Henry Min-hsi Chan
Historian pursued identity for Australian and NZ-born Chinese
July 5, 2008
THE most striking thing about Henry Chan was his drive. He was a scholar of international renown in the history and philosophy of science, a community historian, a tireless partisan in the culture wars, a gifted networker and organiser, an energetic institution builder and a generous teacher. Running through it all was an iron will to secure recognition for Chinese-Australians as Australians, and likewise of Chinese-New Zealanders as New Zealanders.
Henry Min-hsi Chan, who has died aged 70, was born in Sungai, southern China, shortly before the outbreak of war with Japan, the only son of Chan Runling and his wife, Huang Lixia.
Henry's great-grandfather had migrated to Australia in the 19th century and his son, who took the surname Hunt, started an import-export business in Wellington, NSW, where Henry's father grew up. Commerce between Canton (now Guangzhou) and Australia was strong in the 1930s. The business took his father between the two, in the course of which he married in China. In 1933 he was sent to Auckland to set up a branch of the family greengrocery.
In 1940, Henry and his mother joined him there, leaving his two sisters with their grandparents. There was now a large family spread across the Tasman engaged in business and community activities exposing Henry to Chinese networking from an early age.
Henry's father wanted him in the family business but Henry wanted to go to university. He left home and was fostered by the Reverend Robert McDowall and his wife until he finished high school at Auckland Grammar. While at school, he took New Zealand citizenship.
He went on to Canterbury University in Christchurch and later taught in Napier. In 1968, he was a junior lecturer in history at Massey University, Palmerston North, where he met Mary Joiner, a lecturer in English literature. They were married in 1970 and Chan earned his MA in New Zealand.
In 1974, when the junior lectureship came to an end and Mary had study leave, they went to London where Chan studied for another MA, in Chinese and Japanese history, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London.
They returned to New Zealand in 1975 and the following year Mary took up a lectureship at the University of NSW, where she stayed until her retirement in 2000. Henry worked for a time in the Rare Book Library at Sydney University and in 1986 took up a lectureship in Chinese history at Newcastle University. He stayed there, commuting to Sydney each week, until he retired in 1998 and the Chans moved to Katoomba.
Henry Chan knew and loved both Australia and New Zealand, and was passionate about his Chinese ancestry. It bothered him that someone might imagine there was something inconsistent about the mixture, and he spent much of his life showing there was not. He could be impatient with growing signs of a self-righteous "victimisation" mentality among young Chinese in China and Australia, which he felt did credit to no one and fuelled intolerance.
His convictions drove Chan at breakneck speed through the years of the Howard government. He organised conferences and workshops, brought together community and academic networks, set up heritage coalitions, developed digital resources, email lists and websites, won funding for heritage projects, and alerted local community historians to wider developments in the country and Australian scholars to international developments in the field.
He had a hand in virtually every important event and institutional initiative in Chinese-Australian studies over the past two decades. Through these activities, he helped to remake the field and, in his own way, to refashion Australia into the land he always imagined it to be: one in which the values he cherished as an Australian were seen as part of a common human heritage rather than the sole legacy of an Anglo-Saxon elite.
In 2004, he was awarded a fellowship at the National Library in New Zealand (Wellington) where he studied Chinese immigration to New Zealand. A book on immigration from Zengcheng (in Guangdong province), Zengcheng New Zealanders, was published in 2006 for the 80th anniversary of the Zengcheng Association in Wellington. He edited the book and wrote a long historical introduction.
He was instrumental in organising "Tracking The Dragon", a cultural heritage project in Sydney that grew from the Australian Heritage Council's guide to Chinese-Australian heritage places.
In the final months of his life, Chan celebrated three things: the victory of Labor in the federal election, John Howard losing his seat, and the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, speaking fluent Mandarin.
Henry Chan is survived by Mary, their son, Sebastian, daughter-in-law Kerrii Cavanagh and grandchildren Grace and Rupert.
John Fitzgerald and Harriet Veitch
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/07/04/1214951054103.html