about the Asian American civil rights movements in the 1960s to early 70s. And Fong-Torres was in the very midst of it along with the civil rights leaders of the time.
Kai took care to interview these leaders for the documentary. The only documentation of them was non-digitized records at the University of California, Berkeley ethnic studies department.
“Some pages were so fragile, the edges were beginning to fall apart. I had this sinking feeling that history was going to be lost soon by people handling those very brittle pages,” Kai said.
We spoke to Fong-Torres through a video conference with records wonderfully displayed in the background. While Fong-Torres appreciates the gravity of his role in music history, he is humble about his role as one of the most pivotal figures in America’s music history.
“Not only was Ben the first editor in charge of music coverage at Rolling Stone magazine, helping to shape American culture, he broke the colour barrier as America’s first editor at a national magazine of Chinese American descent,” Kai said.
Growing Up as an Asian American
Fong-Torres’ father, Ricardo (born Fong Kwok Seung) immigrated from China to the US using a Filipino birth certificate, adopting the last name Torres to subvert the Chinese Exclusion Act. An immigrant must, at times, do what must be done to survive.
His father worked as a dishwasher, a cook, and a restaurant owner. First in Oakland, then in Amarillo, Texas, and then back to Oakland. Only 12 year old Ben went with him to Texas, with the rest of the family staying in Oakland until the two returned a year later.
Flash forward to today. Some of our readers, with parents who immigrated to the U.S., may find their story mirror Fong-Torres’.
Fong-Torres worked at his father’s restaurant growing up. At school, at times he felt like the “other”, embarrassed at the things that made him Chinese, and felt the sting of racial names.
It may comforting but distressing to hear his story replayed with a similar beat 50 years later.
The fact that Fong-Torres’ story has been lost for all those years has an immense impact and is what drove Kai to develop the documentary, especially for future generations who may not have known his story.
Kai began the documentary with the idea of making it a fun film but quickly came to the realization that it is a much more profound story. Telling the story achieves a crucial mission of inspiring the next generation.
“This shocking lapse affects a lot – including our American, California, San Francisco, music, journalism, cultural, and ethnic histories. It affects current and future generations, in a world of too few inspiring role models… Now, more than 50 years later, we find ourselves still facing the same challenges today,” said the filmmaker.
While we count ourselves lucky now to have a few more Asian American role models to inspire us, Fong-Torres grew up in a different time. He sought inspiration where most of us do now – through music. “When I was peeling prawns and wrapping wontons at the back table. The little radio was on there and it just kind of calmed me down.”
Living in America as an Asian American
The documentary touches upon the oddity of the Asian American music editor’s last name, Fong-Torres, and the confusion it may bring. It is worthy to note that when it comes to artist interviewees, they just knew him as Ben – a thoughtful interviewer with a passion for music.
Fong-Torres found that music at the time was an expression of individuality, of “otherness”, and he found that as the great equalizer.
Fong-Torres asserts that being Asian did not have a major impact on his role as a Rolling Stone editor. “I did not think so much, oh wow I’m the first Chinese guy to be in a national magazine. My thing was always work related. Always the responsibility that came directly from my parents.”
But the Chinese American music editor does know that the “otherness” he felt as a child and the work ethic instilled in him by his working class immigrant parents, played an integral part in his work as an interviewer.
He listened carefully and his shared “otherness” gave him an empathetic ear tuned to the notes of his interviewees.
The idea of family sacrifice played a part too. He would hear stories about what it was like back in China, what it took the family to get to America, and their responsibility to the ones still at their village.
It made him more sensitive to other people; at high school parties Fong-Torres found himself asking people questions and never talking about himself.
Fong-Torres narrates in the documentary, “I kept notes on people’s affairs and events and news, and that would probably led to the choice to be a writer of other people’s stories.”
Being a role model for young Asian Americans
Fong-Torres should be idolized as a shining beacon of Asian American representation in the media. An unique force of nature, a hero figure, the first music editor of Rolling Stone. America’s first Chinese American music editor. All accurate descriptors.
Part of Kai’s goal for the documentary is to tell his story to a generation of Asian Americans looking for role models. “With signs of change for more diversity, equality and inclusion in our world, I hope my documentary will entertain – and in entertaining – will educate audiences from all backgrounds to Ben.”
But the danger of idolization is that we start putting this separation that Fong-Torres is cut from such a different cloth that we may never achieve what he has achieved.
In the sections interspersed between his interviews with Marvin Gaye, we can see someone who is just like us, just from a different time.
“They [Fong-Torres’ parents] made it so tough for us to have any semblance of a social life and yet at the same time they were pounding at us to get straight A’s,” Fong-Torres describes his childhood more than 50 years ago. But this can easily be your friend complaining last week.
He would lament that he has to work at the family restaurant after school. “Oh, and while you’re getting straight A’s, we need you here every day to be the waiter and waitress, the busboy and busgirl, and the dishwasher.”
All the while, he’s trying to fit in at school. When he moved to Texas with his family in 1958 at age 12, he gravitated towards music to help him connect with his classmates. For him, it was Elvis; for us, it could have been Sum 41 or Good Charlotte that we found connection to others.
“The passport to cool-dom in 1957 was rock ‘n’ roll,” Fong-Torres said in the documentary. “Rock ‘n’ roll was the equalizer.”
The Circle of Life
Fong-Torres speaks about the cyclical nature of life at multiple moments in Like A Rolling Stone. It has come full circle that our childhood echoes the childhood of the future Rolling Stone editor 50 years ago.
We lamented at the high standards by our immigrant parents. Then, we resented that we had to give up our social lives for familial responsibilities. Of course, we tried to find our tribe through music because we felt a bit different.
“I hear the same thing with younger people today. They like to just not be Asian American. Can’t we just be Americans? Younger people today are embarrassed sometimes by their parents, or by rituals, by customs. By being expected to go to grandmother’s house or go to a temple and pay respects. And they are just, ‘Oh man, you know, this is, that ain’t me, man,’” Fong-Torres said.
Then much later, we relooked at our own childhood with a different set of eyes.
“And ultimately you come around and say, yeah, that’s me, man. and I’m proud of it.”
Room for Everyone
As we wrapped up the conversation, we discussed music. The boy that found the jukebox as the great equalizer is hopeful for music diversity and representation.
“It’s no longer what it was like in radio days when it was all in the hands of music programmers who follow corporate lines by programming to the largest demographic possible. Now there is much more categorization of music. So in the end, there’s a large audience for all those categories and you don’t have to be trying to reach the entire spectrum of music,” Fong-Torres said.
If you are curious about what a pioneer of music culture listens to, Fong-Torres is a DJ for Moonalice Radio where they play what they love. He is not up to date with current music, but Bruno Mars is one of his favourites, as is Bruno Mars’ collaboration with Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic.
Though he might not listen to them, he’s aware that one of the top female artists right now is Filipina (Olivia Rodrigo) and that one of the biggest boy bands in the world is Korean (BTS).
“There’s enough room for everybody, of… hopefully, every colour and persuasion.”
Kai would add that not only in the music business, but the media business has room for everyone. Her advice is simple, “I would say answer that phone! I answered a phone call and it was an Asian American activist group asking me if I would cross their picket lines at KCBS Radio News in San Francisco and go in and ask for a job.”
At the time, there were no people of colour in newsrooms and few women. But Kai answered that phone.
“That single phone call changed everything and introduced me to the world of news media.”
Advice from Asian American to Asian American
Fong-Torres is now 76 years old. When we reach that milestone, maybe we will also come to the realization that he had.
“Just put yourself in your parent’s shoes and understand what they’ve gone through for you, and have a little appreciation. And all they’re asking for is an hour of your time, once a year. They’ve given you so much, they’ve spent endless hours working on your behalf, thinking about you, praying for you, having dreams for you. And so for you to be respectful and listen when they tell stories. When they tell stories about the village or about their ancestors, accept it. You’re going to really, really want to know more as time goes on, and when they’re no longer around to tell you those stories.”
As we reach the end of this story, let me leave you with a quote from Fong-Torres in the documentary:
“We no more escape our past than our parents escape China. They are still tied to their old ways. And now we begin to see those ways, those things that used to strike us as so odd and embarrassing, so Chinese, in a new light.
So you learn why now, why weddings are the way they are, why funerals are the way they are. And how it all ties together.
You never really do escape the full circle of life.“
Featured Photo Credit: Fred Morales, Jr.
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