Journalist Portia Li has covered the Chinese community in San Francisco for more than 30 years. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Longtime local journalist launching a newspaper of her own

Portia Li hopes bilingual paper will be a ‘bridge’ between Chinese and English-speaking communities

Newspapers are laying off staff across the country, and the Chinese-language press is no exception.

After about 33 years covering the Chinese community for the World Journal in San Francisco, reporter Portia Li was laid off in April.

Instead of calling it quits or searching for another staff reporting job, Li is striking out on her own and putting funds from her savings into a new, locally-owned and produced newspaper.

Li hopes that her weekly bilingual publication, the Wind Newspaper, can bring news about San Francisco’s Chinese community not only to Chinese locals, but also to everyone who can read and speak English. The first print issue is available this week beginning Tuesday in Chinatown.

“This is how I want to be the bridge and bring everyone together,” Li said.

While people have asked why she is launching a business during an economic downturn, Li said it’s a way she can continue her work as a journalist to broaden others’ understanding of the Chinese community, and to tell the untold stories.

Print newspapers aren’t a profitable business, but Li said the habit of reading hard copy newspapers remains imprinted in the psyche of older Chinese residents. And a free newspaper will be more accessible than the most popular Chinese newspapers, Sing Tao Daily and the World Journal, which charge for their print issues in The City.

The paper will also be available online without a pay wall.

Li’s new newspaper, the Wind Newspaper, is hitting the streets in Chinatown this week on Tuesday. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Weekly printed editions will allow her to delve deeper into each story, Li said. Covering elections in the coming months is one of her priorities as November approaches. Criminal justice issues in the Chinese community, a topic Li has covered since the dawn of her journalism career in The City, will remain an area of focus.

Li, 61, was hired by the World Journal in 1986 as a criminal justice reporter covering San Francisco’s Chinese community, in a period when gang violence was rampant in The City’s Chinatown.

It was the only reporting position available at the World Journal, she said.

“This was not really my interest,” said Li, who had covered transportation and social welfare issues in Hong Kong. “But I [had] no choice.”

Eventually, however, she came to embrace the beat.

“After about five years — all of a sudden — I felt that I really enjoyed talking to everyone in all the crime stories,” she continued.

From telling the victims’ stories and covering the work of the police department to understanding why young people participate in gang activities, Li began to feel it was her mission to shine a light on the complexity of crimes in Chinatown.

Reporting on crime stories is often grim and heartbreaking, but Li said she finds joy and fulfillment in witnessing how some can find redemption after committing crimes. She recalled her first major story involving Eddy Zheng and his friends in 1986.

Zheng was 16 when he and two other teenagers committed an armed takeover of a family’s Chinatown home, according to SFGate. They tied up the children and the father, forcing the mother to accompany them to a family-owned store for a robbery. Zheng was tried as an adult and spent the next 19 years incarcerated.

According to Li, she was the first journalist to interview him about his efforts to reform while he was incarcerated. Zheng counseled at-risk youth. He earned a GED diploma and an associate degree. After Zheng was released from prison in 2005, he awaited deportation to China. In 2015, he was pardoned by former Gov. Jerry Brown. Zheng later founded and became the president of New Breath Foundation, which offers services for Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants, people impacted by incarceration and survivors of violence.

“This is how I look at the cases: Even for someone who commits crime, hopefully one day they will change and give back to the community,” Li said.

nchan@sfexaminer.com

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