Philip Choy, SF expert on Chinese American experience, dies
By Carl Nolte
San Francisco Chronicle
17 March 2017
College of Environmental Design alumnus Philip P. Choy (BA Arch ‘52), a retired architect who was known as the dean of Asian American historians, died at his San Francisco home last Thursday at age 90.
Choy, who also was a teacher, an author and an advocate for civil rights, had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. He was a self-taught historian who became an expert on the Chinese American experience. He believed the contributions of Chinese Americans to the development of the nation had been ignored in standard American history books.
“He said that we had been denied the right to tell our story,” said Connie Young Yu, an old friend and a historian in her own right. “It is an American story.”
Choy devoted much of his life to explaining the history of his people in the United States. He taught and lectured in schools and colleges, and wrote or co-wrote four books on Chinese American life. Choy and Him Mark Lai, another historian, taught the first ethnic studies course in Asian American history at San Francisco State University in 1969. Until then, it had never been taught in the U.S., but the course has since become a model for similar college programs.
“We have lost a giant,” said Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America.
“He is irreplaceable,” said Anthea Hartig, executive director of the California Historical Society.
Mr. Choy was a third-generation San Franciscan, born in the city on December 17, 1926. He attended local schools and was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, and went through basic training in Mississippi. Though he had experienced prejudice against Asians in California, the treatment of black people in the South opened his eyes.
Blacks were required to sit in the back of the bus, and public facilities were segregated. Because he was Chinese, he was not affected, “But it bothered him a lot,” said his son, Randall.
After his military service, Choy went to UC Berkeley on the GI Bill and majored in architecture. He worked for an architectural firm for a while but was told he would not get a senior position because of his race and quit to set up his own practice, which he ran until he retired in 2000.
In the meantime, he became interested in history and was elected president of the Chinese Historical Society of America.
He had been invited to the centennial of the transcontinental railroad in 1969 but was incensed by the lack of recognition to the Chinese role in the project.
The western half of the railroad — the Central Pacific — was built by Chinese labor, including difficult construction in the Sierra Nevada. But when the secretary of transportation delivered the keynote address, he said, “Who but Americans could have built this railroad?”
“My father was furious,” Randall Choy said, “and he made his views very well known.” He gave an interview to The Chronicle that ran on Page One and attracted wide attention.
Mr. Choy became the face of Chinese American history and received many honors, including a president’s medal from San Francisco State in 2005 and the Oscar Lewis Award for history from the Book Club of California in 2011. Mr. Choy’s first book, co-written by Him Mark Lai and published in 1971, was titled “Outlines: The History of Chinese in America.” He followed that in 2007 with “Canton Footprints: Sacramento’s Chinese Legacy” and “The Architecture of San Francisco Chinatown” in 2009.
He also had a major role in the restoration of the Angel Island Immigration Center and taught and lectured widely. His last book, “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” was published in 2012.
Mr. Choy was a courtly man, unfailingly polite, and loved to tell the story of the Chinese in this country. “He was quietly powerful,” the California Historical Society’s Hartig said.