Dr. Lucie Cheng

Editor’s Note: This is excerpted from an interview on September 2, 1983 by Susie Ling. It shows some of Lucie Cheng’s earlier work at UCLA – before the collaboration with Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. Dr. Lucie Cheng 成露茜 (1939-2010) was born in Hong Kong, the daughter of a journalist/publisher. She graduated from National Taiwan University in 1960 and continued graduate work at the University of Chicago (1964) and University of Hawaii in Sociology (1970). Lucie became Assistant Professor of Sociology at UCLA in 1970. She would become the permanent director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She held that position until around 1990, succeeded by Dr. Don Nakanishi. In 1985, Dr. Cheng founded UCLA’s Center for Pacific Rim Studies. In 1991, Cheng took over as publisher of her father’s newspaper, Li Pao Daily 立報, and became Dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at Shih Hsin University, both based in Taiwan.

Racism and Sexism

My first instance of the feeling of racism was in Chicago. My husband and I tried to find an apartment. There were all these vacancy signs on the doors, but when we knocked on the door, the manager would see us and tell us that the apartments are all taken. But he didn’t take down the sign…

The next time was when I was almost hired by UCLA. Somebody in my department wrote a letter to the University of Hawaii [where I had studied] to a friend of his. It said, “We like her very much. etc. etc. However, we want to know what her husband does. If we give her the offer, would she be likely to turn it down because her husband can’t come?” I was very mad. I didn’t think it was relevant…

I remember when I first came to UCLA, there were very few women professors. There were fewer ethnic people. I was asked to go to so many damn meetings because there were so few of us. All the rest of the people would be male colleagues who don’t know who you are. Almost inevitably, as soon as I walked in, they’d ask me to make coffee and take notes. It just made me very angry. At first, I felt it was alright to make coffee for your colleagues in a meeting. That seems to be a natural thing to do for anybody. It seemed very petty to say, “Why should I make the coffee?” But when it was always taken for granted that you are the one to make the coffee, then you feel it isn’t a personal issue…

The UCLA course on Asian American women had a large enrollment… Because the course had been taught three times under CED [then, UCLA’s experimental college], we proposed that it be regularized. Then CED did an evaluation which was negative and made a negative recommendation to the CUCC Senate [now, Academic Senate].[1] CUCC denied the course. So, we had to fight all the way through to get it accepted. We mounted a very good struggle. Students went through demonstrations and everything, and I was doing the negotiating with the faculty and the administration. When the door is closed, you are faced basically with people who are quite hostile to what you are trying to do. It was a very taxing period of time.

During the struggle, I met about twenty times with these different committees and individuals. Basically, the thing was that everybody said that they would reconsider. I appeared for the last time at a Senate meeting and made a case for it. Then I returned home. Basically, there was nothing more to be done. But you also feel that you had no control anymore. I just broke down and cried. That was probably the only time in my life that I felt so helpless. You just can’t control the fate of this thing that you cared so much about.

I compare that time with the time I was up for tenure. I didn’t quite have the same feeling. I was angry that the administration felt I should wait another year. There was anger, but I didn’t break down. On this thing, I really broke down. I sensed this overwhelming oppression. They won’t let you do what you want to do. It was all tied up with something much larger…

Family Newsletter in L.A. Chinatown

I was involved in the Family Newsletter in Chinatown for three years. It started because of a chain of events. May Chen, Lowell Chun-Hoon, Aileen Holly, and myself, and Peggy Li, Buck Wong, Phyllis Chiu, Clyde Loo, Mike Eng were all involved in this. They were all research assistants to do Chinatown research. We raised a lot of questions like the ones we raise today about what the research is for. When we first did this, there was an argument in Chinatown between two political groups about whether or not to have this. Everyone realized the phenomenon of sweatshops, so the debate was whether or not there should be unionizing efforts or whether there should be alternative plans, such as forming a co-op. Because most of us were all involved in Chinatown, we were asked to do some research. We did that. We did a lot of interviews and then came up with ideas. Our analysis was that the union would not attract any workers because they were all related to the sweatshop owners. In fact, they were grateful for being given those jobs. The point of exploitation was not at production, it was mostly between sweatshop owners and buyers. We did some exhibits in which we traced the label of a blouse to the time it was contracted to the time it was sold at I. Magnin [department store] and how much it cost at each point. I believe that was one of the worthwhile pieces of work we did. It was exhibited in Chinatown.

Then the political group decided to do a co-op. It was very successful. Then they had an argument on how to divide up the profits. But I was not involved in the co-op.

When we did the research, it also became very clear that there were a lot of problems with families. One of the reasons that women felt very grateful was that their children could play in the sweatshops. Of course, we felt that it was very dangerous. That’s when the idea of starting Little Friends [daycare center] and Family Newsletter began. At the time, Castelar’s principal was Lowell’s uncle [William Chun-Hoon since 1973]. I went down to see him and talked about some cooperation between the school and the [Asian American Studies] Center. The school was very cooperative and gave us time, notices to parents, etc. We did door-to-door interviews of the parents. Then I wrote a paper on socialization comparing teachers, parents, and the kids and their perception of what school is about.

At the time, every piece of work we did was rewritten, and I rewrote all of them into popular languages, both English and Chinese. And that went into this Family Newsletter. There was also a lot of community news of interest to the family. There were also instructions on how to take care of your child, and we produced the newsletter here at the Asian American Studies Center. It was a monthly. I did all the Chinese.

And then the group dispersed, and people left. It was people who were connected with the Chinatown study. But as you progressed intellectually, the practical work became a point of debate. We discussed whether or not we ought to be doing this and exactly what it is we were doing and hoped to achieve. I think most of us don’t want to be social welfare providers. We wanted a strong educational component. Some people felt, “Who are we to try and educate others?” It was the same kind of conflict that community is somehow superior than people at the universities. So, you ought to do what they want you to do. I believe we had lots of arguments about the relationship between intellectuals and non-intellectuals. Should we trail behind, or do we have some role to play as a teacher and analyzer?

Study Groups

One of the things that I do is travel in different countries to talk about women’s issues. Usually, it’s to a multiracial group. I do that sort of thing a great deal. I belong to a study group called “Red Wednesday”. There are about six of us, and I am the only minority. We talk about women’s issues, and we write about women’s issues… I was also in a consciousness-raising group with Judy [Chu], Vivian [Matsushige], Joy Yamasaki – the Saturday Morning group… The discussion was more focused on race… In those days, everyone was in a study group. Some people were even in three or four.

Left to right: Marjorie Lee, Dr. Judy Chu, Dr. Lucie Cheng, Dr. Feelie Lee, Suellen Cheng, and Susie Ling at the CHSSC book signing event at Castelar School Auditorium, 1985.

[1] CED is probably the acronym for “Council on Educational Development,” an attempt by UCLA then to meet the fast-changing needs for relevant curriculum. CUCC is probably the acronym for College University Consortium Council. New curriculum on college campuses is usually approved by a governing interdisciplinary faculty body.