Born in Butte, Montana, on August 20, 1904, Rose Hum Lee was the first Chinese American and the first woman to head a sociology department at US college, the Roosevelt University. As an urban sociologist, she was the first to conduct extensive research and documentation on China towns in America.
As well as being exceptional, one reason Lee is so interesting is that her own experience thoroughly permeated her research focus, methods, and theory. She is an interesting case study in how social science is influenced by the personal experience of the person conducting the research. In the blog post, I will focus on how her personal experience influenced her research focus, method, and ideas. I will then reflect on the possibility and value of maintaining neutrality in sociology and whether Lee’s personal experiences influenced her work positively or negatively.
Growing up in a first-generation migrant family, Lee experienced the conflict between traditional Chinese beliefs and the US culture in her early life. Her father migrated from Guangdong province in China to the US, worked in various jobs such as ranching, laundry, and mining, and eventually settled in Butte to open a successful merchandise store in China Alley. Similar to how many other men in Chinatown documented by Lee, he then returned to China and married Rose’s mother as his wife. In Lee’s study The Growth and Decline of Chinese Communities in the Rocky Mountain Region, Lee described her family’s emphasis on strict obedience, filial piety, wearing Chinese clothes, eating Chinese food, speaking Chinese, and having “old-world furnishings”, which immersed her in Chineseness[i].
While Lee did not accept the “old-world culture” represented by her family, she found herself disliked by the US society she grew up in. When she was five years old, the US government issued a law prohibiting Chinese from voting, owning property, marrying non-Chinese, or becoming citizens. Rose even lost her legal US citizenship after she was married to Ku Young Lee, a Chinese engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, since the Cable Act stated that US citizens would be deprived of citizenship if they marry an alien who was ineligible for citizenship. Despite her strong opposition that the government had no right to remove her inalienable citizen right, she had to go to China with her husband and return to the US after their divorce in 1939[ii].
Lee’s early and later personal experiences shaped her research focus. Her research focused on the social group of Chinese Americans, the historical evolution of Chinatown, and the women’s condition in Chinatown because she shared the same experience and identity. Her early research studied the situation of Chinese women in Butte and in Rocky Mountain Chinatown that she grew up in, and she referred to her personal experience based on her own family and childhood experience in the village. She used detailed personal recounts from women villagers to illustrate their life pattern, which was characterized by supervision, restriction, and arranged marriage. She later expanded the scope of her research to other parts of US Chinatowns, including in Tucson, Arizona, and San Francisco, where she collected individual recounts and demographic data throughout the historical trend[iii]. Another key aspect of Lee’s study was her portrayal of Chinese Americans’ role in US society in general. She constantly referred to her experience growing up in the “old-world culture” of Chinese immigrant families to theorize the potential sources of cultural conflict[iv].
Lee’s personal experience also shaped her methods. She identified herself as a marginal woman, and her marginality inspired her research methods. According to Lee, marginal women (men) were the products of immigration[v]. The immigrant parents who settled in a foreign land left a legacy of marginality to their children, the marginalized generation, who then experienced contact between two different societies and were subject to barriers of integration[vi]. Marginality benefitted Lee in becoming a leading sociological interpreter of Chinese living in America. It enabled her to gain access and have knowledge of the social group she studied. Given that she did not fully belong to either US or Chinese society, Lee could stand in the middle ground and gain knowledge of both cultures while possessing the ability to be partly accepted by both sides. She could conduct investigations into American Chinatowns as a middleman. For example, when studying the living condition of the Chinese women in the Butte, Lee was able to gain first-hand personal recounts an insider view from a wide range of informants that she was acquainted with[vii].
While Lee’s role as a marginal woman enabled her to be the cultural interpreter in her study, in her theory, Lee did not favor the persistence of such marginality in the Chinese American group but instead promoted its dissolution. Her idea was to replace the marginality of Chinese Americans in the US society with complete assimilation.
The personal experience of citizenship deprivation and her attitude toward the Chinese culture derived from early family experience shaped Lee’s theory. She proposed the theory of assimilation with regard to Chinese Americans’ membership in the US. She believed that the citizenship and identity of Chinese Americans were defined by their “Americanness,” as she said, “the native-born of Chinese ancestry want to be called citizens and thought of as Americans rather than as marginal men and assigned a minority status”[viii]. She also held that the Chinese in America, including herself, believed they “must at all costs conform to the dominant group in order to win acceptance”[ix]. In accordance with this aspiration of her ethnic group, Lee outlined the ultimate ideal Chinese Americans should strive for was to “become so integrated into the societies where they themselves or their ancestors settled that they are indistinguishable from the local population”[x].
Lee argued that such assimilation was not only achieved by merely legal citizenship but acceptance on a cultural level: having been easily deprived of her legal citizenship, Lee believed that legal citizenship could not define Chinese Americans’ membership in the US; instead, they should gain cultural citizenship. Once Chinese Americans attained cultural citizenship, they would be perceived by the US society as part of it. Such change in perception would solidify the Chinese’ American’s legal citizenship and other status in the US society, marking their full assimilation into the US society.
The attaining of cultural citizenship required not only respect toward the US ideals like freedom and equality, but also the adoption of US culture to the extent that physical distinction became the only difference between Chinese Americans and other Americans[xi]. A crucial step was abandoning the restrictive traditional Chinese beliefs and Chinatown that represented such segregation. Lee assailed Chinese Americans that held upon their traditional culture and refused to assimilate into US culture. She criticized the existence of Chinatowns when describing Chinatowns as “a voluntary,” “self-imposed” form of segregation, which would hinder Chinese Americans’ acculturation and assimilation[xii]. She also accused the old Chinatown residents as “reject[ing] new abstract concepts”, and “emphasis[ing] particularism, sectionalism, separatism”. Not only did Lee promote that Chinatown as a representation of old values should be removed, but she also promoted the abandonment of other restrictive traditional Chinese beliefs to achieve assimilation through cultural citizenship. Lee wrote that “the American-born, especially, must resist the pressure of the older Chinese who try to impose Chinese norms, values, and attitudes on them or woo their loyalty by exhortations to ‘save the face of the Chinese”[xiii]. She believed that the “old-world views” would be detrimental for Chinese American’s assimilation, and “the eradication of one set of distinctive characteristics associated with Chinese culture heralds a new life for the marginal man who as only to cope with his racial background”[xiv]. Such cultural assimilation, Lee believed, could help Chinese Americans remove race as the only hindrance to their integration, as they fully gain membership in the US society.
There is one-sidedness in Lee’s theory. When she promoted eradicating traditional Chinese values and Chinatown, she excluded other social reform strategies that do not eliminate traditional Chinese culture. She also undermined the value of the old culture, the removal of which many might lamented upon. Lee’s point of view on promoting assimilation is indeed valid and legitimate, as growing up in a traditional Chinese family living in the US, she experienced marginalization and alienation on both sides, and was stuck in between two societies. Her experience naturally led to her theory on attaining cultural citizenship through culture elimination. Still, it is wrong to portray culture eradication as the only means to achieve assimilation and disregard the other perspectives. It is also wrong to assume that the goal of all Chinese Americans was the complete assimilation into the US society.
Furthermore, despite Lee’s effort to hold a distant and unbiased voice when analyzing people’s social reality in Chinatown, as she drew evidence from interviews, analyzed demographic data, and investigated historic trends, the way she presented the facts reveals value-attached judgment. For example, she assailed the Chinatowns by calling them “ghettos,” and she voiced the hope that “the blight which surrounds most Chinatowns will attack their core”[xv]. She also described the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association as “a powerful—often vicious—pressure group”[xvi]. In this regard, Lee was criticized by another sociologist, William Skinner, for the one-sidedness of her assimilation theory. In his review of Lee’s work, William Skinner wrote, “it becomes apparent that the concern with Americanization is for Dr.Lee an emotional and personal one”[xvii].
Interestingly, Lee was educated in the Chicago School of Sociology, which trained her to practice distant and detached observation and value-free theory. But in terms of the one-sidedness and value-attached aspect of her idea, Lee became an interesting case study of how it might not be possible to achieve that neutrality, as her work was an actual manifestation of personal experience influence on work. It raised the question of whether it is possible to get a neutral point of view in social science research. It also raises another question about whether it is good or bad that her personal experience has such a heavy influence on her work. I would argue that the connection between Lee’s work and personal experience is significant and indispensable in a good way because it led her to focus on the problems which she considered important and gave her methodological access. However, while Lee presented well-collected evidence, the way she explained it and the idea she drew from it was not neutral, leading to the exclusion of other means to achieve the assimilation theory.
In conclusion, Lee is an important figure in social science not only because she was the pioneer in research on Chinese American immigrants and one of the first women leading this field, but also because she was a perfect case study of how social science research can be very personal. Furthermore, her work could inspire us to ponder the necessity or possibility of attaining neutrality in social science research.
About the Author,
Lingzhou Xu is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. She is planning on majoring in Political Science and Economics. Outside of her coursework, she is involved in Women in Business, and is passionate about documentary photography and filmmaking.
Featured Image: Rose Hum Lee. Courtesy of Roosevelt University.
[i] “Fitting in Space: Rose Hum Lee’s Negotiation of Assimilation and Citizenship in America.” The Free Library. Accessed November 12, 2021. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Fitting+in+space%3A+Rose+Hum+Lee%27s+negotiation+of+assimilation+and…-a0143063440.
[ii] “Fitting in Space: Rose Hum Lee’s Negotiation of Assimilation and Citizenship in America.” The Free Library. Accessed November 12, 2021. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Fitting+in+space%3A+Rose+Hum+Lee%27s+negotiation+of+assimilation+and…-a0143063440.
“Rose Hum Lee.” Biography. Accessed November 12, 2021. https://biography.yourdictionary.com/rose-hum-lee.
[iv] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[v] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[vi] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[vii] Lee, Rose Hum. “The Growth and Decline of Chinese Communities in the Rocky Mountain Region.” Amazon. Arno Press, 1978. https://www.amazon.com/Decline-Chinese-Communities-Mountain-Experience/dp/0405112793.
[viii] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[ix] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[x] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[xi] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[xii] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[xiii] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.
[xiv] Lee, Rose Hum. The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960
[xv] Skinner, G. William. “Overseas Chinese – the Chinese in the United States of America. by Rose Hum Lee. [Hong Kong University Press, 1960. 465 Pp. Appendices, Index, Maps. 52s. 6d. $8.30.]: The China Quarterly.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, February 17 2009, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/china-quarterly/article/overseas-chinese-the-chinese-in-the-united-states-of-america-by-rose-hum-lee-hong-kong-university-press-1960-465-pp-appendices-index-maps-52s-6d-830/3AAED75C32ECB8091015146396337DA4.
[xvi] Skinner, G. William. “Overseas Chinese – the Chinese in the United States of America. by Rose Hum Lee. [Hong Kong University Press, 1960. 465 Pp. Appendices, Index, Maps. 52s. 6d. $8.30.]: The China Quarterly.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, February 17 2009, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/china-quarterly/article/overseas-chinese-the-chinese-in-the-united-states-of-america-by-rose-hum-lee-hong-kong-university-press-1960-465-pp-appendices-index-maps-52s-6d-830/3AAED75C32ECB8091015146396337DA4.
[xvii] Skinner, G. William. “Overseas Chinese – the Chinese in the United States of America. by Rose Hum Lee. [Hong Kong University Press, 1960. 465 Pp. Appendices, Index, Maps. 52s. 6d. $8.30.]: The China Quarterly.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, February 17 2009, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/china-quarterly/article/overseas-chinese-the-chinese-in-the-united-states-of-america-by-rose-hum-lee-hong-kong-university-press-1960-465-pp-appendices-index-maps-52s-6d-830/3AAED75C32ECB8091015146396337DA4.