This is the story of an “inquiring mind” who happens to be a journalist. Sewell Chan is the new editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune. But before his move to Austin, and before his previous roles at the L.A. Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, he was a kid growing up in an immigrant family in the outer boroughs of New York City, where his father drove a taxicab. Both his parents had seen a lot in their lives – but said little. Their New York was the New York of work, of their community, and of striving for a quiet, peaceful place to live, which ended up being in Queens. Yet when you meet Sewell, it’s surprising that he came from such a quiet place, because he’s so engaged with the world, with history, with how people live and how things work. In this episode, Kevin Burke talks with Sewell about his coming-of-age years in New York, the meaning of home, and what the windows and doors were from where his family lived out to the larger world.
“I don't know if this was unique to my school or something, but we also sang “New York, New York,” and we sang it in a way that I really like, I guess I must have thought as a kid that I was actually the official anthem of either New York state or New York City, as opposed to a Broadway show tune. If you'll allow me, I remember: “If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. It's up to you. New York, New York,” and it was like, kind of shocking that we were taught that as kids.”
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WPIX Special Report: Blackout ’77-City of Darkness from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0LV0zWFsVE
Broadway’s Lost Treasures – Me and My Girl from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swX0qlHRDV0
Dolora Zajick – Amneris – AIDA – MET 1989 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZNN0VqaSlE
Bill Clinton 1992 DNC Acceptance Speech from https://www.c-span.org/video/?27166-1/bill-clinton-1992-acceptance-speech
1998 Harvard Commencement from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nl9Uj6nq4Y4
Times’s City Room Advertisement from https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/1194817108917/a-changing-metropolis.html
Frank Sinatra – New York, New York (1980)
Ella Fitzgerald – Manhattan (1965)
Willie Nelson – Texas on a Saturday Night (1985)
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
A special thanks to our partners this season the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
For more, including information on live events, check out our NYC series page at mcny.org/yourhometown-podcast
Sewel Chan – Queens, NY
Kevin Burke (VO): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at YourHometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Sewell Chan: I don’t know if this was unique to my school or something, but we also sang “New York, New York,” and we sang it in a way that I really like, I guess I must have thought as a kid that I was actually the official anthem of either New York state or New York City, as opposed to a Broadway show tune. If you’ll allow me, I remember: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you. New York, New York,” and it was like, kind of shocking that we were taught that as kids.
Kevin Burke (VO): Where did you grow up? Is a question we’re all asked a lot, but the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us. What happened to them there before we met the world and the world met us? I’m Kevin Burke and this is Your Hometown.
This is the story of an inquiring mind who happens to be a journalist. Sewell Chan is the new editor in chief of the Texas Tribune. But before his move to Austin before his previous roles at the L.A. Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, he was a boy growing up in an immigrant family in the outer boroughs of New York City, where his father drove a taxicab. Both his parents had seen a lot in their lives, but they said little New York was the New York of work of their community and of striving for a quiet, peaceful place to live, which ended up being in Queens.
Yet when you meet Sewell, it’s surprising that it came from such a quiet place because he’s so engaged with the world, with history, with how people live and how things work. And I was curious to know what the windows and doors were from where his family lived in New York to the larger world. He would come to inhabit and inform with his earnest, hardworking, even dogged nature. And could he bring home with him where he was going? I should say that he and I were college classmates, but we didn’t actually get to know each other until this interview. We started with what Sewell, a major league journalist, does best: establishing context.
Sewell Chan: When I think about my first few years, I think about a few things. I think about how my parents were relatively recent immigrants to the United States. They actually met in New York Chinatown, they got married there. And I was their, the first and only child from that marriage. I have two older half-sisters from an earlier marriage of my mom’s, and my dad was actually an undocumented immigrant. He had left Mainland China during a period of intense turmoil in 1961 and then left Hong Kong a decade later for the United States. So I was really actually the first citizen in my family, merely by virtue of having been born in the United States.
[tape] Clip from WPIX Special Report: Blackout ’77-City of Darkness
Sewell Chan: The stories that I’ve heard about my early years, I mean, first of all, I was born in the summer of ‘77. New Yorkers will know that as the summer of Sam, the summer of the Great New York City blackout, and my mom tells stories about how arduous it was when the power went out.
We were living on the 10th floor, apartment 10E of a building at 45 Rucker Street in the LaGuardia Houses— I love that I was born and that I spent my first few years and life in a development named for Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia— and my mom just describes having to schlep up and down, you know, those 10 flights of stairs gathering water I guess, from a fire hydrant and just the scorching heat. It was a very, very kind of humid, miserable summer. And I was a fat baby, I was nine pounds at birth. Now that I’m an adult, I know that I that was a very difficult period for New York City as a whole.
And so I think about my first few years on this Earth as really being, you know, years in which my working class Chinese family was trying to get, was trying to make its place and find its way in America only a few years after having arrived.
Kevin Burke: And isn’t it interesting, Sewell, how our origin story, it depends on other people’s memories. You have to fill it in based on talking to other people and gathering information, and that starts with her parents often. What would you find yourself being curious about them and where they came from?
Sewell Chan: When I was maybe six or seven around that time, we bought a book from the must have been B. Dalton or one of those early chain bookstores. And I remember it was a book called My Family Tree, and I was so intrigued by history, but I was limited by the fact that my Chinese is very rudimentary. I really grew up in a split language household. My mom spoke to me in English, having gone to school in Hong Kong, but my dad’s English was and remains very minimal. So my parents would usually speak to me in Cantonese, but I got into the habit of responding to them in English. So there was really a, you know, it was really a language barrier in what I could understand.
Anyway, this family tree book encouraged you to kind of write in the names of your ancestors and to write about special memories. I remember asking my parents as they tried to fill in literally these blanks. And there were just a lot of holes and obstacles that we ran into. My dad doesn’t even really have a fixed birth date. Officially, he was born in November of 1942. But it’s a date that he somewhat chose out of thin air and, even more striking, the date was several years after, well, when we believe he was really born, which was more like 1939. So even, you know, very, very simple facts, you know, seemed somehow elusive. And I think that did, you know, stimulate my curiosity much later in life.
When I was in my 30s, I arranged a visit to both of my parents’ home villages in Guangdong, in southern China. But really, as a child and remained somewhat mysterious to me. I also only knew one side of my family, my mom’s nuclear family, had immigrated to the United States, starting with her dad was the original migrant, coming as a so-called paper son in the 1920s during the Chinese exclusion era. He was a laundry man in Boston and the rest of my mom’s nuclear family, except my mom, came in the late 1950s from Hong Kong. My mom was left behind for a variety of complicated reasons and only rejoined her family in 1970. So I did get to know my mom’s family a little bit, but not so much my dad’s.
And the truth is I grew up in a family that did not really prize kind of oral storytelling or the telling of kind of family stories. I think the milieu was one in which, you know, the determination was really to look ahead, like, we’re in America now. We’re going to look forward. It’s such a common immigrant story. There’s sadness to it too, though. I think a lot of people read about people who left Europe or fled pogroms or even worse, and hearing about their descendants really never knowing about what their early ancestors’ early lives were like. I’m not saying my situation’s so dramatic, but my parents really did not like talking about the past very much. You know, having come to America, having really, you know, moved across so many time zones, they really wanted to just focus on life in the United States. And I can understand that, but it meant that it took a lot longer for me to start to piece together the history, and that’s still a process that’s still going on today in some ways.
Kevin Burke: How did you navigate those silences as a boy? Did you find yourself frustrated?
Sewell Chan: I found myself a little bit frustrated. I mean, I’m a pretty curious person. I definitely pressed my parents for as much information as they could get. They were not particularly secretive people. They showed me any documents I wanted to look at. I was able to kind of get the dates, but what I wasn’t able to get, and never really have— I’m very blessed that my parents are still alive, but they’re kind of not natural storytellers and they don’t think of their lives in terms of historical time.
And of course, that’s appropriate. Most normal people don’t think about their lives in historical time, but I have, and— I had, he passed away, unfortunately— I had an adoptive uncle who served in Vietnam and he had come to the U.S. really as a teenager and had to kind of learn English from scratch in, you know, public schools in New York City. He never went to college, but about only seven years after emigrating from Asia, he was drafted and sent to Asia and he had some, you know, that was just very, very interesting. Very, very interesting. He, my uncle used to tell me that it was in the army that he learned to become American. He really hadn’t had that kind of socializing experience in schools because he came, you know, relatively late as a teenager. But it was really in the army that, you know, and in Vietnam, of all places that he had learned how to be American, which I’ve always found a really surprising story.
Kevin Burke: And what for you, Sewell, was the spark that created this interest in yourself for knowing the vertical story of something, you know, the depth, the history? Where did that come from in you?
Sewell Chan: Well, I guess I’ve always been interested in history as a kid. I mean, it was my favorite subject in school. I, in some ways, had a very I don’t want to— patriotic might be too strong, but given that I grew up in, you know, the outer boroughs of New York, and given that there were, you know, I went to schools with a lot of immigrant kids, a lot of what we would now define us as children of color, it was still a very American childhood in many ways.
I went to public schools in Queens, two elementary schools, one for kindergarten through second grade and the other from fourth through sixth grade. And we were really, we were really, it was really encouraged to be American. And we sang anthems I feel endlessly, in hindsight, probably in real life, it was more like every week or so, but still it was a lot of singing, not just the Star Spangled Banner, but also America the Beautiful, sometimes My Country ‘Tis of Thee. And I don’t know if this was unique to my school or something, but we also sang New York, New York, and we sang it in a way that I like, I guess I must have thought as a kid that I was actually the official anthem of either New York state or New York City, as opposed to a Broadway showtune, right? But it’s a really, really, it was just a very funny memory that, like, you know, this kind of song that really speaks to the aspirations of New Yorkers was sung by these schoolchildren. If you’ll allow me, I remember:
“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you. New York, New York,”
And it was like, kind of shocking that we were taught that as kids. [laughs]
Kevin Burke: That’s fantastic, because usually it’s either the Frank Sinatra version or Liza Minnelli, but you had your sounds like you had your sort of Sousa, a Sousa version of it or something.
Sewell Chan: [laughs] Right? That’s right. Right, it was sung by these kids. It was rather slow and stately. That’s exactly right. So, you know, I think as a kid, I was fascinated by America. I read like every book I could, you know, grab my hands on. By first grade I think I had memorized all the presidents, could recite them backwards and forwards. I can’t really do that now as an adult, I actually have to think about it and attach the president to the era of what was going on. But you know, in the way that six-year-olds are just, kind of, memorize things. I mean, this for me has these historical trivia points where, you know, I guess my version of baseball cards.
[tape] Clip from New York, New York by Frank Sinatra (1980)
Kevin Burke: You grew up in six houses across three boroughs in New York City. Can you just take us on a quick tour of where you lived as you moved around?
Sewell Chan: My first few years were spent on the Lower East Side, Rutgers Street, right off the East Broadway station on the F train. And when I was around three, my parents bought a house that they had scrimped and saved to, they really wanted to get on the homeownership ladder, which I think was actually financially a very professional decision in the long run. And I think a lot about how many New Yorkers you know, who in the 70s had the foresight to kind of, at least, you know, start getting, start building assets through homeownership. It really helped them later on. And I think that’s very much true for my family and my parents, who never earned very much. So when I was a toddler, my parents moved us to Sheepshead Bay. We lived on East 24th Street, near right near Avenue X, I think. And it was actually a two-family house. So I think we must have had tenants of some kind after about a couple of years there, and just just before I entered kindergarten, my parents moved us to Bayside, Queens because they had heard that the school district was quite good. And so for several years, we lived in a house at 42nd Avenue, kind of not far from Northern Boulevard. After about three years there, my family moved to a house on 226th Street in Bayside. And then after a few years there, we lived in a temporary home, I think in Fresh Meadows, Queens for a few months, and then we moved to a house on 64th Avenue. And my parents ended up staying in that house for about 14 years.
Kevin Burke: So when you think of home, do you think of all of New York as your home, or do you think of sort of specific places? How do you think of home, given all that movement?
Sewell Chan: Yeah, that really is such a profound question, Kevin. I guess I feel that New York City is home, but to say that seems to me problematic because there’s so much of New York City, of course, that I’ve never seen. I read about those who traverse, you’ve tried to traverse every block and every square mile. And I mean, if I guess, if I had like, a lot of time off, I would attempt that. But there are still places that I discover, you know, I’ve only been to the Arthur Avenue market once, so I’ve only been to Saylor’s Snug Harbor in Sun Island once. I’ve only been to the Rockaways once. There’s so much of New York that you could spend a lot, you know, you could spend a lifetime in the city, as with London, as with so many other global cities and really, really only see a small corner of it.
Kevin Burke: You’re a kid, you’re moving around, and so what would you do to orient yourself and discover this new place that you were in and make it feel like your new home?
Sewell Chan: Well, I was a pretty indoors kind of kid and pretty bookish. I didn’t know how to ride a bike when I was little and my parents were pretty busy working. And so, you know, I did do quite a bit of walking. I really kind of grew up in the library, honestly, it’s such a nerdy answer.
Kevin Burke: No, no.
Sewell Chan: The East Flushing branch of the New York Public Library and then the Bayside branch of the New York Public Library really were kind of my homes away from home. And then later on, the Central Library, the Queen Central Library on Merrick Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens. So I think, you know, those were really spaces that were, for me, very sacred and very special, you know, places where I just could gorge myself in books and sit in the aisles between the shelves and, you know, read fiction, children’s fiction at first and then and then more adult fiction. I remember being especially by the time I got to middle school, there were just so many subjects to be exposed to. But even earlier than that, I remember like, writing a kind of extra credit paper in fourth grade about the French Revolution for reasons I don’t really understand.
Kevin Burke: Maybe the only fourth grade paper ever written on the French Revolution ever?
Sewell Chan: You know, I feel partly because my parents were not highly educated or intellectuals,I feel that I actually had a very kind of free-roaming childhood intellectually. I was really most interested in history. I remember reading books about China, reading books about the American West, reading books about eventually American and European history? I just had pretty broad interests, and you know, I never really left, I don’t think, I never really went to summer camp, so I had never left New York for more than perhaps, three days at a time until I went to Harvard as an undergraduate.
Kevin Burke: Mm-Hmm.
Sewell Chan: So it was really, you know, I kind of learned both my neighborhood or my city rather and the world through reading.
Kevin Burke: And turning sort of that gaze inside to your home, what were the rhythms of your house and thought of you in this mix?
Sewell Chan: Yeah. Well, I had a complicated family situation. My two older-half sisters are eight and 10 years older. And the middle child, my sister who’s eight years older, her name’s Nora, and she’s severely disabled as a result of meningitis in infancy back in Hong Kong. And she’s suffered from mental retardation and also some other pretty serious physical impediments, including she’s legally blind and she walks with a very troubled gait. And so, you know, needs help with mobility and really needs 24-7 care. So in many ways, Nora was kind of the fulcrum around which our family operated in the sense that she had the most needs. And you know, cognitively, she’s kind of a six-year-old or first-grade level.
And so I think it was actually very fun when I was a little kid playing with her because, you know, there was very much a childlike and very innocent and very, very sweet aspect of her personality in general, for which we’re very lucky. But certainly after, I guess, first grade as I started to cognitively, you know, move forward, you know, it became quite clear that, you know, Nora had the most profound needs of all of us. So I think that was a really important part of the family dynamic.
It was not the most happy family. You know, my parents were not not a great match for each other. I think they tried to create a safe home environment for me. I think they were both very caring. There was no, there was no significant drama there, no infidelity or financial shenanigans or or anything like that. But just, you know, there was really a very working class marriage of people who had been kind of, you know, who had come to the U.S. as really adults. And so in some ways, I think theirs was a bit of a marriage of convenience. You know, my mom really wanted some help, you know, raising her two kids. My dad obviously wanted and needed, you know, legalization and regularization of his status so that he could stay in the country. So, you know, I don’t think that that means that, you know, they didn’t want me, but I was aware from a pretty early age that, you know, it wasn’t a perfect environment and it, but it was one that we had to make the best of.
Sewell Chan: I don’t think my dad really had a very clear sense of how to kind of be an emotional nurturer. The context, though, is that his own father had died when he was 15 years old in the 1950s in China. And my dad was really, as the oldest of seven and then later six children— he had a younger brother who died and who died in childhood— My dad had to really help, you know, provide for his widowed mother and the rest of his family. So he had a very, very hard life. And as I came to appreciate that as I got older, it helped me to recognize and put in context, you know, that that he had had a very, very difficult life and that he’d really define providing for the family as being very much materially providing which he did with with great diligence and and great steadfastness. He was a very, very, he was a very, very hard worker. Was a restaurant worker for many years and then a cab driver.
But you know, we were living in, I guess, in a part of New York that was a little bit more bourgeois, probably more bourgeois than we were, probably. And I think in hindsight, probably among the lowest income or the or the most recently arrived Americans in these neighborhoods. Later on, eastern Queens has become, you know, northeastern Queens has become very, very Asian-American. But when we first moved there in the early 1980s, we were probably among the earliest Asian families. You know, we didn’t really socialize that much around us. It was, it was somewhat isolating, Kevin.
Kevin Burke: And you mentioned that your father drove a cab. If there wasn’t a dialog, what were you just picking up from watching him?
Sewell Chan: Well, I think first of all, was the sheer number of hours. You know, my dad, I was very lucky that my dad actually drove me to school in the morning for six years in middle school and high school. And I remember feeling very kind of bashful and kind of even embarrassed when he would pull up near our school because I literally, I was going to school in a yellow cab. And when you’re a teenager or an adolescent, you feel very self-conscious about being different in any way. And in hindsight, I feel very proud that my dad was a cab driver and that I had the luxury of free transportation to school in the morning. [laughs] But at the time, of course, I was quite immature and didn’t see didn’t didn’t see how proud I should be of him.
Kevin Burke: What was it like in the car with him?
Sewell Chan: Very quiet, very quiet. He didn’t like to speak a lot and often I was still, you know, slumbering or catching up on schoolwork or whatever in the car.
Sewell Chan:You know, I remember I remember actually being involved in, not accidents, but there was one time when very icy road conditions and the car skidded and swerved around. There was another time when I was in high school where I was driving back to New York City, driving back to Queens with him and that something under the hood caught on fire because this has been really, really overheated. And you know, my dad would talk a lot about car problems, actually. About the costs of vehicular maintenance, about the costs of leasing a medallion at first, or making the payments on his medallion. So it was a hard life, you know, and I knew the hours were very long. It was, 12 hour days were very common. You know, my dad and I would leave at 6:30 in the morning. He’d start his shift in New York City in Manhattan, around 7:30. He often really wasn’t home until about 8 p.m., so he was working pretty much 12 hours straight and where he took his breaks, how he even used the bathroom. You know how he managed to navigate his way around the city in this era before GPS, all of that I’ve had to kind of piece together over the years.
Kevin Burke: And also, Sewell, when we were growing up, it wasn’t the easiest time in New York and I looked this up. Astonishingly in 1993, there were 44 livery drivers and four taxi drivers who lost their lives driving in the city.
Sewell Chan: That’s really great, and I actually had forgotten a little bit about that. But you’re entirely right. There was one point where the New York Times, I remember, did a whole investigation into the yellow cab industry and including the black car livery drivers who had the worst of it, as you say. And I think it called the industry a sweatshop on wheels. And I think of that term now in the context of Uber and Lyft and all these other app-based or or gig economy jobs and how precarious they are and how it’s often the immigrants or people of color who end up in those jobs.
Kevin Burke: Did you ever kind of see him come home shaken by something?
Sewell Chan: I do remember, like, both of my parents were robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint several times in the 1970s and 80s. I don’t really recall, especially when we lived in the Lower East Side, it happened repeatedly. And it was very, very scary for them. I myself was mugged twice, but you know, not, I don’t really remember a weapon on either occasion. Both were in the early 90s, and it was essentially kind of larger, rougher, multiple kids, you know, just kind of, you know, pushing me against the wall or something and taking my wallet. So, you know, you just kind of assumed, I mean, I remember seeing in high school even that that was just, you know, a sign of, you know, kind of a rite of passage in New York City. Now, I don’t think I’d be so blasé about it now. I think clearly, if you know, if you had a kid having them, you know, be the victim of an armed robbery, it’s pretty damn serious. But I will say that in the early 90s, there was really a sense of uncertainty about New York. You know, there was still a lot of crime. The neighborhoods were very variable. I mean, I used to think that it was very boring to live in Queens. But when I think about my parents and what they had been through in the Lower East Side, I could see why they wanted to get as far away from that as possible.
Kevin Burke: How would you say your parents’ New York was different from your New York?
Sewell Chan: Well, that’s a great question. My parents had, you know, hard complex lives in Asia before coming to the U.S. Both of them were born during World War II. Both of them have memories, largely dim ones, of, kind of, the Japanese occupation and of some kind of military conflict. Like a lot of kids growing up during the war, they kind of remember soldiers moving around. You know, I don’t know nothing more dramatic or terrifying than that. So both of my parents have experienced a lot before they were, they were really adults.
Now that my parents are around 80, they, of course, have spent the majority of their lives in New York. I don’t think they are sentimental about it. I think they just see it as the place that they happen to live. They are aware that it’s America’s most populous city. They are aware of its tremendous diversity, but they really live kind of within the Chinese immigrant enclave. You know, most of their social contacts, their friendships, people they deal with are Chinese-American. In Queens, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, you know, in the Chinatown Lower East Side area of Manhattan, you know, their worlds are really kind of circumscribed by Chinese-ness.
Kevin Burke: You’re the first generation in your family having a childhood in the U.S. and so your needs, your aspirations were going to be different than there is and I was just going to ask you, how did you meet the city and make New York your own and a New York that was different from theirs?
Sewell Chan: Wow, that’s so perceptive, Kevin. I mean, I think about the recency of my presence in America, how my family had only been here, you know, six or seven years before I was born. And in many ways, my childhood was really in this kind of, you know, third space that wasn’t Asia, but wasn’t exactly America, either.
How did I make New York my own? Well, I was a very determined kid in many ways, I think. Not only did I insist on going to the libraries because I really loved them, I loved school in general. I like being at school. I didn’t like being at home that much. I always wanted to kind of go outside. I was a bored child. I got bored pretty easily, quite easily.
Sewell Chan: I do remember discovering the Met and that was— the Metropolitan Museum, and that was a very, very consequential discovery for me.
Kevin Burke: How did you discover it?
Sewell Chan: Well, I think the first time around, I just actually, I have a dim memory that the first time I went, I didn’t understand quite how large the Met was and made my way into that gift shop that’s on the northern side of the Met and then I think I didn’t really quite understand that the museum actually had many, many more layers and levels beyond that.
It’s so cliché, but I really felt I traveled the world through the Met’s galleries and could see kind of, you know, human history and even human accomplishment kind of come alive. And then the way the art was periodized, I really loved every aspect of it. You know, eventually I eventually and I haven’t thought about this in many years, but I started pushing to do cultural things. I remember I really wanted to go to a Broadway show and I remember the first one I ever went to was Me and My Girl.
[tape] Clip from Broadway’s Lost Treasures from Me and My Girl
Sewell Chan: I definitely did stuff, you know, on my own pretty early on. I think for Me and My Girl, I might have gone with my mom, but later on my first opera, whatever was Aida and I went on my own. I was probably—
Kevin Burke: Really?
Sewell Chan: At that point, probably ninth or tenth grade.
[tape] Clip from Aida performed by Dolora Zajick, MET 1989
Kevin Burke: Thinking about you going into these, these cultural spaces in New York and taking the train, I guess, or going however you wanted to get there and your parents letting you, did you feel like you were almost a bit of a mystery to them?
Sewell Chan: Yeah, I think there was that sense of mystery, frankly, and maybe it exists a little bit to this day. I think my parents always considered me perhaps a little bit extreme. I loved staying up to read, I was a very intense reader. I was probably a little bit hard as a child to please. I’m a bit picky. It can be a little bit ornery. I don’t think I was difficult. I don’t think I, you know, threw tantrums or anything. But you know, I was on a somewhat parallel track to them. And it’s, you know, it’s taken really a lot of my life to try to reconcile that, you know, my parents definitely, you know, had very kind of working class aspirations.
I do believe they wanted me to go to college. I think that was important to them, but they had no real conception of what college was. They didn’t know anyone who had gone to a university. They were not friends with lawyers or doctors or engineers. So my childhood was very different from that of, say, other Chinese Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Cetera whose you know, whose parents can’t, or who’s the generation that came post 65 as scientists, engineers, graduate students, medical students, etc. My Chinese world was really very, very, very far from that. So there were really profound kind of class differences within the Chinese community that I felt because yes, especially as I got older and started making other Asian-American friends, I could see that a lot of them came from very professional families and families that really valued education, learning, test taking. And I think I probably took some cues from that.
In some ways, though, it was actually a real blessing because they didn’t burden me with these, you know, tiger— what we would later call tiger mom expectations of, you know, very, very overbearing, really very rigid, structured childhoods. You know, I think that can be unhealthy, too. And I didn’t really have that. The pressure, I think, was really kind of, you know, coming from within.
[tape] Clip from Aida performed by Dolora Zajick, MET 1989
Kevin Burke: Hunter College High School is one of the city’s, for those who don’t know, one of its most prestigious public schools, and it has a program where you can basically go all the way through middle school and high school. It’s on 94th and Madison, so it’s right there on the Upper East Side, right? And you’re coming from the edges of Queens, you described. Why you?
Sewell Chan: I do remember that I was the only person from my elementary school that year to get into Hunter. And there were some, some other students, two girls in particular, who I really looked up to and really kind of saw as, like, you know, the best kids in our class. And it was very, very surprised they hadn’t gotten in. And also a little bit sad because, you know, I did end up going, but there was no one really from my elementary school to go with me to share that journey with me.
Kevin Burke: How big a jump was it from the elementary schools you’d gone to, to Hunter?
Sewell Chan: A big jump. I felt that the academics were more challenging. Full stop. I felt much more stimulated. I felt challenged. I remember taking homework really seriously. I remember— which I’d always done, but I remember that the amount of homework increased. And I remember that, you know, assessments in terms of quizzes and tests seemed more frequent and more difficult. I didn’t feel quite as well prepared as some of the Manhattan kids or kids who had gone to better schools were. So I remember it. It was a very, very tough environment. My seventh grade year was actually a very unhappy year. I cried a lot. I think I was lonely going to school in Manhattan. I missed the kind of friends that I had had in elementary school. In hindsight, I wish I had just bothered to, I wish I had making the effort to stay in touch with them. I didn’t at the time, which I regret, but it was a really, really hard year, so hard that my mom asked if I wanted to leave Hunter and go to a local junior high school. And I’m glad she offered, but I really, looking back, I just had a very clear sense that, you know, as hard as this is, it’s a really good school and I’m going to benefit if I stay. And indeed, it did get much, much better starting in eighth grade and beyond.
Kevin Burke: Where did you find your own space? Where did you fit in?
Sewell Chan: Well, that’s a very, that’s a really deep question. It was only after I got into Hunter College High School and being in an environment where academic motivation and curiosity were really encouraged that I started to feel, you know, a little bit more in my skin. And so that really, you know, that took quite a while. The happy converse of that is that I found adolescence generally actually quite happy because I went to a very open, tolerant, intense, intellectually-oriented magnet school where being a nerd was really rewarded. And I actually found that incredibly stimulating and really nourishing. And I feel very lucky about that because, you know, a lot of my friends, especially who are queer, gay or lesbian, as I am, did not often grow up in suburban environments where high school was very stultifying experience. So for me, elementary school was more stultifying. And I became happier in middle school and high school.
I mean, I think I understood pretty early on that, you know, a lot of you know, folks were very vulnerable and needed a lot of help, and that’s had a profound effect on me. I guess the other way it’s had an effect on me is, I think, growing up in an environment where I didn’t always have ready sources of information, my parents weren’t, you know, passing books along to me that may have actually made me more kind of stubbornly cling to my curiosities. And New York City, of course, was the perfect place to do that.
Kevin Burke: There’s a part of a child’s journey where you are learning the literal language, right, and there’s the words and the phrases and the idioms. And there’s also sort of a second language, which is how society works. And I’m wondering, given the circumscribed world that you were coming from, just learning about society and having to push yourself beyond the curiosities of your parents, and just this is how the game is played, this is the way the world is, you have to discover that in your own, it sounds like. And how did you go about doing that? And do you remember things sort of, opening your eyes and you thinking to yourself, ‘Ah, this is the way it’s played? This is what this is all about?’
Sewell Chan: Yeah, Kevin, I actually really remember that moment being for me quite late. I remember it being in either eighth, must have been eighth grade, but I had never slept over at a friend’s house my whole childhood until eighth grade, when my really close friend Dan invited me to a sleepover and he lived with his parents and brother in Morningside Heights in an old pre-war co-op right near Columbia University. And I just remember being, just my mouth was agape at their apartment, full of books, books jammed in every corner. You know, nice art on the walls, a proper, you know, plating for dinner with the fork on the left and the knife on the right.
I honestly just hadn’t grown up with that in that kind of environment, and I didn’t think, I didn’t feel any sense of resentment, I felt actually very happy to be welcomed in their home. But I did feel a sense of, kind of, refinement and, you know, love of learning and intellect that sometimes I felt, you know, was absent in my home environment.
Looking, you know, with the passage of many, many years and even decades, you know, I don’t, there were probably also ways in which I then looked at my own, you know, working class home as being somehow lacking. And it’s important for me, you know, not to try to feel that way. Obviously, we all have, you know, opportunities and privileges and circumstances that oftentimes can’t be helped. But I do remember kind of just being introduced to this world that was just frankly more Manhattan, more erudite.
Kevin Burke: And would you have your friends come over to your house?
Sewell Chan: It’s so funny that you say that. We almost always met up in Manhattan, and I remember at one point in that era, before cell phones and before Google and before texting, I guess we’d have to call each other home at home and make plans. I was on the phone all the time. But I remember that we would, you know, even when there was a posse of us from Queens, we would still meet up in Manhattan. I remember one time, you know, finding myself on a Saturday or something with maybe four or five friends from Queens, I was like, ‘We all live in Queens. Why are we in Manhattan right now?’
[tape] Clip from Manhattan by Ella Fitzgerald (1965)
Kevin Burke: You described Seventh-Grade being sort of unhappy and difficult. By the time you get to your senior year, your co-class president of your class and along with your future Harvard classmate and then Times colleague Jennifer 8. Lee who was from the Upper West Side. You guys take over The Observer, which is the second indie newspaper at the school and is the rival to the other newspaper, which is What’s What, and I wanted to ask you about the takeover of that newspaper and sort of what led to that?
Sewell Chan: So our school had and still has. I’m very happy to report really to student newspapers, a more traditional one that’s the so-called official student paper, What’s What founded in 1922, and then a more kind of indie, alternative student newspaper called The Observer, which was founded in 1981. So, you know, when I was a Hunter, this was probably only a dozen years into the observer’s existence. And in hindsight, you know, almost 30 years later, I’m really glad it’s passed the test of time.
Kevin Burke: Yeah
Sewell Chan: And I guess will soon have its 40th birthday. But, you know, I hadn’t, I had tried to be involved in What’s What and didn’t, wasn’t having a very good experience there. I felt a little bit left out or that it was a little bit clubby. And so I ended up getting a role as the business manager of The Observer selling advertisements. And I really had to go up and down the streets on the Upper East Side in East Harlem, trying to get local businesses to advertise in our student newspaper.
Kevin Burke: How did that go?
Sewell Chan: Well, it was not easy. I’m not a natural salesman, but it did force me to go out and talk to a lot of different people and try to make the case, which I actually think is very, very useful. I’m not a very good, I’m not good at business, I’m not good at commerce, But it was really the one time in my life where I had to make sales pitches regularly and and then that led, one thing led to another.
[tape] Clip from Bill Clinton 1992 DNC Acceptance Speech
Kevin Burke: What’s interesting is that in ‘92, right, which is around the same time, you went to the Democratic National Convention in New York for the Children’s Express Newspaper, which is a kind of an interesting children’s news agency at that time. And Bill Clinton is going to be the nominee to be the president. You’re there. So it’s around the same time. And I’m getting, I’m kind of picturing you going up and down the street asking for ads from local businesses, but now you’re also at the DNC asking for people to talk to you and you’re like a 14, 15 year-old kid. How did you get people to take you seriously, Sewell?
Sewell Chan: I was learning a lot in those years. [laughs]
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
Sewell Chan: You don’t find things out unless you ask. That’s number one. But yeah, I guess it was a time when I was a little bit shameless about, you know, asking for information, asking people to advertise, rebooting my student newspaper with Jenny. You know, we took it from an eight and a half by 11 kind of photocopied mimeographed, kind of pamphlet really to kind of New York Times size.
Kevin Burke: Was there a legitimate rivalry with the other paper, What’s What?
Sewell Chan: Oh, but in hindsight, I don’t think it was all that serious. I mean—
Kevin Burke: But at the time, at the time, I was sort of a ‘Whoa, what are these guys doing? They’re like, we’re the established, venerable kind of great lady of Hunter College. And these upstarts like these Village Voice types are, you know, on our heels here?’
Sewell Chan: I guess somewhat. But the truth be told, you know, our approach to the observer was itself very sober and establishment. [laughs] And we probably would have achieved better results had we, you know, aimed for a more populist and irreverent tone. But it was, it was very earnest, I think, but it was very serious and was very well done. And we did try to tackle some issues that were difficult to remember, in particular editing a series of articles, commissioning a series of articles about the workers in our school, people who were not faculty or administrative staff, but really kept the building running: the security staff, the the cleaning staff, the lab technicians, and really trying to understand their lives.
Kevin Burke: You came from that world. You’re the only person that would have wanted to shine that light at that time. You had the perspective to do it.
Sewell Chan: Well, that’s, that’s very—
Kevin Burke: You noticed.
Sewell Chan:Yeah, that’s really interesting. I don’t know if I made that connection at the time, but that’s very perceptive.
Kevin Burke: And you also mentioned that you you were gay and were you closeted at the time in high school or in junior year?
Sewell Chan: Yeah, I was mostly closeted. I didn’t. I didn’t really have relationships with girls, but I also didn’t really pretend to be straight. I guess I was a little bit kind of just… asexual, really through high school.
Kevin Burke: In those two ways, both your work, the working class back when you described and your sexuality, did you feel like you were observing taking things in, making friends, doing your work, but not opening your book up? Not saying ‘Here I am?’
Sewell Chan: Yeah, I guess I did feel a little bit like an outsider, and that may be that may have probably influenced my interest in journalism where, you know, curiosity is rewarded as well as nosiness. And, you know, just kind of documenting what’s going on, but not necessarily putting yourself at the center of the story.
Kevin Burke: Gay Talese in his classic history in The New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power said that most journalists are restless voyeurs. Is that fair?
Sewell Chan: Yeah, I think a lot of journalists are restless voyeurs. That’s a really, really good term. You know, journalism really rewards those who have kind of a dogged curiosity and just, you know, are gnawing at that bone of truth and won’t give up.
[tape] Clip from 1998 Harvard Commencement
Kevin Burke: You wrote this piece in our alumni magazine shortly after we graduated, and you described how six hours after commencement day at Harvard, this is June of 1998, you are back in the taxi with your mom and your dad driving home from Cambridge to New York City. And you sort of drew this contrast between the New York that you were going home to in the world you were going home to, which is in Queens, you just described and the New York that our classmates were going to their consulting jobs, hedge fund jobs, whatever it was. And there’s you going home in the cab. And I wanted to just sit for a second because that summer is an odd one for a lot of people. But I wanted to ask you about going home and that crossroads in your life kind of what you were thinking.
Sewell Chan: Well, Kevin, I’m really struck by this question. I haven’t read that piece, and it was 22 years ago. I guess, first of all, it was very, very nice for my dad to drive his cab up to Cambridge to pick me up. That was very sweet. I remember by that point he had one of those yellow cab SUVs or minivans or something with the— it was a little bit more sophisticated than the Chevy. I think that, you know, he had when I was younger.
You know, it was very intense. I mean, Harvard is a very immersive, very total listening experience. And there’s so much prestige and, you know, intellect and, you know, worldliness associated with it. And it really felt like it was a transition point. And really, it ended up being my last summer at home, of course. I hadn’t even interned in New York City any of the previous three summers, so it was really my first summer at home since 1994, I guess. And really my last summer at home because of course, I, you know, then started my after grad school, my career. So it was a very poignant time. I ended up doing an internship at the Legal Aid Society of New York.
Kevin Burke: Right.
Sewell Chan: Their juvenile rights division, which was very, very interesting. And you know, I remember just kind of trying to unpack that summer, you know, these four years at Harvard and what they had meant. And then, you know, what lay ahead. I remember it being a pretty introspective summer.
I also remember, you know, I didn’t we didn’t really go on any big graduation trip or anything, but my parents really wanted to visit Las Vegas for whatever reason. So we went that summer and we also toured the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. I did not like the strip very much.
Kevin Burke: [laughs] And you mentioned also your parents were divorced shortly after. So I’m guessing that’s also, did it feel like the end of something, too, in a way?
Sewell Chan: Yeah, my parents split that, that coming winter. So yeah, there was a lot of change in my life going on at that time.
[tape] Clip from Times’s City Room Advertisement
Kevin Burke: Eventually, as I mentioned, went to Oxford, got the marshal. You can come back, you work at The Washington Post and by 2004, you’re at the New York Times, which is your hometown paper, right? It’s The Times, and I was amazed by 2006, you’re only 28 years old, you have somehow accumulated 422 bylines in a single year, which sounds like an incredible feat. And there was a New York Observer article that you called Byline Beast of New York. And I was wondering, how did that make you feel?
Sewell Chan: I’m not exactly well. I mean, I don’t like being at the center of attention. I still don’t, you know, it’s nice to be recognized for one’s productivity, but it’s not really the most important thing at all. You know, I’m not sure many of the stories were all that consequential. But it was a time that was very, very busy, actually in New York and in the transit beat, which I did enjoy covering a lot.
Kevin Burke: I also find I find something so endearing about your story, too, because I relate to so many things about you, including some of the times when your eagerness and your insatiable desire to know things was misinterpreted. So like, there is that Observer story where, like some guy saying, ‘This guy pitched me a story at the urinal. It’s the only time I’ve ever pitched a story at a urinal,’ or like you showed up at the funeral of Abe Rosenthal, you know, and people were like, ‘Oh, that’s so weird. He was the executive editor of The Times long before you were there,’ but I can sort of put myself in your shoes thinking, those are things I would do, you know, because you just want to experience things.
Sewell Chan: You get older and you realize you need to curb some of your enthusiasms.
Kevin Burke: And also you’re writing, your name’s appearing in the paper and then your parents, it’s their hometown paper, too, in a way. What was the reaction and what was the relationship to your words?
Sewell Chan: Not, not very much, I’m afraid. You know, my parents, I occasionally, I think I showed them front page stories that I’d worked on. But you know, they really, they consume a lot of their news, really through Chinese language media. So they’ve never really scrutinized, you know what I work on, which in some ways is a little bit of a blessing. I don’t, you know, my work, my work sphere is not the same as my, my kind of home sphere.
Kevin Burke: Mm-Hmm. But also, you know, so many kids who will, as they grow older, a lot of their drive is just about placating and impressing family are the parents and your incentives, your fulfillment has to come from a different place that you made it, you made a living with words. And it’s not something that they are sharing.
Sewell Chan: Yeah, I don’t. I feel, I guess I feel very fortunate in that respect. I don’t feel I’m trying to, like, live up to someone else’s, you know, standard just my own. Maybe there’s something very New York about that, too.
Kevin Burke: Yeah, that’s interesting. What do you mean by that?
Sewell Chan: Well, I think New York is a city of, kind of strivers, right? I think sometimes the journey from Queens to, you know, Manhattan feels as great as the distance people might feel moving from, you know, rural Kansas to Manhattan. It’s part of the energy of New York, but sometimes it can be very aggravating and irritating as well. I think the people who most often claim ownership of New York are those who, you know, have arrived to achieve. And of course, that striving and achievement are a big part of what gives New York its energy and dynamism. But as E.B. White wrote, you know, there are also a lot of other New Yorks, including the New York that serves that first New York.
Sewell Chan: Yes.
Sewell Chan: Which I probably feel most affiliated with. But yeah, I do feel that, you know, there are a lot of journeys to be had, even within New York City. You know, journeys of class and generation.
[tape] Clip from Texas on a Saturday Night by Willie Nelson(1985)
Kevin Burke (VO): Sewell just moved to Austin, Texas to become the editor in chief of the Texas Tribune. It’s a big job. And before that, he was the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times. Now he brings his passion for the local wherever he goes. At the same time, I wondered, what does he miss about his old hometown?
Sewell Chan: Well, it’s not the obvious stuff like the bagels and the coffee. I mean, I think that’s so superficial in the end. I think New York is such a walkable city. And I miss those kind of serendipitous weekend trips or day trips. You know, where you just go into a neighborhood you’ve never been to before. Like, I long to go to Park Chester.
Kevin Burke: Yes.
Sewell Chan: I don’t know anything about New Dorp. You know, I you know, what is Ozone Park like? I mean, I have a dim, I have a general sense of what these neighborhoods are like. But really walking through them, looking at the pattern of the churches and the settlement, it’s just an endless source of discovery. And I really, really miss that about New York.
Kevin Burke: And from that childhood that you had, Sewell, what did you most want to bring with you into adulthood and what did you most want to leave behind?
Sewell Chan: Oh my gosh, these are huge questions. What did I most want to bring with me into adulthood? A sense of curiosity, a sense of openness, a sense of earnestness, trying to be curious about the world open. I think New York teaches you, if anything else, to be tolerant of difference. What am I going to leave behind? Actually, as I get older, I feel that the world is so complex and that, you know, I very much resist a kind of New York chauvinism.
I love New York so deeply, but I think sometimes it can be at a time of especially rising inequality, can be very troubling if people who are lucky enough to, you know, have, you know, have had good lives in places like New York or Los Angeles, then don’t, you know, take the time to really consider and understand the many communities that don’t feel the level of prosperity or privilege that many urban areas have felt. Now, of course, there’s tremendous inequality within New York City as well. And so you know what I’d like to leave behind is probably a sense of innocence about New York. You know, it’s it’s complicated like every place else.
Kevin Burke: I end every single interview the same way, Sewell, which is with Walt Whitman, the iconic New Yorker, my favorite poet and in Song of myself, he sort of has these startling words that kind of lead me to a question. So let me read you the words and then ask you the question. Walt says:
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
And let’s picture a day, 50 years, 100 years, 200 years from now, where someone discovers this gentleman named Sewell Chan through his bylines or headlines, or maybe it’s The Observer, or The Times, or The City Room, whatever it may be, and they want to know you and they want to know more about your story and who did this guy, who was this guy? Where do you come from? And they want to commune with you, and they want to go to a place in New York where they can most feel your spirit. And I was going to ask you, where should they, where should we look for you in your hometown?
Sewell Chan: That is a very, very, very heavy question. I, you know, I am going to name a library, but not the New York Public Library, which is too obvious. I’m going to name the Queen Central Library at 89-11 Merrick Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens, because it’s an incredible research institution, but also an incredible community-serving institution. And it really stands for, like, the best values of New York.
Kevin Burke: And you can picture yourself there as a boy?
Sewell Chan: Oh yeah.
Kevin Burke: And you can see yourself?
Sewell Chan: For sure, yeah. There’s a whole section on Queens and Long Island history that I remember as well. I haven’t been back there in many years, but I’d like to go.
Kevin Burke: Well, now I want to go look for you there. Sewell Chan, thank you so much for taking me to your hometown.
Sewell Chan: Thank you, Kevin Burke.
Kevin Burke (VO): Thank you for listening to Your Hometown, where the local is the epic.
This is a Kevin Burke Production. Visit YourHometown.org to subscribe to the podcast and our various social media channels. And wherever you’re listening, please drop us a review. Every star helps.
For information on live events that we do around the show, visit our New York City series page on The Museum of the City of New York’s website at mcny.org/your hometown- podcast.
Now, let me thank the team that works with me on Your Hometown, beginning with our Executive Producer, Robert Krulwich, our Editor and Sound Designer Otis Streeter, our Composer-Performer Sterling Steffen, and our researchers Shakila Khan and Janmaris Perez. I also want to thank Tunshore Longe, Nick Gregg, and Charlotte Yiu for the vivid illustrations that have given our show another dimension. Our Social Media Manager is Mackela Watkins, and our website and branding design is by Tama Creative.
A special thanks to our partners this season: the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And, remember – everyone’s from someplace, and everywhere is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.