Lessons from Angkong: Learning from my family’s press freedom battles

For World Press Freedom Day, this writer looks back at his family's legacy, their genuine belief in the power of a free and independent press, and the powerful opponents that tested them.

There’s a book that sits on the bottom row of my shelf called The Case of the Yuyitung Brothers. When I was younger, it was surreal to look at this book and see my own family name in bold print. Especially one with that title: The Case of the Yuyitung Brothers. To me, it signalled suspense and intrigue, not unlike the children’s mystery stories I liked to read.

It turns out younger me was not far off.

Subtitled “Philippine press freedom under siege,” the 366-page book explains the arrest, deportation, and subsequent incarceration of my grandfather Rizal Yuyitung—or Angkong, as my family called him—and his brother Quintin in 1970. The brothers ran the Chinese Commercial News (CCN), a Chinese-language daily newspaper based in the Philippines.

Angkong and great-uncle Quintin endured years of harassment from the government of President Ferdinand Marcos. Resentful of critical coverage published in their newspaper, the government swiftly labelled the brothers anti-Filipino and pro-Communist, sympathetic to Communist China.

Elsewhere, they faced accusations of treason by the Taiwanese Kuomintang government, stung by critical news stories printed in the CCN and the brothers’ support for the integration of Chinese nationals into Filipino society.

Government officials arrested Angkong and his brother Quintin multiple times and searched the CCN offices throughout most of the 1960s. The brothers faced accusations and, later, formal charges of publishing communist propaganda and seditious, anti-Filipino articles.

In March 1970, the two were arrested again and faced deportation hearings, accused of being pro-Communist. While their case was pending, the brothers were covertly rearrested by immigration officials and deported to Taiwan into the hands of the Kuomintang government.

In Taiwan, their trial lasted less than four hours. Had it not been for the condemnation of the Marcos administration’s actions by the international journalism community, the men likely would have faced execution. Instead, they received comparatively modest prison sentences; great-uncle Quintin served two years, while Angkong served three.

Their case eerily mirrored that of their father, Yu Yi Tung, the former editor of the CCN whose refusal to turn the paper into a pro-Japan mouthpiece during the Second World War cost him his life.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard Angkong’s story, but I remember being captivated as my dad told me and my brothers the story during dinner one evening. In my mind, it was straight out of a movie; my own grandfather and great-uncle, whisked away in the dead of night and charged with crimes they didn’t commit.

Of course, younger me had very little understanding of Filipino history nor any knowledge of who Marcos was. I had no idea that two years later, Marcos would declare martial law and rule the Philippines as a dictator until 1986. Nor did I have an appreciation for my ancestors’ principled stand for press freedom in the face of a president determined to silence their voices.

The words libel, sedition, subversion, and communism meant nothing to me. The phrase “kangaroo court” would have certainly provoked more laughter than concern. I might have been able to point out Taiwan on a map but would have stared blankly if you asked me what the Kuomintang was.

Was it fate or sheer coincidence that I would end up in journalism school years later? I have no good answer. My family never put any pressure on me to pursue Angkong’s vocation. Whatever the case, suddenly I was in an environment where I could grasp the values and principles Angkong, great-uncle Quintin, and their father shared.

They were honest, principled men who stayed true to their values. They were resilient in the face of adversity. They cared about the power of community. Perhaps most notably, they all shared a genuine belief in the power of a free and independent press, beliefs that would be tested by powerful opponents.

Angkong as a young man; Angkong in his Toronto home in 2002

At any cost

A few years back, my dad showed me a series of tape recordings he and his siblings made with Angkong in the years before he died. Angkong told stories of his upbringing, his work, and his own reflections on our family’s history.

Angkong passed away when I was 11, so I remember him well enough but could never fully grasp the weight of his stories. Hearing his voice again was remarkable. What fascinated me the most was hearing Angkong recount the values he shared with his father and brother—integrity, resilience, community, and fairness.

Born in the Philippines in 1922, Angkong grew up in China before moving back to the Philippines to join his father and brother after his mother passed away in 1936. Angkong’s father, Yu Yi Tung, was a soft-spoken, principled man; one who took his role as a parent very seriously.

Despite a reserved demeanour, Yu Yi Tung was active in the community and kept a busy social calendar. He even made a point of bringing his children to different community events and introducing them to his friends.

In a recorded conversation, Angkong remembered attending a tennis tournament with his father. “I knew he wasn’t interested in sports,” Angkong said. “It showed he tried his best to be a good parent for me.”

In December 1941, immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese forces began their invasion of the Philippines. In April 1942, the joint American and Filipino soldiers tasked with fighting back—facing sickness and starvation while awaiting support that never arrived—were forced to surrender. The Philippines spent nearly four years under Japanese occupation during the Second World War before its liberation in September 1945.

Yu Yi Tung closed the CCN shortly after the Japanese invasion. During this period, he and other community leaders in media, schools and commercial industries were vocal advocates for boycotts of Japanese goods. A committee was set up by owners of small businesses who led these boycott efforts. Inspired by his father’s defiance of Japanese imperialism, Angkong took part as well.

“It must have been very effective,” Angkong recalled. “If we noticed any trucks carrying Japanese goods, we would report them to the committee.”

The Japanese in turn accused committee members of anti-Japanese sentiment and had them arrested. They also demanded that his father turn the CCN into a Japanese propaganda outlet. Angkong’s father refused, knowing full well the cost of his decision. While some Chinese prisoners received lengthy prison sentences, Yu Yi Tung was sentenced to death. He was executed on April 15, 1942.

“We were never informed by the Japanese [of] his execution,” he remembered in a recording. “His clothes were returned without a message. We hoped it was only a tactic to scare us.”

In these tapes, Angkong described a man faced with impossible choices.

“The decision not to kowtow […] was very hard one to make, knowing he’d be leaving his family behind,” he said. “But he made the decision. He was a true martyr and hero.”

Generations of resistance

It was against the advice of their friends and relatives that Angkong and his brother Quintin revived the Chinese Commercial News in the years following the war. With Angkong as the paper’s editor and great-uncle Quintin as its new publisher, the CCN struggled initially as it competed against other Chinese-language outlets but survived even as others closed down over time.

Like Yu Yi Tung, the brothers strived to be fair and independent above all. They shared his integrity and principles along with his refusal to deviate from them.

Yu Yi Tung was a “man of conviction,” Angkong said.

“He would not compromise his principles with the newspapers. He would make a lot of enemies,” Angkong recalled. “With journalism, there were too many sacrifices with too few benefits, he thought. But he persisted.”

“He was a man of principles and fairness,” Angkong continued. “His students remembered him long after his death. His employees admired him. His friends respected him.”

The Yuyitung brothers shared their father’s penchant for building community ties and formed reputations as fair, trustworthy journalists. They were members of different associations and maintained close relationships with others in Filipino media.

Their networking would pay off. According to The Case of the Yuyitung Brothers, following the brothers’ arrest and “cloak-and-dagger” deportation, the Filipino press showed widespread outrage and condemnation of the Marcos administration.

In response to Angkong and Quentin’s deportation, Teodoro F. Valencia, a journalist for The Manila Times, wrote: “Many of my newsmen friends say that our protests are all futile now. The thing is done and that’s that. Not quite.”

“The Philippine press will never forgive if the Yuyitung brothers are harmed in the way everyone assumes they will,” Valencia continued. “For my part, I swear that this case will never be forgotten.”

Filipino supporters were joined by the International Press Institute (IPI), which condemned the deportation as a “violation of the Declaration of Human Rights and the principle of press freedom.”

Angkong appreciated the gesture—his youngest daughter, born one month after his deportation, was named Ipi, after their initials.

The brothers never lost their principled stance. On trial in Taiwan, they each made their pleas separately. Each brother declared their desire to assume full responsibility in an effort to protect the other from harm.

In the book, Angkong called his arrest a “prelude to the proclamation of martial law” that came in 1972. The period of martial law was characterized by dictatorial rule, human rights abuses, and complete suppression of the press.

The Marcos government fell in 1986. By that point, the two brothers lived in exile—Quintin had moved to San Francisco, Angkong to Toronto. That didn’t prevent them from returning to the Philippines that same year to re-open the CCN, just as they had after the Second World War. The CCN remains in the Yuyitung family and continues to publish today.

Lessons from Angkong

My family’s stories have stuck with me my whole life. They were in my head through journalism school as I learned the basics like my own relatives did decades before. They were with me as I wrote my first published piece, a review of a Regina Spektor record. I have had many pieces published and have held a variety of roles in journalism, media, and communications, and everywhere I go I carry these stories with me.

These stories were also with me as I sat through class discussions on press freedom, and when I first learned about state censorship and government-sanctioned crackdowns on news outlets. These stories are in my mind when I hear about efforts to suppress journalists’ voices, whether it be through meritless attacks on their credibility or efforts to intimidate and silence. They stick with me when I hear about the persecution of reporters; ones who are arrested, jailed and even killed for simply doing their jobs.

Reporting the news and telling stories are not crimes. They never have been. They must never be. And no matter how many people are determined to extinguish the voices of an independent press, my own family history shows just how resilient journalists can be.

More personally, the stories of my family were with me every time I saw my name in print and caught a glimpse of the name “Yuyitung” on the page.

My family name comes from my great-grandfather, a press freedom martyr. His name lived through two of his sons and their principled stances in defence of press freedom. Quintin’s eldest son currently runs the CCN in Manila, which celebrated its 100th anniversary just a couple of years ago.

I’m not going to pretend my family name lends me a magical journalism touch. My career choices have not been predicated on me finding some way to live up to their legacy. I’m the only one of Angkong’s grandchildren to attend journalism school so far, but I can assure you I never felt pressured to.

Instead, I’ve always been encouraged to engage with my family’s story and learn from it.

I’m not proud to admit it took me until last fall to read The Case of the Yuyitung Brothers cover to cover. In the midst of a pandemic reading kick, I finally sat down to do something I should have done years before.

It’s a compelling story, one that continues to captivate me. It’s filled with lessons from Angkong, lessons I will never forget.

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