Rose Hum Lee

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Rose Hum Lee

Rose Hum Lee (1904-1964) was a sociologist trained in the famous "Chicago school" tradition of urban sociology, which focused on human ecology, natural history, and the assimilation of ethnic groups into the American mainstream. She built her career on researching Chinese immigrants in America, focusing on how they adjusted to urban life in the United States. Lee was strongly in favor of Chinese Americans leaving their traditions behind to become completely assimilated into the American way of life and she used her own family as an example of how to accomplish this.

Rose Hum Lee was born in Butte, Montana on August 20, 1904. Her father, Hum Wah Long, immigrated to the United States from the Guandong province in China in the 1870s. He arrived in California and worked his way to Montana doing various manual jobs such as ranching, laundry, and mining. He settled in Butte, Montana and became a successful business owner of a merchandise store in China Alley. At that time federal law prohibited Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, but Hum's success had allowed him to return to China to find a wife to bring back to America with him. Hum married Lin Fong and the couple had seven children together, of whom Rose Hum Lee was the second oldest.

During the late 1800s hundreds of thousands of Chinese emigrated to America to escape their war-torn country and to profit from either the gold rush in western America or the railroad business. When they could not capitalize on these ventures, many Chinese immigrants became small business owners, opening stores that did not require much capital, such as laundries or restaurants. By 1870 nearly ten percent of Montana's population was Chinese. The Chinese were heavily discriminated against in Montana. A 1909 law prohibited Chinese from voting, owning property, marrying non-Chinese, or becoming citizens. Violence against Chinese immigrants was also common.

Lee's future was strongly influenced by her mother, an illiterate woman who emphasized education and independence in her children. Lee attended Garfield Elementary School, Washington Junior High, and Butte High School. She and all of her siblings were honor students in high school. When she graduated in 1921 she worked as a secretary and went to a local college for a brief period.

Return to China

Lee met Ku Young Lee, a Chinese engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, whom she married. The young couple moved to China and lived in Canton for nearly a decade. Lee worked in a variety of administrative positions in China. From 1931 to 1936 she worked for the Guandong Raw Silk Testing Bureau. Then from 1936 to 1938 she had two jobs at the National City Bank of New York and the Sun Life Assurance Company. From 1937 to 1938 she added a third job at the Guandong Municipal Telephone Exchange.

In 1937 the Chinese went to war against the Japanese and Lee worked in the Canton Red Cross Women's War Relief Association, the Overseas Relief Unit, and the Guandong Emergency Committee for the Relief of Refugees. When the Japanese invaded Canton, Lee aided the resistance by working as a radio operator and translator. Her work in hospitals and orphanages led to her adoption of a daughter. While in China, Lee divorced her husband and then returned to the United States in 1939 with her daughter, Elaine.

Sociological Training

With her mother's support Lee returned to school to pursue a career as a writer, teacher, and social worker. She put herself through college by working at odd jobs and lecturing about Chinese history and culture. She spoke about Chinese art, culture, customs, and history, as well as the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Lee would dress and speak American as she presented these lectures and afterwards she would change into a traditional Chinese dress and sell Chinese souvenirs. These engagements allowed Lee to pay for her own education. In 1942 she received her Bachelor of Science degree in social work from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. Next she moved to Chicago to start graduate school at the University of Chicago School of Social Work and Administration. She then switched to the sociology department where she earned her Master of Arts degree in 1943. Four years later Lee completed her doctorate from the same program. Her dissertation was on "The Growth and Decline of Rocky Mountain Chinatowns." In this work she used her own family as an example of how Chinese Americans could successfully assimilate to American culture. She took on the sociological perspective of the "outsider" to study the people and places with which she was most familiar.

Lee's sociological training was strongly rooted in the "Chicago school," which was named for a specific approach to urban sociology which grew out of the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the methodological techniques promoted by this school was the "natural history." Sociologists used this approach to study urban life, particularly with respect to ethnically segregated urban neighborhoods. Lee was strongly influenced by the work of the prominent urban sociologists Robert E. Park and Louis Wirth. Under their guidance, Lee adapted this approach to describe life in Chinatowns.

Academic Career

In 1945 Lee joined the faculty of the sociology department at Roosevelt University, a new college in Chicago that promoted ethnic diversity among faculty and students. Upon completing her dissertation Lee wrote an article published in Social Forces in 1948 called "Social Institutions of a Rocky Mountain Chinatown" about life in Butte, Montana. She described how Chinese Americans sought to preserve certain social institutions from their homeland. Her next publication in 1949 on "The Decline of Chinatowns in the United States" is considered her most famous article. In this work she continued to pursue the natural history of Chinese American enclaves, particularly their growth and decline. In 1949 Lee also received a grant from the Social Science Research Council to continue her dissertation research on Chinese Americans. She expanded her previous work to include immigrant families in San Francisco. She was especially interested in comparing the established Chinese American families of the Rocky Mountain region to the newer immigrant families just arriving in California. Lee published an article based on this research in 1956 in the Journal of Marriage and Family Living.

Her extended research on Chinese Americans eventually led to her most famous book, The Chinese in the United States of America, published in 1960. In the introduction to the book Lee wrote, "This volume attempts to portray the social, economic, occupational, institutional, and associational life of the Chinese in the United States of America. The members of that community have often been discussed but seldom understood." This was a comprehensive look at Chinese American immigrants in terms of family life, social organization, religion, politics, health, and social problems. Lee also addressed how Chinese immigrants were treated by Americans and how they viewed themselves as a group.

In this book Lee examined how three different groups of Chinese Americans assimilated to American culture as immigrants. The first group was called "sojourners," those who emigrated to the United States for economic reasons but who planned to return to China. The second group was the "intellectuals" who left their homeland for academic or political reasons and who were affluent enough to live outside of Chinatowns. The last group was the "American-Chinese" who were either born in the United States to Chinese immigrants or who were legal U.S. residents. The third group most readily embraced the American lifestyle because they planned to make their home in America.

Throughout this book and all of her work Lee was a strong supporter of racial and ethnic assimilation, another characteristic of the Chicago school. In the preface to the book, Lee clearly explained of Chinese immigrants: "Many of them have become so integrated in the societies where they themselves or their ancestors settled that they are indistinguishable from the local population: that is the ultimate ideal to which all Overseas Chinese should aspire." Lee believed that assimilation would be beneficial to Chinese Americans because it would lead to less discrimination. While she appreciated the cultural conflict between generations, Lee nonetheless believed that preserving traditional ways would be detrimental to the Chinese American community. In The Chinese in the United States of America, Lee wrote that "The American-born, especially, must resist the pressure of the older Chinese who try to impose Chinese norms, values, and attitudes on them or woo their loyalty by exhortations to 'save the face of the Chinese.' Face-saving covers a multitude of sins."

In 1951 Lee married for a second time to Glenn Ginn, a Chinese American lawyer from Phoenix, Arizona. In the 1950s her career continued to blossom as she became a respected theorist in urban sociology, a growing field in Chicago at that time. She wrote several more articles on various aspects of Chinese life, such as the history of Chinese American relations, Chinese abroad, and Chinese population changes. In 1955 she published her first book, The City: Urbanism and Urbanization in Major World Regions. The following year Lee became chairperson of the sociology department at Roosevelt University. She was the first Chinese American woman to head a sociology department in the United States. Three years later she was promoted to full professor.

Impact on Community and Academia

In addition to her academic work, Lee also wrote two children's plays. In 1945 her play "Little Lee Bo-Bo: Detective for Chinatown" was produced at Chicago's Goodman Theater. She was also an active member of her community, especially concerned with race relations. She was a member of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. She was also involved in many professional organizations, including the American Sociological Association, the American Association of University Women, and the Association for the Study of Social Problems.

In 1961 Lee took a leave of absence from Roosevelt University and moved to Arizona with her second husband. She taught at Phoenix College until 1963. Lee died of a stroke in Phoenix on March 25, 1964. While her academic career was fairly short, Lee's work on the Chinese American community influenced several disciplines, including history, sociology, anthropology, and political science. While later researchers did not agree with her views on assimilation, they nonetheless credit her portrayal of the community life of this particular ethnic group. Her work was a classic example of the Chicago school approach to studying the human ecology of cities and the natural history of people and places.


Lee, Rose Hum, The Chinese in the United States of America, Hong Kong University Press, 1960.

Women in Sociology: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Mary Jo Deegan, Greenwood Press, 1991.

Yu, Hunry, Thinking Orientals: A History of Knowledge Created About and By Asian Americans, Oxford University Press, forthcoming.


Denver Rocky Mountain News, May 7, 1996, p. 34A; May 24, 1997, p. 70A.


"Butte's Far Eastern Influences," (January 27, 2001).

"Rose Hum Lee," (January 27, 2001). □

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