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After 20 years, I met my childhood hero: The local news anchor who looked like me

Representation in media is important. I know this because I saw someone who looked like me on TV growing up and believed I could do that, too.
As anyone who is a devout watcher of morning news will tell you, it's easy to grow attached to the anchors who you welcome into your home each day. For me, it wasn't just that Ellee Pai Hong was cool and funny — though she obviously was — it was that she was one of the few faces that looked like mine on TV at the time.
As anyone who is a devout watcher of morning news will tell you, it's easy to grow attached to the anchors who you welcome into your home each day. For me, it wasn't just that Ellee Pai Hong was cool and funny — though she obviously was — it was that she was one of the few faces that looked like mine on TV at the time.TODAY Illustration / Courtesy Ellee Pai Hong/ Sam Kubota
/ Source: TMRW

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

If you ask kids who their childhood heroes are, they'll probably mention characters and celebrities they see on-screen. If you’re my age (turning 30 this summer, despite not fully being ready for it), you might remember looking up to the Power Rangers or Britney Spears.

I, however, looked up to Ellee Pai Hong.

That’s not an obscure actor’s name or an early '90s pop star that slipped your mind; Ellee Pai Hong was the morning news anchor on NBC Chicago in the early-mid 2000s.

My mother has faithfully watched the TODAY Show and the morning local news every day in our suburban Chicago home since before I was born. She still does, actually, and wants Al Roker to know that he should go easy on Craig Melvin.

It’s a matter of luck or fate that I now work for TODAY, the show I have genuinely watched since birth, and Ellee Pai Hong was the person I saw each morning before catching the bus. There were a few days I didn’t tune in — I was tired, running late, finishing some sort of homework — but most days, I watched attentively as a well-dressed Asian American woman delivered the news in my hometown.

As anyone who is a devout watcher of morning news will tell you, it's easy to grow attached to the anchors who you welcome into your home each day. For me, it wasn't just that Ellee Pai Hong was cool and funny — though she obviously was — it was that she was one of the few faces that looked like mine on TV at the time.

From left to right: Alex Perez, Ellee Pai Hong and Ginger Zee anchor the morning news in Chicago in 2008.Courtesy Ellee Pai Hong

I soon discovered that my life skills involved, almost exclusively, talking to others and writing, so I decided to pursue a career in journalism. And I can safely say that I believed I could follow my dreams, at least in part, because I had watched Ellee Pai Hong do it for all those years.

When I stepped foot on campus at the University of Missouri, which is home to one of the nation’s best journalism programs, I had a bit of culture shock. People there were constantly asking me "What are you?" and the only other Asian faces I recognized were exchange students coming to study from the other side of the globe. I wasn't sure where I fit in.

TODAY.com reporter and editor Samantha Kubota anchors in Columbia, Missouri, in 2013.KOMU

Later, as a reporter/anchor on the local NBC station in Columbia, Missouri, I took phone calls, emails, tweets and comments from local viewers who complained about my appearance on air. And at least some of the responses were tied to my ethnic identity.

But through it all, I tried to channel the journalists who came before me, especially Ellee Pai Hong.

I decided to track her down for this piece to let her know just how much her presence and success meant to me. She was kind enough to chat with one of her biggest fans and shared that she still works in TV, serving as a host for Comcast Newsmakers.

Hong with Stephanie Kifowit in 2016Courtesy Ellee Pai Hong

It turns out that while growing up in Los Angeles, she looked up to another Asian American newscaster. Hong told me she used to trick her two sisters into watching the afternoon news so she could catch KCBS anchor Tritia Toyota.

“We only had one TV … and they never wanted to watch news,” she said with a laugh. “I'd say, ‘Well, don't you want to watch the weather so you can figure out what you're wearing to school tomorrow?’”

Toyota actually co-founded the Asian American Journalists Association in 1981. (Disclaimer: I’m a member of AAJA, which is now a nationwide organization with more than 1,500 members across the country).

“That's who I used to watch, and I'd be like, ‘Oh, that looks interesting,’” Hong said. “And to see someone doing something like that (who) looks like me made it possible in my head. I totally believe you need to see people in different like diverse people in different areas because it connects you with that job or career.”

She added that she didn’t realize until later that she wanted to go into television broadcasting herself.

“Honestly, I wanted to be a Broadway star,” she said with a chuckle. “I've always been a little bit of a ham. But I realized I'm not that great of a singer.”

Hong talks with Sam Kubota for an interview in April 2021.Courtesy Sam Kubota

Like anyone meeting their career role model, I also had to ask for Hong’s professional advice.

Her first tip was to approach stories from all angles. She explained that her first boss (a “hardass") in a small local news market had made her approach a family grieving after their two children died in a fire. Hong said she didn’t want to do the story but felt pressure from her boss, so asked the mother to tell her about her children’s lives before their untimely deaths.

“I took the position of, you know, let's talk about your children, how great they were. Tell me about all the great stuff they did and what kind of kids they were and how much you love them” she said. “Just like with everything, it's about how you approach things. Don't get stuck in thinking you need to approach things one way — you can come at it from all different angles.”

Another piece of advice: “You’ve got to manage up, as well as manage down,” referring to how important it is to maintain workplace relationships with both subordinates and those you report to.

“Obviously … being good is just the baseline, you have to be good at what you do,” she said.“But you have to manage those relationships within your workspace … it's always people problems, relationship problems that gets in the way of being more productive and more creative.”

As of late, there have been a slew of problems facing the Asian American community. As I spoke with Hong in late April, there were ongoing attacks against people of Asian descent happening across the country.

Hong told me a story about how her daughter had faced racism at school and how she'd coached her to stick up for herself. She thinks the entire community should come together to stand up for themselves as well and hopes for lasting change.

“I feel like Asian Americans, we need a person or a group or several people to say something and be loud about it,” she said. “Culturally speaking, we as Asian Americans, we grow up to be considerate of others. It's not ‘me first,’ it's consideration of others, work hard and do what you're supposed to do.

“But, you know, silence never inspired change, right, so to be silent about what happens to you, about the derogatory comments that are aimed at you, about the hate crimes — more seriously — that happened to you, it doesn't do anything,” she continued. “It doesn't prompt change so I feel like as a community, we cannot be silenced. And we cannot be silent.”

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