Him Mark Lai, an engineer by training and historian by avocation whose groundbreaking scholarship and treasure trove of archival documents guided generations of scholars to study the daily lives and struggles of Chinese Americans, died May 21 in San Francisco. He was 83.
The cause was complications of cancer, according to his wife, Laura.
Unassuming but tenacious, Lai was often called the dean of Chinese American studies, a field that did not exist when he taught the first university-level course on Chinese American history in 1969 at San Francisco State.
Although he was never a tenured professor, the bi-literate scholar wrote more than 100 essays and 10 books in English and Chinese, several of which are considered indispensable resources in Chinese American history. His key works include "A History of the Chinese in California, a Syllabus," co-edited with Thomas W. Chinn and Philip P. Choy, and "Outlines: History of the Chinese in America," also written with Choy, who co-taught the 1969 class.
"He was one of the most important historians of Chinese America," said Russell C. Leong, editor of UCLA's Amerasia Journal, who called Lai a historian of the people. "He has done the most to broaden and humanize what it means to be Chinese American, then and now."
Lai's immersion in the field was reflected in every nook and cranny of his house in San Francisco's North Beach district. He rescued books, newspapers, journals, ledgers, letters and other ephemera from attics, dumpsters and defunct Chinatown businesses and piled them to the ceiling. What was trash to some was treasure to a historian devoted to saving from oblivion the collective past of a group that helped build America.
He opened his files to anyone with a legitimate research interest. He also shared his knowledge through the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco's In Search of Roots program, which has helped 200 Chinese American youths trace their genealogy and visit their ancestral villages since Lai founded the program in 1991 with educator Albert Cheng.
"I try to cover the totality of the Chinese American experience," Lai once told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I don't think I'll ever be finished."
Lai was born Nov. 1, 1925, in San Francisco's Chinatown, the eldest of five children of immigrant parents who were sewing machine operators.
Although Lai knew little English when he entered public school, he learned quickly and became a top student while also studying classical Chinese and Confucian teachings in Chinese school six days a week. His facility with oral and written Chinese, including both Cantonese and Mandarin, would give him unique advantages as a historian.
At San Francisco's Galileo High School, he enjoyed history and won a citywide history contest in his senior year. But, bowing to practical concerns, he studied mechanical engineering at San Francisco City College and later at UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1947. In 1953, after several years working for the city and taking graduate courses in electrical engineering, he was hired by Bechtel Corp. He worked for the engineering firm for the next 31 years.
In the early 1950s Lai joined Mun Ching, a progressive Chinese American organization that supported Communist China. Through its activities he met Laura Jung, whom he married in 1953. He is also survived by a sister and two brothers.
By 1950, the Chinese population of the U.S. had shifted from one that was mainly immigrants to one that was more than 50% American-born. With the civil rights movements of the 1960s raising awareness about minorities, Lai enrolled in a UC Extension course on Asian American history taught by sociologist Stanford Lyman. The class "lit a spark in me," Lai told historian Judy Yung in a 2003 interview in the journal Public Historian.
He joined the Chinese Historical Society of America a few years after it formed in 1963 and began to write a series of articles on Chinese American history for the bilingual weekly East/West. He also started gathering oral histories on Chinatown denizens, such as Hugh Leong, one of the founders of the first Chinese barbershop quartet, and M.Q. Fong, a San Francisco pharmacist whose daughter, March Fong Eu, became California's 25th secretary of state and the first woman to occupy the office.
In the mid- to late 1970s he began translating poetry found on the walls of the detention barracks at Angel Island Immigration Station, the point of entry through much of the first half of the 20th century for Chinese immigrants, including Lai's father, who was on the first shipload to arrive in 1910. Later, with Judy Yung and Genny Lim, Lai wrote "Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940" (1991).
The 135 poems in the book express the sadness and frustration of the newcomers, some of whom were held at Angel Island for months. "Nobody really considered them very important until the Chinese Americans came along and said, 'This is our heritage,' " Lai told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000.
Lai also had a consuming interest in U.S.-published Chinese-language newspapers, which he considered essential portals into the daily conversations of ordinary Chinese Americans. He compiled, with Karl Lo, a definitive bibliography, "Chinese Newspapers Published in North America, 1854-1975" (1977).
His research began taking up all his spare time, even when he was on vacation from his Bechtel job. Lai didn't drive, so with his wife behind the wheel he visited Chinatowns across the country, looking for old-timers to interview and any written records that helped tell the story of their community.
Lai sometimes was at a loss to explain why he accumulated the material that eventually filled his home to the rafters. He once estimated he had 10,000 books and 100 boxes of news clippings. But his diligence resulted in a widely used collection that "covers every aspect of Chinese Americans," said Wei-Chi Poon, head of the Asian American collection at UC Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Library, which houses the bulk of Lai's vast archives.
On a trip to New York once, Lai took his wife on a mad hunt for the grave of Yung Wing, an 1854 Yale graduate and diplomat who was the first Chinese to earn a degree from an American university.
"I drove for miles and miles, at least 200 miles, to find his grave. We finally found it," Laura Lai recalled in an interview last week. "He took a picture of the grave. I told myself, 'What a crazy guy my husband is.' "
But later the couple took the photograph to a museum in Yung Wing's ancestral village in China's Guangdong province. The museum officials were thrilled to receive it. "That's when I said it's all worth it," Lai's wife said.