UCLA Asian American Studies Center
Him Mark Lai: Dean of Chinese American History, Passes (1925-2009)
Him Mark Lai, the internationally noted scholar, writer, and “Dean of Chinese American History” was born on November 1, 1925 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His ten books, more than 100 essays, and research in English and Chinese on all aspects of Chinese American life are published and cited in the U.S., the Americas, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.
Lai was a member of Amerasia Journal’s editorial board for more than 30 years and a contributing writer. Among his works published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press are: A History Reclaimed: An Annotated Bibliography of Chinese Language Materials on the Chinese of America (1986); in 2000 Amerasia Journal published his autobiographical essay: “Musings of a Chinese American Historian.”
With the writer Ruthanne Lum McCunn, historian Judy Yung, and editor Russell C. Leong serving as the co-editors, the UCLA Asian American Center Press will be publishing his autobiography in 2009-2010.
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Him Mark Lai was born in San Francisco Chinatown to immigrant parents from Nam Hoi District, Guangzhou, and attended local schools including Francisco Junior High, Nam Kue Chinese School, and was graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering and until his retirement worked for Bechtel Corporation.
In late 1949, he began volunteering for Chung Sai Yat Po, the first daily paper to support the People’s Republic of China, and became a member of organizations active in persuading students to return to China to serve the new government. He also joined the Chinese American Democratic Youth League, more familiarly known as Mun Ching, where he met Laura Jung, a new immigrant, whom he married in 1953.
According to Ruthanne Lum McCunn:
“Lai joined the Chinese Historical Society of America soon after its founding in 1963. These events, together with contemporaneous changes in the status of minorities spurred by the Civil Rights movement, led Lai towards developing a Chinese American identity, and in 1967, he accepted a proposal by Maurice Chuck, editor of the bilingual East/West, the Chinese American Weekly to write a series of articles on Chinese American history. This marked the beginning of Lai’s career in reclaiming the Chinese/American experience-a fortuitous confluence of his passion for history and his deep commitment to his bicultural heritage and democratic principles.
His East/West articles-revised and annotated-became the cornerstone for the classic A History of the Chinese in California, A Syllabus, co-edited with Thomas W. Chin and Philip P. Choy, as well as the basis for the first Chinese American history course in the United States, which Lai team taught with Choy at San Francisco State College in Fall 1969 and which resulted in another classic Outlines: History of the Chinese in America. Lai’s first scholarly essay, “A Historical Survey of Organizations of the Left Among the Chinese in America,” published in the Fall 1972 issue of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars-together with subsequent revisions-remains a standard reference. So do Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, co-authored/translated with Genny Lim and Judy Yung; Lai’s “Chinese on the Continental U.S.” in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups; his From Overseas Chinese to Chinese American: a History of the Development of Chinese during the Twentieth Century (in Chinese) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Overseas and Huaquiao Huaren baike quanshu [Encyclopedia of Chinese and people of Chinese descent overseas]; his studies of Chinese newspapers and schools, district associations, and communities in the Pearl River Delta.”
Indeed, almost every researcher or scholar who has studied Chinese Americans during the past forty years is indebted to Him Mark Lai’s pioneering and lifelong work based on primary Chinese-language sources. According to editor Russell C. Leong, “Him Mark Lai gave Chinese Americans a voice in history because he listened to ordinary people both in America and China and trained himself to read what they felt and thought–in the Chinese language. His legacy challenges us to listen, to think, and to feel more deeply–to untangle, to clarify, and to refine the historical and political record of our lives here.”
The UCLA Asian American Studies Center is also grateful for Him Mark Lai’s support of the work of others as a long-standing member of the editorial committees of Amerasia Journal and of Chinese America: History & Perspectives, the two leading scholarly journals which have collectively published the most materials on Asian Americans and Chinese Americans during the past four decades.
-Russell C. Leong
Editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA