Betty Lee Sung, Pioneering Scholar of Chinese in America, Dies at 98

Betty Lee Sung, an American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants who was taken back to China by her parents during the Depression, escaped the invading Japanese as a teenager and then made her way back to the United States, where she pioneered research into the Asian diaspora, died on Thursday at her home in Silver Spring, Md. She was 98.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Cynthia Sung.

In 1970, Dr. Sung founded an Asian American studies program at the City College of New York, billed as the first in the eastern United States. She was the chairwoman of the department of Asian studies there when she retired in 1992.

She was also the author of nine books, from “Mountain of Gold” (1967), a historical account of Chinese immigration and assimilation in the United States, to a memoir, “Defiant Second Daughter: My First 90 Years” (2015).

“As the youngest girl, I always knew I was the least important person in our family,” she wrote. “I did not feel less important, and I found it difficult to act so.”

That was why, when she was deemed to have misbehaved, her mother swatted her with chopsticks and a feather duster. It was why she enrolled in college instead of marrying one of two men selected by her father. And it was why, as a commentator for the Voice of America, a librarian, a professor and a researcher, she challenged stereotypes of Chinese immigrants.

Her work examined bigotry, employment inequality and intermarriage (four of her eight children married non-Chinese people).

During her long career, Dr. Sung repeatedly cautioned that Washington’s relations with Beijing, whatever they might be at a given moment, should not determine the prism through which Americans judged the descendants of Chinese immigrants.

“I think the number one challenge today is that Asian Americans are usually viewed alongside America’s relations with their mother country,” Dr. Sung told the Downtown Express, a Lower Manhattan newspaper, in 2004. “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.”

She was born Betty Lee in Washington on Oct. 3, 1924, to a couple from Toishan, a coastal city in southern Guandong Province, where many of the first Chinese immigrants to the United States came from. Her father arrived in 1909 and worked in a laundry for 11 years before saving enough money to travel to China and bring his wife to Washington with him.

They had five children. Betty worked in the laundry, which was on the first floor of their home. The family felt isolated, she recalled, avoiding movie theaters, the local pool and contact with outsiders, even doctors.

“If you got sick in our household,” she wrote, “you either recovered or died.”

It was after her father struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression that her parents, in 1934, returned to China with their children. Betty was 9.

But her father soon went back to the United States, taking one son with him, and her mother and another child died in China. In 1938, as the invading Japanese neared, Betty, her older sister, Rose, and another brother sailed for Seattle. They later shocked their father by showing up at his home in Washington.

“Rose’s decision to flee from Toishan saved all our lives,” Dr. Sung wrote.

After working at the Library of Congress translating Chinese maps for the Army during World War II, she won a scholarship to the University of Illinois, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics in 1948. She met and married His Yuan Sung (who was known as Bill) and moved to New York.

Their marriage ended in divorce. In 1972, she married Charles Chia Mou Chung.

She is survived by her four children, Tina, Victor, Cynthia and Alan Sung; and six granddaughters.

Dr. Sung worked briefly as a secretary before being fired for deficient shorthand. The Voice of America hired her to write scripts for broadcasts to China about Chinese life in the United States.

“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.

Dr. Sung worked part time in book publishing while writing “Mountain of Gold,” the first of her books. She worked for the Queens Borough Public Library while earning her master’s degree in library science from Queens College in 1968.

In 1970, Dr. Sung was invited by City College of the City University of New York to teach its first full-time course in Asian Studies. She taught there as the program’s founding professor for 22 years.

Her other books include “The Story of the Chinese in America” (1971), “Survey of Chinese Manpower and Employment” (1976) and “Chinese American Intermarriage” (1990).

Among her findings was that early Chinese immigrants opened laundries “because they did not require much capital,” she said in an interview with the public radio station WNYC in 1968.

“They did not require much knowledge of the English language,” she said of laundries. “A bar of soap and a scrub board, they were in business. They were masters of their own destiny, and, if they worked hard and earned their own living, then they didn’t have to fear for layoffs or discrimination.”

Dr. Sung suggested that, because the immigrants were insular, “when laws were passed against them they tried to circumvent the laws rather than try to confront the laws or test the laws.”

But most Chinese Americans ultimately became fully acculturated, she said, although she saw limits to that process. “I think the Chinese will never be fully assimilated as long as there is physical identity or physical differentiation,” she said.

Dr. Sung retired from teaching in 1992. Armed with grants from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, she devoted the next three years to cataloging a database of 12,000 detailed immigrant records stored in 581 boxes that she had discovered in a National Archives warehouse in Bayonne, N.J.

In 2001, she and Thomas Tam, the first Chinese American member of City University’s board of trustees, founded the university’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute. In 2017, Dr. Sung received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Asian American Studies.

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