Him Mark Lai, Dean of Chinese American History: a scholars intellectual legacy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Author:Shih, Virginia Jing-yi

Scholars, librarians, and other researchers have been collaborating for decades in collecting and creating research access to Chinese American materials. Such collections are now available in academic institutions, libraries, and other sites for public and private research. One example, the Him Mark Lai Collection at the University of California, Berkeley, is arguably the most comprehensive scholarly collection for Chinese American and Overseas Chinese studies in the country. (1) The aim of this preliminary article is threefold: to provide a general overview of what has been done to improve onsite and online access to the Him Mark Lai Collection; to highlight Lai's unparalleled newspaper collection and archival materials as primary sources for teaching and research in Chinese American Studies; and to examine how to best promote the usage of the Him Mark Lai Collection from an external librarian's perspective.


Him Mark Lai (November 1, 1925-May 21, 2009), often referred to as the "dean of Chinese American history" and recognized as a master archivist in Chinese American Studies, received his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1947. (2) Throughout his time as a professional engineer at Bechtel Power Corporation (1953-84), he also carried out research in Chinese American Studies. Because he was bilingual, he was able to conduct his research using extensive primary and secondary materials related to Chinese American history. As a prolific historian, he published ten seminal books, in addition to several hundred articles and lectures that in their entirety were groundbreaking in terms of scholarship in Chinese American history. (3) No origin was too mundane or too arcane when it came to collecting sources, even including dumpsters, newsstands, shopping malls, and Chinatowns. Such sources were complemented by his search for unknown materials in historical societies, libraries, archives, and remote sites worldwide. After bringing back original primary sources, he shared his knowledge selflessly with other researchers in the field. His wife, Mrs. Laura Lai, a research assistant whom he married in 1953, wholeheartedly supported her husbands lifelong interest in Chinese American Studies. The depth and breadth of Lai's collections will prove to be an intellectual legacy with an enduring impact on current and future generations of Chinese American Studies scholars here and abroad.


The Him Mark Lai Collection was donated to the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2002 and in 2010. Wei-Chi Poon, a former UC Berkeley Asian American Studies librarian, collaborated with a dedicated team of professional staff with both Chinese language and archival management expertise to help create lists of personal names, geographic names, and subject headings for the collection contents. The collection was evaluated and processed at a "folder level" in great detail by subject, format, and language for user convenience and public access. The Him Mark Lai Collection of materials in Chinese and English can be roughly divided into the following three categories: books and journals, newspapers and newspaper clippings, and archival materials.

Books and Journals (over 10,000 Volumes)

Lai's monographic collection covers a wide spectrum of subjects such as Asian American Studies, Chinese American Studies, Chinese ethnic minorities, Chinese culture, history and literature, Chinese dialects, the Guangdong Pearl River Delta, the Chinese diaspora, Chinatowns, Overseas Chinese worldwide, Chinese language education, Chinese American benevolent societies, Chinese American communities, Chinese newspapers publishing history, biographies of prominent Chinese and Chinese Americans, geography, and politics, among other topics.

In addition, Lai also assembled an impressive core collection of Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora studies including local history, biographical dictionaries, encyclopedias, yearbooks, ephemeral publications, special commemorative volumes of Chinese clan associations, Chinese school anniversaries, commencements, charity events, Overseas Chinese professional directories, Chinese communities directories, Overseas Chinese alumni directories, newsletters, and special issues of local Chinese associations related to Chinese culture, education, religion, fine arts, literature, and classical Chinese opera. Lai kept up with the trends and challenges of Overseas Chinese research in Southeast Asia, which has the largest Chinese population outside of China.

Lai's journal collection includes academic and community journals of Chinese American studies, Overseas Chinese hometowns in Guangdong Province studies (Guangdong qiaoxiang), Hong Kong and Macau studies, and the entire run of the scholarly journal Xinmin congbao (The New People's Gazette) edited by Liang Qichao; 1873-1929), a prominent Chinese scholar, journalist, and reformer. (4) The latter was published in Chinese in Yokohama, Japan (1902-7), serving as an important biweekly journal that focused on the short-lived China reform movement in 1898.

Newspapers and Newspaper Clippings

Him Mark Lai was a lifelong Chinese-newspaper collector who always sought newspaper primary sources for his ongoing research. He collected Chinese newspapers in all formats (tabloids, broadsheets, single issues, and special issues) as well as newspapers in microfilm for preservation and access. He accumulated hundreds of volumes of newspaper holdings through subscription in North America. He also collected numerous sample issues of Chinese newspapers related to the Chinese diaspora from all over the world during his travels. His dedication to using newsprint primary sources undoubtedly contributed to his...

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