Remembering Loni Ding

by Moriah Ulinskas, Director of Next Gen Programs

This morning I received news that Loni Ding passed away on February 20 after a long year following a stroke last Spring. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Loni since before the stroke, and hearing that she had passed triggered a string of memories that left me crying at my desk for the first hour of the day. I’ve spent the morning emailing back and forth with my friend Alison Wong, who, along with myself, was one of Loni’s assistants on the Ancestors in the Americas series back when Ali and I were both just kids, fresh out of college, eagerly entering the world of documentary filmmaking. Ali wrote to me today, “she symbolizes a really special and important time in my life when I was discovering myself and what I wanted out of life”, and I think that aptly summarizes the impact Loni had on many Bay Area filmmakers.

I came to BAVC in the Fall of 1997 as an intern and Loni was a regular at the old facility on Mississippi Street. I remember clearly the day I overheard someone saying to my supervisor that they needed an assistant on a film project. I peered over the divider, told the small smiling woman on the other side that I was interested, and printed my resume on the spot. The next day I rode the bus up Van Ness Avenue and walked the hill to her Washington Street home where I would soon be schooled in social documentary, Asian American history, and how to butcher a chicken.

Loni will forever be remembered for her advocacy work as one of the founders of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association(NAATA) -- now the Center for Asian American Media --as a spearhead of the Ethnic Studies Department at Cal, and for the influence which her film, Nisei Soldier, had on Congress’ decision to redress the Japanese- American internment during WWII. I will forever remember Loni as something of a whirling dervish spinning across the two front rooms set aside in her family’s home for her production studio- simultaneously fielding phone calls from funders, reviewing interviews for the Ancestors series, and mothering over her husband and children. It was the year impeachment proceedings were brought against President Clinton and one night Loni dragged the TV from the living room, the butcher block from the kitchen, and proceeded to butcher a chicken next to me so she could watch one of Clinton’s defenses and talk me through some of the footage I was reviewing and still get dinner on the table.

For Loni there was no clear distinction between the personal and professional- she committed herself wholeheartedly to her family, her teaching, her filmmaking and her advocacy work in a way that boundaries blurred. Her children would often walk across the frame of footage I was digitizing from one of her shoots in China, her home was an office for her staff as well as a meeting site for her husband David’s union gatherings, and her heart was a resting place for the many filmmakers she mentored. Loni was both incredibly soft and incredibly hard. I remember coming out of a screening at the Castro with her one night and as I lit up a cigarette (American Spirit) she took it from me, took a drag then ground it under her heel announcing, “You think it’s better to smoke these organic cigarettes? Smoking one of those things is like trying to smoke a loaf of whole wheat bread”. She was hyper and erratic and Ali and I often just found her HYSTERICAL. I remember being in the narration booth, here at BAVC, and she actually was able to get Pat Morita, from Happy Days, to do the voice over for her film. She kept stopping him during the recording sessions because she didn’t think he sounded enough like the Pat Morita she wanted on the voice over, so she actually did an imitation OF him TO him for him to copy. We were laughing on the other side of the glass watching her bust into the sound proof booth to tell him over and over what he should sound like, this Chinese American woman imitating this Japanese American man…

Things I will remember Loni by: taking us wine tasting while on a shoot in Napa then declaring it “crew nap time” and going to sleep under a tree, getting me pretty much banned from the Bancroft library for losing books I’d checked out for her (which I’m sure are still in stacks somewhere in her home), and teaching me how to butcher a chicken while logging a video.

I pulled up the intro that we recorded at BAVC, to try to remember what the line was that Loni kept reciting to Pat Morita that had us in stitches. I didn’t find it, but I was moved to hear Mr. Morita, also passed now, read Loni’s elegantly written opening lines, “What is history when the reporter does not record and the camera does not see?” Loni dedicated her life’s work to addressing this question, by producing films and fostering filmmakers and institutions that would force the camera to see. And for that, and for many other moments of grace and inspiration, we are eternally grateful.

Rest in peace, Loni Ding.

To read more about Loni:
thanks to Martha Wallner for forwarding this to me. DeeDee

Loni Ding testifies in Senate, 1979

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.)

Purposeful Loni Ding

The late filmmaker was ‘a consummate organizer’

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.
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.
from Brian Drolet:
I remember going with her to the Ford Foundation 10 or 15 years ago to fight for a grant for Asians in America. The meeting was not promising. As we left I told her that my friend Maria Patrick was working on a project for Tom Lennon on "The Irish in America," and that they had received over 1 million in grants. I don't remember Loni ever using the "F" word, but her response was something in that genre, followed by a diatribe about "just what we need, another series about the Irish." Also memories of Loni at home: David's Pacific Basin Report office cluttered in the back, May Ying's playpen in the dinning room. Our kids are about the same age. Elias a year or so older than Rachel, May Ying maybe a year younger than Kevin. A vague image of Elias getting in the playpen and attempting to strangle May Ying one day. Much commotion. May Ying held her ground. A very tough gal, like her mom. It was an incredibly energetic home. David always bursting with ideas and information, Loni moving rapidly and efficiently from kids to work to god knows what projects. I recall the old Chinese saying that "some deaths are light as a feather, some are heavier that Mt. Tai." Loni has left a very weighty imprint on so many lives.