The first thing you notice about the radio show host is his voice. It is deep and mellifluous, a classic announcer's voice. But underneath its gentle tones lurks a twist of tart humor.
Then you hear what he's talking about. Asians in Minnesota. Japanese American atomic bomb survivors. Names like Yas Kaz, the Noh Buddies and Mute Beat slide easily off his tongue.
Theo Feng has been on the Washington airwaves for 11 years hosting the first and only Asian American radio program in the area. Yet chances are you're not familiar with him or "Gold Mountain," his hour-long Monday afternoon collection of interviews, news, announcements and music on WPFW (89.3 FM).
"No one has really heard of my show," Feng acknowledged one recent afternoon as he sifted through a box of tapes in his Alexandria apartment. "That's the secret and the sadness of it."
But while fame has eluded the 37-year-old radio host who is the sole producer, writer and announcer for "Gold Mountain," his commitment to his "enduring hobby" remains strong.
"I see the show as giving a voice to Asian Pacific Americans," Feng said. "There are a lot of opinions and voices that never get aired on radio, and they should be."
The apartment was a mess. Boxes overflowing with cassettes, albums and file folders filled every corner. Recording equipment dominated the living room.
"I used to record at the station," he explained. But, noting that listener-sponsored WPFW has been plagued with equipment failures, Feng began producing "Gold Mountain" at home. "I wanted more control, and I wanted stuff that worked," he said.
By day Feng is a psychologist for the Defense Department researching the "Human Resource Implications of the Man-Machine Interface." But every Sunday evening into the early morning hours Monday, he becomes a disc jockey and recording technician. He is self-trained, having worked briefly on an Asian American radio program in Los Angeles, where he attended college.
Feng said he first got interested in radio when he was asked to make homeroom announcements over his high school's intercom system. "People told me I had a good voice and that I ought to try out," he remembered, grinning.
Today he works alone at his unpaid position, listening to hours of taped interviews, editing and recording music from his vast and eclectic collection of Asian American artists. He estimated that he spends at least 10 hours every week working on "Gold Mountain." (The show's title comes from the name the first Asian immigrants to the United States gave this country in the late 1800s.)
Feng "inherited" the show from its creators -- three college-age Asian American activists -- in 1979. One year before they had requested, and gotten, free air-time on WPFW to produce a monthly radio program by and for Asian Americans.
Feng produced the show with several other volunteers until 1983. Today, except for Ngoc Bich Nguyen, a Vietnamese community worker who records a bilingual Vietnamese and English news segment, Feng has no staff. But it is not the solitude, the long hours or the lack of monetary compensation that frustrates him. It is the fact that his target audience -- English-speaking Asian Americans -- rarely tunes in.
"There's a lack of a critical mass, I guess," Feng said simply.
In the back of their grocery on H Street in Chinatown, Jean Lee and her mother, Siu Chin, were making dozens of cha siu bows, snow-white buns filled with sweet roasted pork. They worked methodically, patting a spoonful of the meat mixture into a mound of the soft dough, twisting the top until the bun looked like a plump Hershey chocolate kiss.
"We're really quite self-sufficient," Lee, 52, said, noting that the family also makes its own tofu, roast duck and soy sauce chicken for sale. "Basically we've kept the operation the way it was in the '50s."
Feng unobtrusively soaked up the scene with his microphone, capturing Lee's conversation and all the sounds that swirled around her: children's laughter, the sound of the cleaver chopping meat, the ring of the cash register. He appeared slightly awkward as he interviewed Lee for a project chronicling Chinatown's history. He tapped his chin with his fingers and stared intently down at the table between questions, avoiding Lee's direct gaze. "I can't look at somebody and think at the same time," he explained later.
But what Feng lacks in on-the-air savvy, he makes up for with thorough reporting and intense curiosity. He is rarely without his recording equipment tucked compactly in a pouch slung around his waist. Wherever there is a gathering of Asian Americans -- an Asian journalists' association conference in New York or a performance of Hawaiian plays in Washington -- Feng is there.
"He's an amazing and thoughtful person who allows the environment to speak for him," said James Yee, director of the San Francisco-based National Asian American Telecommunications Association. "He's a collector of butterflies. He gets the mundane, the unusual. ... He's an archivist through radio."
Feng relishes his role as cultural historian, but he has his dreams for the future.
"I have this secret fantasy that years from now someone will unearth this gold mine," he said, pointing to stacks of cassettes and reels he has collected over the years. "I hope that one day it'll make a contribution to the understanding of Asian Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders ... what they're concerned about, what they're feeling and what they're doing."