Asian American studies trailblazer Betty Lee Sung dies at 98

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Asian American activist, academic and author Betty Lee Sung has died at 98.

Sung died at her Silver Spring, Maryland, home on Thursday. Her death was confirmed by her daughter Cynthia, the New York Times reported. Sung was known as a trailblazer for Chinese studies in the U.S., having released several publications targeting prominent Asian American racial issues.

Born in Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1924, Sung and her family returned to their hometown in Taishan, China, but would immigrate back to Washington D.C. to escape the Chinese invasion by Japan during World War II.

Despite racial and gender discrimination, Sung defied her father’s wishes to marry one of two men selected for her and became one of the first Chinese American women of her generation to go to college.

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

After graduating, Sung went on to spend decades researching Chinese Americans. Looking to challenge the stereotypes of Chinese immigrants, Sung examined bigotry, employment discrimination and intermarriage within her community. In 1967, Sung published her first novel, “Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America.”

Sung founded the City College of New York’s first Asian American studies program in 1970 and was the department’s chair until her retirement in 1992.

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However, Sung’s retirement did not signify the end of her work.

In 1994, Sung completed an organization of New York’s 12,000 Chinese immigrant records, granting scholars greater access to research on Chinese immigration. At the start of the 21st century, Sung joined Thoman Tam to co-found CUNY’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute (AAARI).

In 2015, Sung published her final book and memoir, “Defiant Second Daughter: My First 90 Years.”

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Sung received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Asian American Studies in 2017.

Sung’s funeral service will be held on Feb. 18 at the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring. A separate memorial service will occur in New York City on June 11 at the Museum of Chinese in America.

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