Chinese American Hero: Him Mark Lai

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This is Week 11 of AsianWeek’s salute to Chinese American Heroes. We are going to honor and recognize a few people whose contributions are more precious than gold, our historians who had to fight against indifference and fading memories to bring to life the history and stories of Chinese immigrants who came to a hostile and sometimes life threatening environment, seeking fortune and a better life. (See Dr. Jean Pfaelzer’s 2007-2008 best selling book, “Driven Out,” to review the history of anti-Chinese persecution in the United States.)

The “Father” of our historians, is Master Archivist Him Mark Lai, who for 50 years gathered primary source materials, including thousands of Chinese language newspaper articles (the only source of Chinese American history until recent times.) His dedication to cataloging mountains of source materials for his own research paved the way for every Chinese American historian since then. Many of whom used primary source materials that Lai originally discovered. On May 17, 2009 Him Mark Lai passed away, leaving an unmatched legacy that we are thankful for. Without his long time, dedicated archiving and research, much of which came from materials that were discarded in the trash as worthless, much of Chinese American history would have been lost forever. Our gratitude and thanks to Him Mark Lai; there will never be anyone to replace you. Following the biography of Master Archivist Lai, are other historians, all of whom were mentored or were colleagues of the Master Archivist, including Philip Choy, Thomas Chinn, Dr. Chen Su-cheng, and Dr. Judy Yung. (We have not mentioned Dr. Betty Sung whose pioneering historical work on the East Coast is being archived in the Library of Congress. We will talk about Dr. Sung in the near future.) For more information about our Heroes and Heroines please see

We send condolences to Him Mark Lai’s wife and lifetime partner, Laura. He will be dearly missed by all. For a permanent monument to his dedication and belief in the importance of the Chinese American community stands the meticulous recordings of every scrap of information about Chinese American history, his labor of love for over 50 years.

hmlName in English: Him Mark Lai
Name in Chinese:
麦礼谦 [麥禮謙]
Name in Pinyin:
Mài Lǐqiān
Gender: Male
Birth Year: 1925-2009
Birth Place: San Francisco, CA

Profession(s): Mechanical Engineer, Historian, Community Activist

Education: B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, 1947

Awards: 1982, American Book Award for “Island”, Before Columbus Foundation; 2001, Guangdong Province Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs award for his work with the “In Search of Roots” program; 2005 San Francisco State University (SFSU) President’s Medal; 2007, Spirit of America Honoree, Chinese American Citizens Alliance

Him Mark Lai was an amateur historian of the Chinese American experience called the “Dean of Chinese-American Studies” by his colleagues. He received a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley in 1947 and worked as a mechanical engineer at Bechtel Corporation for 31 years. Beginning in the 1960s, he helped legitimize the field of Chinese American studies. Because Lai never received a Ph.D in history or other relevant fields, his work is often overlooked by the public. But it was only in 1969, when he co-taught it with architect, Philip Choy, that the first college course anywhere to focus on Chinese Americans was created at San Francisco State University. Focusing on Chinese American history simply wasn’t possible until the two men pioneered such classes. Lai later went on to teach the course at UC Berkeley as well.

Him Mark Lai learned to speak and read Chinese fluently at a young age in San Francisco, then started collecting boxes of newspaper clippings in both English and Chinese relevant to Chinese American life, as well as thousands of profiles of prominent people. Lai’s interest in historical research was sparked while attending a UC Berkeley Extension course in 1960. He recognized that English language sources often did not depict the attitudes and experiences of the Chinese, so he went to materials from the Chinese American community for a more objective study. His use of Chinese as well as English primary sources such as immigration records, domestic Chinese-language newspapers, interviews, statistical data, legal documents, maps, minutes, and other historical documents were critical in providing a unique documentation of the Chinese American experience. All this was done utilizing only his own financial resources, a most remarkable feat. The archives have attracted interest from researchers, students, reporters, and writers from across the country. To connect young people with their past Lai co-founded the “In Search of Roots” program, which helps young Chinese Americans who have roots in the Pearl River Delta area learn how to track their genealogy and visit their ancestral home.

Despite being diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2007 he continued to work on a book dealing with how Chinese politics affects the Chinese American community. He also donated the “Him Mark Lai Collection” of about a hundred boxes of news clippings along with other research materials to the Ethnic Studies Library at UC Berkeley. The Chinese Historical Society of America, which has titled him Master Archivist, is currently working to make his writings more available to the general public through the Him Mark Lai Digital Archive Project

Him Mark Lai passed away peacefully in his North Beach home of San Francisco on May 21, 2009.

The History of Chinese in America: A Syllabus (1969) co-authored with Thomas Chinn
Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (1982) Translated poems carved in the walls of the barracks of Angel Island Immigration Station.
A History of Reclaimed: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide of Chinese Language Materials on the Chinese of America (1986)
Chinese America: History & Perspectives, Editor (1987)
From Overseas Chinese to Chinese American: History of Development of Chinese American Society during the Twentieth Century (1992)
Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (2004)

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