Sam Chu Lin, who passed away at 67, on
March 5, rose up from humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta city of Greenville,
to become “a true broadcast pioneer” based on sheer guts, determination
and talent. What made Sam Chu Lin a good, even great, journalist? He was dogged
and fearless. He focused on people, more than the event, was always curious and
proud of his heritage. He gave his heart. A one-man Asian American news wire service,
he cared about the community. He worked fast and was a consummate pro. He did it
all in multidimensional media: print, radio, TV, documentaries. And he had the Voice.
Those are the qualities that made Sam Chu Lin a pioneer, according
to a wide array of professional journalists and politicians.
George Lum, the first Asian American television director and producer
in San Francisco (KPIX, 1955) met Sam Chu Lin around 1962. “He wanted to be
on-air. I told him it was going to be tough. They’re never going to let an
Oriental get on-air. Go into production, directing. I gave him some pointers —
but he had his mind set on going on-air. I’ll be damned, he made it on-air!”
In 1956, Chu Lin went on the air for the first time as a radio
disc jockey and announcer on WJPR in Greenville, Mississippi, while in high school.
He grew up in a region that was the birthplace of the blues and Elvis Presley. But
the South was still a segregated society. Just a year earlier, 1955, Rosa Parks
had refused to give up her bus seat for a white man, galvanizing the modern civil
rights movement. In the 1950s, the most that Americans knew about China was that
it was Red (communist) and Chinese Americans were at best, foreign laundrymen who
spoke chop suey. Getting on-air in local radio was no easy feat. He was known as
Sammy Lin on-air, a name that didn’t specifically identify him as Chinese American.
Sam’s wife Judy recalls how Sam altered and trained his voice
by listening late at night to CBS Radio’s Edward R. Murrow, getting rid of
his high Southern twang and establishing his solid, deep-baritone voice that would
become a trademark.
Emmy Award-winner Belva Davis of KRON and KQED, is the first black
American news anchor in San Francisco. Belva and Sam are of the same generation
and got their starts in television around the same time in the 1960s.
Davis remembers Sam had “absolute determination and fearlessness.
He was a hustler and never gave up. He had bravado, in the face of long odds. We
shared a background: ‘They put us out here, they [the bosses] don’t think
we’ll succeed, but we’re going to prove them wrong.’”
Both Belva and Sam came up with the generation that produced Peter
Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, the kings of network television news these
past 20 years.
When Sam broke into television news as an on-air reporter and
anchor with KOOL-TV in Phoenix, Arizona, it was 1968. The Vietnam War would force
President Lyndon Johnson to not run for re-election. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
and Senator Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.
It was in Phoenix that he met and later married Judy, whom he
romanced on the dance floor during a Fourth of July social occasion. Judy remembers
he told her, “I think I’ve fallen in love with you at first sight,”
and it wasn’t long before they were a couple.
In the next three years, Sam Chu Lin would reach the national
CBS News network as a CBS News reporter out of New York. In those days, people toiled
in local television for at least five years before even getting a shot at being
seen by the networks. Usually, this happened when a local reporter would get lucky
with an exclusive story the network wanted.
In Sam’s case, early on, he would aggressively pitch his
pieces to the network bosses in New York. In those days, getting something on the
national network — ABC, CBS or NBC — was very costly and highly, highly
The CBS Morning News used to open with a scroll of featured
stories listing the names of the correspondents and their datelines. So when you
saw and heard the name, “Sam Chu Lin in Tuba City, Arizona,” you took
notice. Hey, that’s a Chinese name! What’s he doing out there, on the
As a reporter for CBS News in New York City, Sam announced to
a nationally televised audience the fall of Saigon more than 30 years ago.
Jeff Wald, news director of KTLA 5 – Los Angeles since 1997,
knew Sam Chu Lin for 30 years. What made him tick?
“Obvious curiosity. He had tremendous energy and persistence
and was very proud of his heritage. Always talked about his family. Gained so much
strength from Judy and his sons Mark and Christopher, and from his religious beliefs
— he was very spiritual.”
Sam left powerful highlights from his various KQED Pacific
Time reports, “He did two fabulous reports for us — the Wen Ho Lee
case coverage was first-rate, including his interview with Wen Ho Lee and the coverage
of Chaplain Captain James Yee. He got one of the first interviews after Yee was
allowed to speak by the military,” says George Lewinski, executive producer
of Pacific Time.
What were his strengths? “He had a knack for finding an interesting
element in a story that would engage the audience. For example, the story of the
twin football players for collegiate champion University of Southern California,
who were Asian American — tremendously interesting to people in Los Angeles.”
Gary Locke, former Governor of Washington, met Sam in 1996 when
he was a candidate. Since then, he’s seen Chu Lin at democratic conventions,
Asian American political leadership development workshops and campaign huddles for
other candidates like Mike Honda for Congress and Judy Chu for Assembly. “Sam
was a very probing journalist. Sam would always come at you in different ways. Is
this right, how about that, don’t you think? And so on. He wouldn’t let
you off the hook. He’d put the question to you every which way he could. You
knew he was going to come at you.”
Sydnie Kohara, KPIX news anchor and KQED-FM Pacific Time
guest host noted, “Sam was always curious. If you didn’t know the answer
to a question, he’d help you find it. Especially on Asian American issues.
One of his endearing qualities — he never stopped fighting for Asian American
stories. He had a personal goal to tell Asian American stories.”
Sam Chu Lin’s claim to greatness was that he surmounted incredible
obstacles early in his career and, in mid-career, when he was fired during a KRON-TV
purge of union employees, he turned adversity to empowerment. Though he did find
piecework (KTVU) and got some temporary stints (KPIX) in the Bay Area, he was essentially
blackballed from getting a staff job in San Francisco TV news ever since he left
KRON in 1984. He ramped up his coverage of Asian American issues and produced more
prolifically for the Asian American press — from East-West to AsianWeek,
to Rafu Shimpo to Nichi Bei Times and others. He co-founded the television
news department at Hewlett-Packard and for 10 years, he produced and hosted the
company’s video show, HP Magazine. When the gig at HP ran out, he found
a steady freelance job at KTTV, Fox 11 in Los Angeles.
Sam’s greatness was in the difference he made in covering
Asian American people and issues, and transforming them into news of national and
international importance and impact.
Said Congressman Mike Honda, a longtime friend: “It was Sam’s
interview with Senator John McCain that enlightened the Senator to the plight of
citizenship denial for Asian American Civil War Veterans. And it was Sam Chu Lin’s
coverage at the critical junctures of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, Captain James Yee and Captain
James Wang’s careers that kept the Asian Pacific civil rights community rallying
to their defense and eventually they were exonerated.”
His advocacy on behalf of civil rights and justice for Asian Americans
continued to the day he died.
Christopher Chow is an Emmy Award winner, formerly
with KPIX San Francisco and KCET Los Angeles.