Stanford Today Edition: November/December, 1996 Section: Features: A Personal Journey WWW: A Personal Journey


A Personal Journey
Biographer Gordon Chang feels a kinship with his subject

By Diane Manuel

AS HE READ THE SINGLE-SPACED, four-page letters that Yamato Ichihashi typed from the Tule Lake Relocation Center to his colleagues back on the Farm, Gordon Chang began to identify with the personal and professional dilemmas the Japanese professor had faced.

"He was primarily, intellectually interested in economics, but he was pushed to teach East Asian studies because of race," Chang says.

One of only two faculty members appointed to teach Asian American studies courses at Stanford (along with David Palumbo-Liu, associate professor of comparative literature), Chang is an associate professor of history whose areas of expertise include American diplomacy, the Cold War, modern China and international security. Enrollment in his "Introduction to Asian American History" course, which includes discussion of the exclusionary laws that prohibited Asians from entering the United States and Leland Stanford's practice of employing Chinese workers as cheap labor, has doubled every year since 1991 and attracted 110 students last year. He also teaches courses in historiography and the Vietnam War.

A lanky young professor with an easy laugh, Chang is a fourth-generation Chinese American who can trace his California roots on his mother's side back to the 1880s. He once considered writing a social biography of his aunt, the first Chinese American school teacher to be hired in San Francisco, and he could compose equally moving profiles of other members of his distinguished family. His mother was a multilingual graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, who met his father, artist Shu-Chi Chang, during the latter's 1940 visit to the United States as a goodwill ambassador for Chiang Kai-shek. They were married in 1947 and Gordon was born the following year in Hong Kong, where his father had been invited to exhibit his famed watercolors of flowers and birds. After living in Nanking for several months, the family returned to the U.S. and settled in Piedmont, California. Chang grew up there, graduating as valedictorian and student body president of his high school.

"Life in Piedmont was a very mixed experience," he recalls, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully whenever he talks about issues touching on race and discrimination. "It was pleasant in many ways, but not so congenial in other ways. I was the only person of Chinese ancestry in a class of 200 and I did pretty well but it was still an odd situation."

Chang went East for college and majored in history and East Asian studies at Princeton, where he was one of five Asian Americans in a class of 800 men. After becoming active in the anti-war movement, he came to Stanford in 1970 to study the early history of the communist movement in China with Lyman Van Slyke ­ and to push for more Asian American history and culture in the curriculum. He picked up a master's degree, taught briefly at Berkeley, and then spent 10 years teaching American studies and Chinese history at Laney Community College, where he was chair of the Asian Studies department.

"Laney was located in downtown Oakland and there was a great mix of students ­ Vietnam vets, recent Asian immigrants, young high school graduates and retired folks," he says with obvious fondness.

By the time Chang returned to Stanford to complete his doctorate, however, he had decided to change his field of study from Chinese history to American history.

"To do a continuum of Chinese history would have required extensive study in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, and by the early 1980s I had decided I wanted to stay in the U.S. and help to understand this country better."

Under the guidance of Barton Bernstein, professor of history, Chang examined the history of United States policy toward the Sino- Soviet alliance. His dissertation, published by Stanford University Press, drew on three months of research at the University of Beijing and was titled Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948-1972.

Today Chang is developing a course on the future of the United States in the Pacific and investigating the international dimensions of the Asian American experience, including perceptions of Chinese Americans during the Korean War. As Asian American studies programs continue to expand nationwide ­ 26 colleges and universities now offer programs and another seven institutions are developing them ­ Chang has become a key player on the Stanford campus. He was a member of the planning committee that drew up recommend ations for the new program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. He also was appointed to the faculty search committee of the political science department that hired the first tenured faculty member to teach in the program, scheduled to begin in winter quarter.

At Stanford, 21 percent of the total student population is now Asian American, but Chang says it's more than numbers that is feeding the revived interest.

"It's driven by student interest and demand, but also by the changing nature of the American population and America's relationship to Asia."

As he continues to pursue his own research interests in diplomatic history and issues surrounding nuclear stability, and also teaches Asian American courses half time, Chang ­ like Ichihashi before him ­ often finds himself torn in several directions.

"One of the reasons why his life was intriguing to me was because here was somebody who could similarly span a variety of fields of discipline and study, and [yet] he found himself required, pushed, asked and selected to write about Japanese Americans," Chang says. "I was interested in his life as an academic, and also his personal experience ­ how he dealt with problems of race.

"He understood the historical significance of his impending experience and decided to write about relocation as one of the tensions of his life." ST