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[COMMUNITY] Him Mark Lai's Work Going Digital

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  • madchinaman
    Chinese-American scholar s work going digital Many of accidental historian s writings have not been seen by public By Momo Chang, STAFF WRITER
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 10, 2007
      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
      more accessible.
      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-
      American studies.

      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,"
      he said.

      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
      San Francisco.

      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
      replied, "lousy."

      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.
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