Hello, Sailor

It's hard to write a biography of someone you don't entirely like.

You don’t have to know Margaret Chung’s name, but it is fun to drop the phrase “Dr. Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards” into conversations on local history, and it’s accordingly beneficial to have at least an idea of who she was. Helpfully, that phrase is the title of a new biography, the first on its subject, by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu.

“Not many people have published on Margaret Chung,” Wu says. “She really challenges the early scholarship on Asian-American history.” That fact — Chung’s complex, unclassifiable life — proved irresistible for Wu, who made Chung the subject of her Stanford dissertation in 1998. She now coordinates Ohio State University’s Asian-American Studies program, and is very obviously but with due modesty a Mom Chung expert.

As Wu’s book shows, Chung’s distinctions are manifold: first American-born Chinese female physician; remover of Mary Pickford’s tonsils; hobnobber with a young Ronald Reagan; celebrated foster mother to thousands of American WWII servicemen (the famous fair-haired bastards, including the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, who gratefully mopped her kitchen floor after a typically elaborate dinner party); star of the Real Heroes comic books; doyenne of mid-century San Francisco salon culture; gay-pride icon, retrospectively; and, yes, natural subject for a scholarly biography. The book’s subtitle qualifies her as a “wartime celebrity,” yet you can also place her, as Wu has, among what the author calls “the people who’ve been forgotten from history.”

Having studied Chung’s papers in their archival home at UC Berkeley, “I really wanted to bring her to life in the book,” Wu says. “And I wanted to use her life to explore broader themes.” As Chung negotiated a variously discriminatory society, converting hardships into opportunities, she exemplified the Bay Area creed of chronic self-invention. She was, Wu says, “in many ways the ultimate outsider, and she becomes in many ways the ultimate insider.”

That transition was not without its moral swamps — such as Chung’s unrelenting hatred for those of Japanese ancestry: “In exchange for her hospitality and support,” Wu writes in her book, Chung “exacted a parting promise from her military sons: ‘Bring me back seven Jap scalps. Get seven for yourself. Good luck. Let me hear from you.'”

“There are many things about her that are admirable,” Wu says ruefully, “but there are things that I question, too. A friend of mine, noticing that I pointed out all her flaws, had to ask me if I liked her. I think she’s a really remarkable person. I don’t necessarily agree with her goals or her strategy.”

The students in Wu’s Asian-American women’s history course, to whom she recently assigned the book, share that ambivalence — demonstrating again that the more you know about Mom Chung, the livelier the conversation she engenders. “From the beginning,” Wu explains, “I felt like I had to justify doing a biography on her.”

Later in the process she felt anxious about limning the personal life of a woman she never knew. “I think it was clear that she wanted to keep aspects of her life private,” says the author, who at a younger age rebelled against her parents’ firm wish that she attend medical school. To Wu, med students “represented the conventional, the status-hungry, the obedient ones.” Now she’s a wife and a mother of two — and she’s a serious scholar, but that didn’t keep her from writing a highly readable book because, as she puts it, “I felt like theoretical emphasis detracted from the life narrative.”

That said, Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards is probably the most socially conscious, rigorously researched celebrity biography to be published by a university press in a long while. Wu’s book transcends the university-syllabi pigeonhole because her scholarship equals the task of essaying its broader topic: the culture of celebrity. Chung “comes of age, professionally, as Hollywood comes of age,” the author explains. As the movies built a legacy within the public imagination by “appropriating otherness,” Wu says, Mom Chung shrewdly took a parallel course. “Her marketing of herself comes from that celebrity culture. But also, she becomes enamored of the people that come from that culture. Her life gains additional meaning through them.”

Celebrity culture is also copycat culture, of course, so perhaps Wu should not have been surprised to discover that another scholar had plagiarized her dissertation in his own book about the American West. “As I started reading it, it made me infuriated,” she recalls. After Wu waded through unwanted but inevitable legal tedium, the plagiarist was fired from his teaching post, and his work is now published with the embarrassing, rebuking disclaimer that it isn’t his. The incident is an unfortunate testament to the authority Wu has earned on her subject. “In some ways it gave me a better appreciation of all the work that I had done,” she says. And it shows that Mom Chung’s life can’t fully be claimed by anyone but Chung herself.

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