[COMMUNITY] Him Mark Lai's Work Going Digital
- Chinese-American scholar's work going digital
Many of 'accidental' historian's writings have not been seen by public
By Momo Chang, STAFF WRITER
For more information about the Him Mark Lai Digital Archive Project
of the Chinese Historical Society of America, visit the project's
prototype site, http://himmarklai.org, or http://www.chsa.org.
SAN FRANCISCO - Sitting in one of several rooms filled with books,
Him Mark Lai recounts how he became a scholar of Chinese-American
"I think the main thing is, I'm Chinese," said Lai, who turned 82 on
Nov. 1. "My past has been for China, for the Chinese, to do well, to
improve themselves. Then that feeling transferred to (being) Chinese
Lai's passion for collecting books and news about Chinese Americans
makes him a unique and in some ways, accidental historian.
An engineer by trade he worked at Bechtel Corporation from 1953 to
1984 Lai has spent more than half his life as a pioneer scholar of
all things related to Chinese America.
"He spared no expenses in crisscrossing the U.S., from Chinatowns in
all major cities to small towns and ghost towns in remote rural
areas, to collect materials relevant to Chinese-American life, past
and present," Ling-chi Wang, professor emeritus of ethnicstudies at
the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a tribute to Lai on
his recent birthday.
No one ever said being a scholar of Chinese-American history made you
rich, or even famous. As prolific a writer as Lai is, he is not as
well-known or recognized as other Chinese-American scholars. That is,
in part, because he does not have a Ph.D. in the field, one expert
And much of Lai's work such as his articles and his research is
not readily available to the general public. But staff at the Chinese
Historical Society of America, which is celebrating its 45-year
anniversary this spring, are working on a project to make his work
In a tribute to Lai, the historical society is launching a bilingual
Web site, which will be available sometime in 2008, said Anna Naruta,
director of archives at the historical society, who is managing the
Him Mark Lai Digital Archive Project. Not only will some of his
written work and research be accessible, but audio clips from radio
shows, videos as well as oral histories on tape available on the Web
Experts said it's a fitting tribute to one of the area's more
prolific Chinese-American scholars, who is now fighting bladder
Lai said a Berkeley extension course taught by the late sociologist
Stanford Lyman in the early'60s sparked his interest in Chinese-
In 1965, he joined the Chinese Historical Society of America; he
later became a three-time board president.
In 1969, when ethnic studies was just forming, Lai co-taught the
first college course focused on Chinese Americans at San Francisco
State University, in the history department with Philip Choy. Later,
he taught the course in the Asian-American studies department there
and also at UC Berkeley in the ethnic studies department.
Lai, who has been dubbed the "Dean of Chinese-American history,"
estimates he has about 10,000 books in various libraries and on
shelves in his North Beach home.
He is not sure exactly how many books he has, since there is no
official catalogue of them, but there are lots. Texts range from
books on Chinese-Americans in English to books about provinces in
China in Chinese.
"It's treasure to me, but it's junk to other people," he said.
Lai was born Nov. 1, 1925, in San Francisco.
The oldest of five siblings, he began attending Chinese language
school when he was 5 and did so for about 10 years, he said. He was
the only one of his siblings to master the language, though they all
went to Chinese school after school and on the weekends.
Lai also reads Chinese and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, which is
uncommon for an American-born Chinese. In fact, when he began first
grade (he skipped kindergarten), he didn't know English, according to
a short biography by Lorraine Dong.
He put his Chinese-language skills to work, devouring newspaper
stories printed in Chinese-language dailies and collecting boxes of
newspaper clippings as part of his passion and research on Chinese
Lai attended junior college in San Francisco, then UC Berkeley. To
pay for his education at the university, Lai worked in a garment
What sets Lai apart from other historians about Chinese Americans is
that he uses not only English, but also Chinese language primary
sources, which are often overlooked by the traditional academic
community, said Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical
Society of America.
Lai's work puts names, faces and stories to the Chinese-American
experience, Lee said.
To this day, Lai still tries to keep up with the news, though he said
it is tiring to read, clip and collect so many stories. He tries to
read five daily Chinese-language newspapers Sing Tao, World
Journal, Ming Pao, China Times and International Daily News.
"If you have to do research, what happens today is important, too,"
Lai wrote articles for a now-defunct bilingual weekly, East/West,
from 1967 to 1989.
He has also published several books, including "Becoming Chinese
American: A History of Communities and Institution" (2004), which
took almost four decades of mining information from Chinese-language
sources, according to Wang's tribute.
Lai's most well-known text is "Island: Poetry and History of Chinese
Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940," a collection of poems from
the immigration station, which he co-authored. That book is the only
one that makes him any money, he joked, for which he still receives a
few hundred dollars a year.
Lai donated some of his prized possessions about 100 boxes of news
clippings to the ethnic studies library at UC Berkeley, in the
Asian-American studies collection, about five years ago,.
Lai has served as the historical and geographical adviser for the "In
Search of Roots" program, sponsored by the Chinese Culture Center of
The program takes young people who have roots in the Pearl River
Delta area in Guangdong Province and helps them research their
genealogy and includes a trip to their ancestral home.
But Lai's not sure if and how he will participate again.
Lai was diagnosed with bladder cancer in June.
The disease has destroyed one of his kidneys, part of the remaining
one, and has spread to his pelvis, he said.
On a Monday afternoon early in November, when asked how he felt, he
But Lai is forging ahead with his lifelong passion.
Despite his battle with cancer, he said is working on completing yet
another book about how China politics affects what goes on in the
Chinese American community, including a look at the Chinese press and
the Chinese American Left.