Paying tribute to Professor Philip A. Kuhn (1933–2016)

Professor Eileen Chow, Duke University, pays tribute to Professor Philip A. Kuhn, former director of the Fairbank Center.

Philip A. Kuhn (1933–2016)

So many have been sharing their remembrances of Phil Kuhn over email and FB today, and so I thought I would add a few of my own.

My memories of Phil might be slightly different from many of yours, in that I was never strictly his student. But he was certainly my teacher.

At my first faculty meeting during my first year on the job at EALC, a discussion of upcoming search parameters led to Phil dismissing the proposed job wording, scoffing — “What IS “Cultural Studies”? Isn’t that just badly done history?” When after the meeting someone told him that my shiny, brand-new job title was in fact, Assistant Professor of Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies — he actually sought me out in my office and apologized.

I took no offense — and perhaps on some level didn’t disagree with him! — but this marked my first real encounter with my august and legendary senior colleague whose work I had first read as an undergraduate. And what it did lead to were many, many, informal teasing conversations with Phil on the topic of “badly done history” through the years. Perhaps to prove a point, despite the overwhelmingly frenetic, headless-chicken state of being that is life as a first-year faculty member, I decided to audit his Qing Docs class — I was there to learn the Kuhn School of Chinese History, after all. Rather to my surprise, it became a dependable source of intellectual camaraderie in my weekly schedule that spring. Who knew that the 鐘人傑 Rebellion would be such an oasis of calm in a Cambridge winter?

When I started plotting out a course and book project on global Chinatowns, Phil was an invaluable source of knowledge and contacts — he shared chapters of his then manuscript-in-progress Chinese Among Others, invited the great Chinese American historian and community activist Him Mark Lai to town, even remembered to bring back a Singapore Chinatown tourist map for me — his book and that map, I use in my class materials to this day. One semester, we guest lectured for each others’ classes — his, on the history of the Overseas Chinese, and mine, on Chinatown. Our approaches to the subject could not have been more different — in my mind’s eye I still see his single arched brow when the short clip of Homer Simpson in Chinatown I showed his class started up — but I also remember his wide Cheshire cat grin. And he never ever did give me grief again about “cultural studies.”

When he became chair, Phil took it upon himself to hector/support/ mentor/shield me at every turn, telling me to let him ‘play the bad guy’ when it came to turning down ‘prestigious’ university committee assignments and additional departmental service. And he was my staunch advocate to the administration as I negotiated offers, and even more so, when I became pregnant with my first child — this was back when Harvard had no systematic parental leave for its faculty, lumping it together with sick/personal leaves, with no release from administrative duties. Phil was adamant that course relief and clock stoppage should be made available to any junior faculty member as a matter of course, without judgement. The department then — the university then — had very few women, and I found out later that he often asked Wai-yee Li to look out for me — not just professionally, but also asking after how I was doing as a person, as me. Waiyee hosted me and Phil for many a delicious meal at her home in those years, for those weekday evenings that she knew I was on my own and when Phil was often stuck working late in Cambridge with chair duties. When I think of Phil it is most often of us debating at Waiyee and Omer’s welcoming table, sometimes late into the evening — and Phil would be so comfortable in their lovely home that he would gently doze off for a bit. We would simply continue our laughter and conversation around him, until he rejoined us with a vigorous point of rebuttal or a spot of wit.

Phil’s keen interest in politics and social justice was infectious. He would rally us to join him in canvassing in New Hampshire (what with the Massachusetts electorate being a done deal in most election cycles) — I may still have a button or two from his primaries collection. I would also listen with admiration to his updates on the law school classes he was taking during his non-existent spare time. Phil’s dream post-retirement, he once told us, was to get his law degree, pass the Massachusetts Bar, and serve as a Public Defender and provide pro bono legal counsel to those who could not afford it. I felt such sadness for him and his loved ones when I heard of his deteriorating health, but also especially due to this — because I knew that if he could have lived out this particular dream of his, he would have made one learned, fiery, and kickass legal 大俠。

Thank you for everything, Professor Kuhn. Consider me forever Kuhn School.