Hundreds of people showed up at a memorial held on April 9 in Chinatown to bid farewell to Peter Kwong, the Hunter College professor and renowned Asian studies expert who suddenly passed away recently. Friends and colleagues shared fond memories of the respected professor who, they say, was a long-term servant to the Chinese community.
The simply but cozily decorated memorial hall was wrapped in a warm orange light. The seats were all filled immediately with more than a dozen people who were not able to get a seat standing at the back for the entire process. About 10 people who knew Kwong very well made speeches.
“Peter, we’ll always remember you,” Hua Li, an organizer of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association who got to know Kwong in 1995, said with tears in her eyes. “When I learned all of a sudden that Peter was gone, my heart was so heavy. We couldn’t believe he just left us like this.” Li said Kwong was both her mentor and friend. And in her eyes, he was a “brave warrior.”
As an academic, Kwong had never confined himself to the ivy tower. He was close to the member workers of the association and genuinely cared about their well-being, said Li. She said she often talked with Kwong about the direction of the workers movement. “He taught us how to organize immigrant workers to fight for equality,” said Li.
JoAnn Lum, director of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops who had been working with Kwong for more than 30 years, also got to know Kwong via the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. Lum said when she had just graduated from college and moved to New York in the 1980s, she learned from friends that Kwong had launched English-language classes for Chinese immigrant workers. Lum joined the class as a volunteer teacher. Since then, the two had been working together on many projects including writing articles together about the situation of Chinese workers. “This experience changed my life,” said Lum.
Lum said she had family members also working in restaurants and garment factories. It was Kwong who helped her understand that these workers do not have to be “slaves” [living] under exploitation. They can keep their dignity in life.
Lum said Kwong kept participating in social movements and being active in the anti-eviction alliance even in his late years. “I called him recently to discuss an upcoming meeting of the alliance,” said Lum, and that was how she learned the news of Kwong’s passing. “He was still working on the social movement on his last day.”
Wing Lam, executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association who had know Kwong for more than 40 years, said he met and talked with Kwong about anti-eviction [issues] just two days before Kwong passed away. His death was hard to swallow for Lam.
Lam said the two got to know each other in the “Protecting Diaoyu Islands” movement in the 1970s and the 1980s (Editor’s note: The Diaoyu Islands are at the center of a territorial dispute between China and Japan that resurfaces every few years, causing tensions in the relationship of the two countries. Many Chinese in the U.S. participated in China’s claim for the island in the 1970s and ’80s.) And in the past eight to nine years, the two had been working closely on the anti-eviction movement in Chinatown and on the Lower East Side. Lam called Kwong a “revolutionist” who not only helped immigrants but also all workers.
Downtown Community Television Center, where the memorial was held, was also founded with Kwong’s help. Other than being a professor and an activist, Kwong was also a documentary producer. Segments of films he produced were screened at the memorial, including the one he shot in Shanghai in 1989 of Chinese people parading on the streets to support the students movement and against the government’s suppression. Another segment is from the film “Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province” that he co-produced. The film focuses on how shoddily built buildings in Wenchuan, Sichuan province in China made worse the casualties of the deadly earthquake in the region in 2008 and the uphill fight for the rights of the parents whose children were killed by the collapsed school buildings. The film received an Oscar nomination.
“He was very brave,” said Jon Alpert, founder of Downtown Community Television Center. “Nothing can stop him or deter him.” When Kwong was shooting the film in Sichuan after the earthquake, he was detained and interrogated by the Chinese government. Alpert said, even when Kwong was facing a few dozen police, he was still fearless. “I believe all of us will miss him,” said Alpert.
Dusanka Miscevic, Kwong’s wife who gave the last speech, thanked everyone for attending the memorial and said she was happy to have this gathering at this “difficult time.” Miscevic said her husband liked classical music. It was only because of his parents’ opposition that he didn’t choose music as his major. The memorial was wrapped up with the melody of “Serenade” by Schubert, Kwong’s favorite composer.
Kwong died on March 17 from a heart attack. He was 75. He was born in Chongqing, China, and moved to Taiwan after high school and then later, to the U.S. He got a Ph.D. degree in politics from Columbia University in 1978. Then he became a teacher at City University of New York, and had been the director of Asian studies at Hunter College and a professor of urban affairs and planning.
As a pioneer in Asian studies, Kwong had published many articles and books about Chinese immigrants, labor and politics and contributed greatly in documenting the history of recent Chinese immigrants. His journalistic works in the Village Voice about Chinese drug syndicates and the race riot in Los Angeles were both Pulitzer finalists.
Hunter College praised Kwong for his excellent work as a professor in sociology as well as his accomplishments as a passionate activist focusing on human rights and justice. The statement called him a pioneer with a humanitarian spirit. The school also plans to hold a memorial for Kwong.