HomeChinese AmericanChinese American historian and author Judy Yung passes away

Chinese American historian and author Judy Yung passes away

East West Newspaper profiled its former editor, Judy Yung, in 1976. Image from UC Berkeley

Chinese American historian, author and professor Judy Yung has passed away at the age of 74, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Yung grew up in San Francisco Chinatown and worked as a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library’s Chinatown Branch and the Oakland Public Library’s Asian Branch. During that time, she developed Asian American library collections and Asian language materials.

She later obtained her Ph.D. in ethnic studies and became a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she established a program in Asian American studies. 

Yung wrote multiple books on Chinese American history, with a focus on documenting the experiences of Chinese American women.

Her first book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910 – 1940, showcased translations of 135 poems that Chinese immigrants carved on the barrack walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station during their detainment. It also featured interviews with former Angel Island detainees and staff.

She published her second book Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History after directing the first traveling exhibit on Chinese American women.

Yung’s bestselling book Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco profiled dozens of diverse first- and second-generation Chinese American women to address the lack of scholarship on women in Asian American studies.

According to a book review by Mae M. Ngai, “A major concern in Asian American studies is the dearth of historical literature about women, especially during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Judy Yung’s new book makes a major contribution toward filling that gap. … Judy Yung has combined impressive research with deep feeling and respect for her subjects. She has done a remarkable job of unsilencing an important part of our community and our history and in doing so has made a major contribution to our knowledge of ourselves.”

Fung’s other publications on Chinese American history included Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese American women in San Francisco; Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present and Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America.

According to filmmaker Arthur Dong, Yung also had a small role in his Oscar-nominated film Sewing Woman.

“Judy’s expertise as a historian is undisputed, and she’s been a key advisor for my documentaries about Chinese America. But I also know her as a voice talent. My film Sewing Woman (1982), based on the life of my mother, a San Francisco Chinatown garment worker, included a scripted voice-over interchange between her and a persistent American-born Chinese researcher. Although the researcher role had only two lines of dialogue, the scene was critical in setting up a conflict between two generations. The voice needed to have a solid fluency in the Cantonese dialect along with a native speaking ability in American English in order to convey a mix of both. Drawing upon her experience as an scholar, Judy had that magic combination infused with a disarming inquisitive charm, and I cast her in the role — her voice no doubt contributed to the film’s success that eventually led to an Oscar nomination for best short documentary, the first such honor for a film about Chinese Americans.”

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  1. Shortly after the Angel Island site was remodeled and dedicated as a historic facility, Judy took me on a personal tour of the space. Her scholarship and background information on Chinese history instilled an inspiration and interest that still exists with me today.


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