Celebrating Peter Kwong, Asian American Studies Pioneer, Immigration Scholar, Award-Winning Journalist and Filmmaker

Peter Kwong. Photo by Lia Chang
Peter Kwong. Photo by Lia Chang

I’m saddened to hear of the sudden passing of my dear friend Peter Kwong, who died of cardiac arrest on Friday, March 17th according to a post by Joseph P. Viteritti, Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy and Chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at Hunter College, CUNY.

Kwong was a pioneer in Asian American studies, a leading scholar of immigration, and an award-winning journalist and filmmaker.

Professor Kwong had been a member of the Hunter faculty since 1993, where he was a Distinguished Professor in the Urban Policy and Planning Department and a Professor of Asian-American studies. He was also a member of the doctoral faculty in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Over his career, he taught as a Visiting Professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, the City University of Hong Kong, and the People’s University of China, as well as Princeton, Oberlin, Yale, Columbia, Berkeley, and UCLA.

Peter Kwong was born in Chunking, China in 1941. He came to this country to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where he received a B.A. in math and physics. He subsequently earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering at Columbia University before enrolling at Columbia to get a certificate in East Asian Studies and a Ph.D. in political science.

Peter Kwong, Mira Nair, Sree Sreenivasan, a guest, Margaret Fung, Alice Young, a guest, Jessica Hagedorn and David Henry Hwang at AALDEF's 30th Anniversary Gala at PIER SIXTY, Chelsea Piers in New York on March 25, 2004. Photo by Lia Chang
Peter Kwong, Mira Nair, Sree Sreenivasan, a guest, Margaret Fung, Alice Young, a guest, Jessica Hagedorn and David Henry Hwang at AALDEF’s 30th Anniversary Gala at PIER SIXTY, Chelsea Piers in New York on March 25, 2004. Photo by Lia Chang

Kwong had a passionate commitment to issues of social justice and a long record of activism concerning conditions in the Asian-American community. As an activist, he spoke regularly to the media on immigrant and labor issues. His scholarship was informed by vigorous public activism and the belief in advancing social causes through a combination of media and academia, both in the classroom and in the society at large. His career spanned the fields of scholarship, journalism and filmmaking, all directed to improve the lives of people who were marginalized by discrimination or social deprivation. A recent article in New York Magazine referred to him as the “Dean of Chinatown Studies.”

As a scholar, he was best known for his work on Chinese Americans and on modern Chinese politics. His books include Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community and Chinese Americans: An Immigrant Experience, co-authored with his wife, Chinese historian Dusanka Miscevic. His other books include Forbidden Workers: Chinese Illegal Immigrants and American Labor (selected by Barnes and Noble as one of the Ten Best Nonfiction Books of 1998), The New Chinatown, and Chinatown, New York: Labor and Politics 1930-1950.  Kwong challenged the notion that Asians are a model minority, revealing in his research widespread class divisions, poverty, exploitation, drug abuse, and organized crime — all of which were exacerbated by decades of discrimination by a majority white society. At the time of his death, Kwong and his wife were completing a history of Chinese immigration in the western United States, and he was beginning to work on an autobiography.

Kwong’s journalism appeared in such outlets as The Nation, Village Voice, International Herald Tribune, the Globe and Mail, and Philadelphia Inquirer. He was frequently interviewed by the New York Times and other major news outlets. His essay on multi-cultural race riots in Los Angeles, published in the Village Voice in 1992, merited the Sidney Hillman Foundation Prize, the George Polk Award, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His 1990 article in the Village Voice on Chinese drug cartels, co-authored with Dusanka Miscevic, was also nominated for a Pulitzer.

(L-R) Professor Ming Xia, Jacqueline Glover, supervising producer, HBO Documentary Films, co-director Jon Alpert, Professor Peter Kwong and co- director Matthew O’Neill, the production team of China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province at the screen at HBO in New York on May 5, 2009. Photo by Lia Chang
(L-R) Professor Ming Xia, Jacqueline Glover, supervising producer, HBO Documentary Films, co-director Jon Alpert, Professor Peter Kwong and co- director Matthew O’Neill, the production team of ‘China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province’ at the screen at HBO in New York on May 5, 2009. Photo by Lia Chang

As with his scholarship and journalism, Kwong’s filmmaking always delivered a strong social message. His 1980 PBS film, Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive, documented steep class divisions along Manhattan’s East Side, and won him an Emmy Award. His HBO documentary, China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, co-produced with Jon Alpert, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010. The heart-wrenching film highlighted corruption, incompetence and neglect by the Chinese government that became apparent as a result of the catastrophic earthquake of 2008 in Sichuan Provence that killed 70,000 people, including 10,000 children. The Chinese police detained Kwong and Jon Alpert during the course of the filming.

Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College and DCTC Board member presented His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on October 19, 2012. Photo: Sonam Zoksang
Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College  presented His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on October 19, 2012. Photo: Sonam Zoksang

Kwong was a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, who, because of Kwong’s good graces, visited Hunter College on two occasions. Kwong and his wife Dusanka Miscevic reciprocated in 2011 by accepting an invitation from the spiritual leader to visit his residence in India.

Named “one of the 100 Most Influential Asian Americans of the Decade” by A Magazine, a memorial service celebrating Kwong’s extraordinary life and achievements will be held at Hunter College later this spring.

Kwong is survived by his wife, Dusanka Miscevic.

Review: HBO’s China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province 

Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers,  musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.

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