AAS Loses a Champion, Leader, and Mentor

 Philip P. Choy (1926-2017)

Known by the Chinese American community as the “Grand Historian,” Philip P. Choy was recently dubbed the “Dean of Asian American Historians” by the San Francisco Chronicle (March 18, 2017). Before the existence of Ethnic/Asian American Studies, Phil was already a walking encyclopedia on Chinese American history. Credited for co-teaching the first college-level Chinese American history course in the nation at San Francisco State in 1969, Phil was the main instructor who inspired countless students to become teachers and activists. In addition to teaching, researching, and writing, he advocated everywhere for Asian America’s place in American history. He fought in political meetings and wrote case reports to preserve many Asian American historical sites. He was president of the Chinese Historical Society for six years and the mastermind behind its building and museum. Defiantly, Phil became “notorious” in 1969 when, against the advice of his own community and standing alone at the Transcontinental Railroad Centennial, he openly challenged America and the organizers for omitting any mention of the Chinese who helped to build the railroad.

After Phil retired, he returned to the Asian American Studies Department as adjunct professor. He was the docent for many of our field trips to Angel Island, Sacramento, and the California Mother Lode. He also presented at the department’s conferences and attended our Chinese American history study tours in China with the students. At a time when there were no AAS textbooks, Phil co-authored two classics, A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus (1969) and Outlines: History of the Chinese in California (published in 1971 by the AAS Department). Phil was also the host/narrator and main driving force behind Gum Saan Haak (1974), the first extensive documentary ever produced on Chinese American history that aired on television in six nights, thirty minutes per episode. More recently, Phil co-authored The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese (1994), and wrote Canton Footprints: Sacramento’s Chinese Legacy (2007) and San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture (2012).

In At 40: Asian American Studies at San Francisco State (2009), Phil reflected:

Now, forty years after the Strike at San Francisco State, we have validated our presence in America without yielding to Anglo American dominance. We have reclaimed our history, defined our own identity, and shaped our own destiny. Now, forty years later, we have a piece of America’s apple pie, baked by our own bakers. I never dreamed I would witness these changes in my lifetime. Participation in the Movement, and teaching at San Francisco State, are milestones in my life.

In 2005, Phil received the SFSU President’s Medal, the highest honor a CSU president can bestow upon an individual.

A memorial service for Phil will be held Sunday, April 23, 2017, 1:00 p.m., on Treasure Island at the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition (1 Avenue of the Palms).