Obituary

Purposeful Loni Ding

By Steve Behrens

Loni Ding, 78, a filmmaker who brought issues of Asian American identity to the surface, and to PBS, and helped win legislation backing independent producers, died Feb. 20 in a hospital in Oakland, Calif.

Loni Ding

Loni Ding testifies during 1979 Senate hearing looking back on 20 years of public broadcasting since passage of the Public Broadcasting Act. Other speakers include Bill Baker of WNET, left, and Henry Cautehn of South Carolina ETV, right. (Photo: Val Taylor, Current.)

She had recovered well from a stroke in April but friends said she did not regain consciousness after a second stroke in December.

Ding produced a number of documentaries distributed by PBS, including the start of her unfinished series, Ancestors in the Americas, and she pursued a parallel career as a teacher and mentor. Ding recently retired from teaching Asian American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

She taught courses in “intervention media”— programs that not only reflect society but also contribute to social change, according to David Welsh, her husband.

Ding attached community organizing to the arts. In the late ’60s, Welsh recalled, she worked for the city’s Neighborhood Arts Program, hauling easels and musical gear in a VW van and setting up events in the parks.

After learning video production, she produced a 65-part course in practical English for Cantonese speakers. KQED at the time had adopted the access-to-media issue, and Ding produced many varied programs for its Open Studio project. One was a musical retelling of a major labor struggle in Chile between mine owners and workers, he said.

Presented with problems, Ding made programs. She made a short series called Bean Sprouts for teachers and Chinese activists who wanted children “to see a little bit of themselves in their natural setting,” Ding said in a 1992 interview with Barbara Abrash of New York University, a friend and filmmaker. With a U.S. Office of Education grant obtained by Asian Women United, Ding produced the four-part On Silk Wings to help open up the range of career options that Asian women would consider.

Ding placed daily struggles, such as the women’s career decisions, in context with people in past and in the future.

“I think that what we were trying to do in the programs was to show that no one has to be alone,” Ding told Abrash. “You can have the company of those whose memories you carry because you are part of something that preceded you. You can have the courage of knowing that something you did will be carried on by someone, and will affect other people, and therefore something more is at stake and something more can be achieved than what you are doing at that moment. Taking that long view will help you out.”

As she watched the moving testimony of Japanese-Americans who were forcibly taken from the West Coast to inland camps during World War II, she realized TV reporters would reduce it to sound bites. She worked two years on Nisei Soldier, telling the powerfully ironic story of Japanese American soldiers who fought as U.S. troops in Europe while their relatives were herded into pens in the American desert. In Color of Honor she drew out additional accounts from often-reticent Japanese American soldiers who had served as intelligence officers in the Pacific.

These stories were decades old but to many Americans seeing them on public TV, they were news nevertheless. Cassettes of her programs were sent to members of Congress and assisted the campaign for redress, Welsh says. He asks: “How can you not give redress when the sons went over and fought for the United States?”

Ding kept her purpose in sight while she structured her films.

“One of the things that I have understood was how necessary it is to have strategy in all your planning and designing what the work will look like, and you have to have strategy to get it out there to reach its audience,” she said in the interview with Abrash, which is posted on the website of Ding’s nonprofit production company.

“You plan into your work: who your audience is going to be, and how much they will need to understand and how much you have to translate for them in order for them to understand what you are doing,” she said. “If you are going to go to the tough, ugly stuff, you have to place it in the right moment when you have led them up to that moment so that they can face it. Otherwise, they are going to shut off on you.”

Her biggest recent project is Ancestors in the Americas. The first two episodes, backed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, aired on public TV in 2001, Welsh said, and Ding had shot material for two more. Welsh said he’d like to see it finished.

Ding was a major mover in creating not only the Independent Television Service (ITVS) but also, before that, the Asian American pubTV consortium.

“She understood organizing — this was her consummate skill,” says Stephen Gong, head of the group now called the Center for Asian-American Media. When she heard that CPB had funded consortia to aid production by and about the African American, Latino and Native American communities, she reached out to Asian American producers around the country and organized a conference that led to the 1980 founding of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, predecessor of Gong’s center.

Ding later became a star witness for legislation that eventually created ITVS. “She gave the campaign a great deal of credibility,” says Jeff Chester, a media activist who heads the Center for Digital Democracy.

Ding, Chester and others argued for a structural change in public TV’s funding system, and in 1988 won legislation creating ITVS. “The result was a unique funding organization for independent producers that has supported many important films over the years,” Chester wrote in a eulogy. “If ever there was a public television/independent producer saint, it was Loni Ding,” Chester said later.

Survivors include her husband, children May Ying Welsh and Elias and her sister Pearl Ding Dobson.

A visitation period is set for March 13, 5-6 p.m., at the Green Street Mortuary in San Francisco; a funeral service will be held there the next day, 2-3:30 p.m. Her family said a memorial service will be held later.

A brass marching band will lead a procession to Chinatown, where Ding was born and her parents ran a medicinal herb shop, and to the North Beach area, where she lived for years with her family.

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