To Connie Chung, the term Chinese-American does not apply to her. She is Chinese, period. She awakens memories of her traditional upbringing with vivid recollection. As the youngest of five daughters and the only one to be born in the United States, she resolutely took on the responsibility of bringing prestige to the Chung family name.
Transcending all stereotypes and discrimination she faced in her nearly 40 years on the air, her career in broadcast journalism spanned major networks and coveted primetime slots. From her beginnings at WTTG-TV in 1969, and then her breakout as a correspondent for CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in 1971, she moved to NBC in 1983, where she anchored programs such as NBC Nightly News and NBC News at Sunrise. She eventually returned to CBS News when she procured her dream job: CBS Evening News, which she co-anchored with Dan Rather.
Her serious occupation never restrained her often-criticized sense of humor, however. In the business of television news, where hard facts are often reported by stonewall personalities, it was always Chung’s sweet temperament and ability to laugh at herself that set her apart from her colleagues and put her famous subjects at ease. So was the case when Chung – actually our new friend Connie – spoke with generous laughter of her Chinese heritage, her history in news, and life with her husband and son, Maury and Matthew Povich.
ASIANCE: What was it like being the youngest of five girls and growing up in such a big family?
Connie Chung: My parents and my four older sisters were all born in China. They came over in 1945, and I was born in 1946 so I was the only family member born in the United States. My parents originally had ten children and they lost five as babies during the Sino-Japanese War when the Japanese invaded China, during the beginnings of World War II. Infant mortality was pretty high back then, so they all died as babies. Three of them were boys, two of them were girls. That was very hard on our family because in the Chinese tradition boys were coveted. No doubt, disappointing to the grandparents (laughs). For my poor father six women in one household was challenging, to say the least (laughs). We rented a house in Washington DC and there was only one bathroom so he could never get into the bathroom. Virtually impossible, right? The girls were quite hormonal and very talkative. It wasn’t easy for him!
In many ways I always wanted to be the son that my father never had. I thought perhaps I could do something that would make the name Chung distinguished.
ASIANCE: Was it difficult to coalesce Western and Chinese traditions and customs, or did it come naturally for you individually and for your family as a whole?
CC: We all spoke Chinese and we had Chinese food every night; we had Chinese parties (laughs). It was a very traditional Chinese home. I’m sure my parents were influenced by the fact that they were here in the United States but the reality was that they stuck to Chinese traditions; they abided by them and I think that they instilled them in all of us. What was unusual in our family was that my father and mother brought up five very strong women – formidable women who were forces to contend with (laughs). In many ways I always wanted to be the son that my father never had. I thought perhaps I could do something that would make the name Chung distinguished.
ASIANCE: How did you come to choose broadcast journalism?
CC: I started off in Biology in college and I found it terribly unexciting. So I switched majors a few thousand times. Then the summer between my junior year and senior year I worked for a Congressman on Capitol Hill as a summer intern. I watched reporters on Capitol Hill and all of that sort of gelled by the time the summer was over and I decided to switch my major to Journalism. When I graduated I decided to go into television news as opposed to print journalism because at the time print journalism was already beginning to fold. Also, there were very few women on television news and I thought there might be opportunities if I gave it a crack. It turned out to be a good gamble in the sense that it was a budding industry.
ASIANCE: Did your parents play a role in your choice at all?
CC: No, they didn’t. I think the whole family was very surprised because I never really opened my mouth much. It’s because they were so noisy (laughs), it was impossible for me to get a word in edgewise. And being the youngest, they were very dominant women. So when I emerged in a career that required being out there they were shocked. They thought I was very shy, and I was. I had to push myself to get myself out there, to be an aggressive reporter.
ASIANCE: What difficulties did you face as a Chinese-American woman in a field that seemed to be dominated by Caucasian men?
CC: It was difficult to navigate because it was so dominated by men – the profession and the people I was covering. I ended up a lot on Capitol Hill and that was dominated by men as well. So there was a tendency to not want to take me seriously, but I wasn’t sure if it was because I was young, or Chinese, or a woman. I had these three things that were going for me but they were negative when it came to the stereotypical perception of what a reporter should be. There were four [women] who were hired by CBS News in the 1970s and I was one of them. We just put up with it – being berated, snide remarks, for me, racist remarks. I always thought that the key was don’t let them see you cry (laughs).
ASIANCE: Was there a moment when you felt that you had finally overcome those obstacles of racial and sexual discrimination?
CC: I think sexual and racial discrimination existed throughout my career. However, there was one moment early on in which I felt I had reached some level of credibility, and that was at CBS News. One is first hired with the title of reporter but then when the bureau chief determines that you have cut the mustard, he names you a correspondent. Once those of us who were reporters got the title of correspondent we thought we’d made it. It was very gratifying. It made me feel much less insecure.
ASIANCE: What was it like to share the screen with anchors like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather?
CC: Walter Cronkite was clearly a true iconic figure. The term Anchorman was created for him, actually, so he was the quintessential Anchorman. From then on I honestly don’t believe anyone lived up to the title, including myself. He was just a superb human being, a wonderful journalist, a wonderful man. When I was a reporter for his news it was a dream come true. At that time, Dan Rather was the White House correspondent. Never did I, nor did [Dan} think that I would ever be sitting right next to him anchoring the news with him (laughs). The good news is that I got the job and it was a gargantuan dream that I dreamed of. The bad news is that [Dan] didn’t dream of it and didn’t particularly like it (laughs). So it didn’t quite work out so well to co-anchor the news with Dan Rather, as you well know (laughs).
Women naturally can multi-task and that’s what we do. Many Asian women are so calm, grounded, and organized that we can do it. It’s just not easy.
ASIANCE: You are known for your persistence and having a gentle interview style that is punctuated by hard-hitting questions. How did you develop this style and how has it helped you to uncover the truth in exclusive interviews?
CC: It’s just who I am. I care a lot about people and it’s not my nature to beat somebody over the head. So, the only way I know how to elicit information is to pretty much be nice. But I’m very tough too; I’m not a pushover. And I’m extremely detail-oriented and persistent. When I got the co-anchor job with Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite called me up and he said (imitating Walter Cronkite), ‘Connie, I just have one bit of advice: Be yourself.” So I always was.
ASIANCE: What was it like being married to someone who also works in the media and is also in the public eye?
CC: It’s always been good. There are a lot of people in our business who do take themselves much too seriously. Both my husband and I aren’t like that. People in our business always say we’re the most normal people in this business that they know. We’ve tried to raise our son so that he just has a normal life, and he pretty much does.
ASIANCE: How did you feel when you first adopted your son, Matthew?
CC: It was a miracle because I had just been dropped as a co-anchor at CBS News with Dan Rather. It was my dream job and it was quite shocking to me. I was told on a Friday and I did the news that night, and I went home and suddenly everything I had been working for was gone. The very next day we got a call – our adoption, which we had been working on all this time had gone through. How serendipitous was that? It’s such a blessing. It was like a gift out of heaven. So then we started getting ready for his birth, which occurred just a couple weeks later. We had him in our arms when he was less than a day old. We actually had originally intended to adopt an American boy and a Chinese baby girl; have one little Maury and one little Connie (laughs). We went for both at the same time and said to ourselves whichever one happens first, fine, and then we’ll continue with the other. As it turned out, the American boy came through first, and I so wanted a boy. Once we went through the sleepless nights we said: ‘This is fine, we’re done!’ (laughs)
ASIANCE: When you started working again, how were you able to balance marriage and parenting with your career? Do you have any advice for Chinese women on how to achieve this?
CC: Women naturally can multi-task and that’s what we do. Many Asian women are so calm, grounded, and organized that we can do it. It’s just not easy. The difficulty of course is that if you’re a perfectionist – I will confess to that – it’s even more debilitating to get it all done and do it to the highest degree. So I think the best advice is to ratchet down the perfection and declare that you can’t do everything perfectly all the time. You can be a great mom at one moment and then a great reporter at another moment and then a great wife at another moment. But to truly do it simultaneously is really impossible. If you have a partner or a spouse, try and train them that they can’t just be there, they have to do things and be involved. They can’t just be old-fashioned pigs (laughs). They have to do their part.
ASIANCE: What are you working on currently?
CC: I haven’t been working for a few years but I do give speeches, which I enjoy. [On Monday] I’m talking to pharmacists about healthcare and the influence that media, like Twitter and Facebook, had on the healthcare debate. [Speeches] are fun and challenging because it’s the preparation, writing, and then actually meeting people.
I went to the University of Maryland and the college has become quite extraordinary now. I serve as a co-chairman of the scholarship committee because I want to help get scholarships for kids, particularly minorities. And then I serve on a couple of other boards, but pretty much I’m keeping the evil eye on my teenage son (laughs).
ASIANCE: What was it like when you visited China for the first time in 1987?
CC: It was very exciting because I had never been there. I went to Beijing and Shanghai for NBC but then I peeled off and went to my parents’ hometowns. When they came to the United States, they eventually wanted to get their citizenship. China was still Communist so they had to stop writing to their relatives and cut off all relations and communication in order to get their US citizenship. So it was very sad because they lost touch. It wasn’t until Nixon opened the doors with China that they were able to write again and find out who was alive and who was dead. Their parents had died while they were here in the United States and they had never been to their graves. So I went and paid their respects on behalf of them to my grandparents’ graves. It was very moving. I saw the house that they used to live in and it was just wonderful.
My mother was born and raised in Nanking and my father was born in Soochow. In Chinese folklore they say all the most beautiful women in China were born in Soochow, and three of my sisters were born there. The phrase that Chinese people know is ‘Above there is heaven, and below there is Soochow’. Soochow is a beautiful city and it’s heaven on Earth. My three older sisters used to say ‘We’re beautiful because we were born in Soochow, and you weren’t’ (laughs). And I’d say, ‘Yes, but I can be President and you can’t’ (laughs).
Interview by Dana Poblete