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Chan, Sucheng (1941–) - Comparative History of Asian International Migration, Asian-American Economic History

university studies california professor

Born on April 16, 1941, in Shanghai, China, of Chinese parents, Sucheng Chan attended elementary school in China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia; junior high school in Singapore; and high school in New York City. Her father, an engineer, later worked as a high school physics teacher in Malaysia and as a waiter in the United States. Her mother worked as a social worker in China, a high school history teacher in Malaysia, and a bookkeeper in the United States. Her early memories are of war in China and of learning to read at a young age. Her father taught her to read historical novels, and once she had learned English at age nine, Sucheng read novels from the United States aimed at young adults, which had become available to her in Malaysia and Singapore. Since she had polio at age four, she spent much of her childhood alone. “Hence books, rather than people,” Chan states, “were my main influences.”

Sucheng Chan attended Swarthmore College, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1963. She received a master’s degree in Asian studies from the University of Hawaii in 1965 and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1973. “I was not trained as a historian at all,” writes Chan. “However, when I started teaching Asian American studies, an interdisciplinary field, I realized that many questions that I and my students had about the contemporary conditions faced by people of color could only be answered by examining history.” Chan trained herself to be a historian, sitting on the floor of the stacks of the University of California at Berkeley library, reading all the articles in the major history journals for the past ten years and learning about how historians think. “I still like working with quantitative data,” she argues, “but I now try to wrap such information in palatable prose. History seems to be the only discipline left where good, clear writing is still valued.”

Chan started her academic employment in 1971, as assistant professor of ethnic studies at California State University at Sonoma. In 1974 she took a job as assistant professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where she attained the rank of associate professor. In 1984 Chan was hired as professor of history and American studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Since 1988 she has taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she is currently chair of Asian American studies and affiliate professor of history.

Of all her accomplishments, Sucheng Chan takes special pride in having been the first Asian American woman to serve as a provost in the University of California system, in her role as founding editor of the first book series in Asian American studies, and in having served as chair of the first department of Asian American studies at a major research university in the United States. She is also proud of her teaching success in history: Chan has won several teaching awards, including, most recently, the Asian American Faculty and Staff Association’s Distinguished Lecturer Award at the University at Santa Barbara.

Author, editor, or co-editor of nine published books and eight books in progress, Chan has explored the histories of several groups of Asians and Asian Americans in the United States, including Koreans, Laotians, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Cambodians. Her first book, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 , won four distinguished awards, including the Association for Asian American Studies Outstanding Book Award. Two of her other books, Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America and Asian Americans: An Interpretive History , have also won awards. Chan is the founding editor of the twenty-volume Asian American History and Culture Series published by Temple University Press, and the editor of Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America , published in 1994. In a review of one of Chan’s works, Nadine Ishitani Hata praises the “growing depth and breadth” of Chan’s influence on the historiography of Asian Americans.

Chan is the recipient of many postdoctoral fellowships, including those with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of American Cultures, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop curricular materials and courses in Asian American studies, as well as several research and conference development grants. She has served on the board of editors of the Journal of American Ethnic History, Pacific Historical Review , and Agricultural Review . Her service is not limited to academe, however; Chan has also worked as a consultant on community film, oral history, and museum projects.

Married to Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Chan has several “wonderful canine children”: Brandenburg, Rajah, and Cotufa. She enjoys reading books and articles outside her field, carpentry and sewing, and playing with her dogs. Because she now suffers from post-polio syndrome, however, Chan has had to withdraw from many of her personal and professional activities.

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