Volume 17 • Issue 24 | Nov. 5 - Nov. 12, 2004

Asian studies pioneer & author going strong at 80

Downtown Express photo by Corky Lee

Betty Lee Sung and her husband Charles at a gala event for Asian Americans for Equality last month.

By Sascha Brodsky

Betty Lee Sung has been described as a leading authority on Chinese immigrants and she gained that knowledge through hard experience.

The noted author, a resident of Chinatown’s Chatham Green, turned 80 recently and her friends, family and admirers flocked to a neighborhood restaurant to honor her life story that in some ways reflects the fortunes of Asian Americans.

Born in Washington, D.C., Sung’s family failed at first at the American dream. Their laundry went out of business and the family returned to Toishan, China when she was nine years old. Their timing couldn’t have been worse. Japan was invading the country.

“I remember them bombing and strafing,” she said during a recent interview. “It was terrifying.”

They returned to the United States but faced discrimination as Chinese immigrants.

“We never went to the movies or a swimming pool because we thought it wasn’t allowed,” Sung said. “That’s the way we were treated.”

Sung grew up in a family with little extra money.

“We had to strive a lot harder than my grandkids do today,” she said. “If we were lucky we had a five-cent doll to play with. Now kids have a million toys.”

She enjoyed reading and among her favorite authors was Pearl S. Buck, whose novel of China, “The Good Earth” was a bestseller.

Despite a tradition that discourages Chinese women from higher education, Sung went to college. After graduating in 1948, she worked as a scriptwriter for the Voice of America.

“It was while I was working for V.O.A. that I found how much misinformation there was about Chinese-Americans in the United States,” she said.

To correct the misperceptions, she wrote “Mountains of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America,” one of the first studies of Asian Americans. The book’s publication led to an invitation to begin the Asian American Studies program at the City College of New York, one of the first of its kind in the country. She taught at the school for 22 years.

“There was tremendous resistance to the program at first by the administration,” she recalled. “It took sit-ins and protests for them to continue the program.”

Since Sung first began teaching, most major American universities have instituted Asian-American studies programs.

Margaret Chin, who ran for City Council in Lower Manhattan and is one of the heads of the advocacy group, Asian Americans for Equality, first met Sung as one of her students

“As an immigrant growing up in Chinatown my exposure to the history of Chinese in America was limited to a few stories about great grandfather going back to China with a long cane full of gold coins,” Chin wrote in a testimonial. “Your book and your class opened my eyes to the wonderful history of our ancestor’s struggles and contributions in helping to build this country. It gave me a sense of belonging and a determination to fight for the rights of Asian Americans and immigrants.”

Although she had moved to academe, Sung was not isolated in an ivory tower. She organized a City Hall protest against Councilmember Julia Harrison’s disparaging remarks against Asians. When Harrison left her Flushing Council seat a few years later, she was replaced in 2002 by John Liu, the city’s first Asian-American councilmember.

In 1976, Sung headed a manpower survey that sought to dispel stereotypes against Asian Americans. More recently she has served on a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation committee as an advisor to the Chinatown rebuilding efforts in the wake of 9/11. Altogether she has published seven books and dozens of articles on the Chinese in this country.

Sung said that many of the prejudices she had to fight against as a child have since been eradicated but that Asian-Americans still face challenges.

“I think the number one challenge today is that Asian-Americans are usually viewed alongside America’s relations with their mother country,” she said. “For example, if relations with China is good then Chinese are perceived in a positive light. This has to end. Asian Americans need to be treated as Americans first.”

Asian Americans need to increase their political process, Sung said.

“We were excluded from politics in the past and timid about participating in our home countries,” she said. “But unless we do so now we are still going to be subjected to laws and regulations that are unfavorable to us.”

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