Henry H. Tai, 1922-2012

Journalist, Librarian, Community Builder

In 1943, Henry H. Tai (戴豪兴) set out from his home village in Jiangsu Province (江苏省) for a 1,000-mile trek through war-torn China. He walked and hitched rides, slept along roadsides, and dodged checkpoints manned by Japanese soldiers who had invaded China. It was a month and a half later when he reached Chongqing, China’s interim capital during its war with Japan. His sole purpose: to go to college.

It was one of many harrowing stories he began to share as my siblings and I became adults. As he told them with characteristic modesty and amazement at his luck, all his earlier references to a life of hardship and chiku (吃苦), or “eating bitterness,” made sense. For my sisters and brother, our father’s teachings had been clear and unyielding: Education was critical to success and the molding of a person. We must not pass up any chance to work and work hard, nor could we waste food, money, time, or friendship.

Henry Tai
Courtesy Photo

My father died in his sleep on August 4, 2012. He was 90. Until Alzheimer’s consumed him, he had built a life with his sharp mind, fierce discipline, and a deep belief in the good that can come from hard work: He was a newspaper journalist in Taiwan. He started a second career at midlife as a university librarian in the U.S., notably 25 years with UCSB and retiring as the head of its East Asian Collection. He founded the Santa Barbara Chinese American Association (SBCAA).

My father’s life stories were the stories of China and America in the last century. But to his children, his stories reveal the heart of a tough survivor who loved to learn, cherished his family, lived afloat two cultures, and felt forever indebted to friends who extended lifelines at critical junctures.

He was born on April 16, 1922, in Tai (pronounced dai) Village (戴家村), the ancestral home in Wujin (武进), 60 miles west of Shanghai. As the eldest of the village head, he was designated to be the family scholar while his siblings were to till the land. He had just entered junior high when Japan invaded China in 1937, and schooling became sporadic, one year in town, another back in the village, at times stopped altogether. School remained the focus for him, but he detested having to learn Japanese.

“A small group of us were indignant and decided to evade Japanese lines and entered a neighboring military school. We went home during breaks. While it was tough going back and forth, it was better than being enslaved by a Japanese education,” he wrote in a 2002 essay, “From War to Peace.” It was part of a compilation of reminisces by fellow classmates at National Chengchi University (政治大学). “But good days didn’t last.”

Fighting intensified against the Japanese, and in 1944, his father was found dead in the village, presumably killed by Communist guerillas who had begun to recruit throughout the countryside. Even after Japan surrendered in 1945, there was no peace as Chinese Nationalists and Communists fought for control.

Over the next several years, my father attended what classes there were. He followed the university’s return from Chongqing to its prewar campus in Nanjing and, during breaks, opened the Lanlin Summer School to high schoolers in Wujin. In 1949, as the Communists were gaining ground, my father made the first of several life-changing decisions: A fresh graduate of the School of Journalism at National Chengchi University, which was affiliated with Chinese Nationalists, he boarded one of the last ships to leave for Taiwan. He left behind in Tai Village his mother and siblings, as well as a baby daughter and a young woman he married in 1947 in an arranged marriage.

“When I first arrived in Taiwan, I was like a bird in the crosshair, agitated and unsettled,” he wrote. He had no family, nor news if they even survived the Communist takeover. My father only had his college friends who, like him, were effectively orphaned by the civil war.

He soon began working as an editor at Chonghua Daily, with a former classmate as its managing editor. He met and married my mother, Yu-Ching Chiu (邱玉静), also a Wujin native.

Over the next decade, my father and his former classmates filled key newspaper positions in Taiwan. He became the international news editor at Central Daily News (中央日报), a major morning newspaper in Taipei. He used to come home in the wee morning hours after the paper went to press and wake one of us to share a bowl of noodles. Life was stable, but he was unsettled. There was no news about his family in China, and anti-Communist tensions remained high. (It was decades later when he reconnected with his family in China.)

As his friends began to leave to study in the U.S., he was tempted by their tales of opportunities and a peaceful life. Yet, he was also torn. He was 38, with a second family.

In 1960, he boarded a cargo ship and landed in San Francisco. He studied English, washed dishes, sent money to support us, and saved for graduate school. He loved being a newspaper man but realized that, with limited English, he could never work as a journalist in the U.S.

He entered what is now Vanderbilt University in Tennessee to study library science and, by September 1963, became a librarian at Penn State at Slippery Rock. He worked on his thesis on weekends and received his MA that December. After he took a job with what is now the State University of New York at Binghamton, my mother and we four children joined him in November 1965, also by cargo ship. It was a foggy morning as we approached New York Harbor, the Statute of Liberty a greenish blur. My father was there on the dock, grinning widely, with his arms wide open.

He became our spokesman and advocate. We could become anything in this new country, he said, so filled with peace, great hope, and opportunities. It’s all for the taking but not for free. We needed to work hard, and education was the key.

In November 1966, we packed our belongings into a U-Haul towed by my father’s new Dodge Coronet and headed to S.B. He was going to be the first head librarian for UCSB’s Oriental Collection (now East Asian Collection). He drove us cross-country on Route 66 for five days, each night pulling into motels that did not require backing up the U-Haul in the morning.

Over the next 25 years, the collection flourished. Last Thursday, October 10, UCSB dedicated the Henry H. Tai East Asian Collection in his honor and acknowledged the endowment fund we set up to support his legacy.

After retiring in 1990, he turned his full attention to helping Chinese students and immigrants in S.B. He was already known and respected as an elder, affectionately called by many Dai Lao, or Elder Tai. In 1994, he spearheaded and formed the SBCAA. Unlike most new immigrants who grouped themselves based on where they came from, he sought to bring together Chinese from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and anywhere else. The association’s mission was to unify the Chinese community, become a resource for new immigrants, and celebrate our shared culture with S.B.’s community at large.

My father served as its first chair, returned to his first love of words, and started its bilingual newsletter as its writer and editor-in-chief. It was robust with news about families, profiles and pictures, tips and advice for new immigrants, and ads of Chinese real estate agents, restaurants, and other businesses.

He pressed ahead with greater urgency what he had been doing for years: He became an ad hoc advisor who counseled immigrants on house-buying, reading legal documents, starting a business. He drove those who had no license and translated for those with limited English. The hardest-working ones got his full, preferred attention.

He was generous with friends and those in need, often signing on as financial sponsor of students from China. When we asked who they were, it was usually through a distant connection of sorts, like a son of a friend’s friend who lived next door to his friend. On holidays, our house was filled with Chinese expatriates. When we grumbled, he chastised us for being selfish and told us how friends in his life softened his loneliness, opened doors, and pulled him from despair.

My father relished simple joys, like good Chinese food and liquor with family and friends, playing mahjong through the night, reading newspapers, growing fruits and vegetables, exercising, and breathing deeply the cool morning air. He was disciplined and frugal. He despised laziness, paying full price, or tossing anything that remained useful but no longer pretty. He accepted no excuses for any school grade below an A, but he was not a Tiger Dad with unreasonable goals for us.

He wanted us to get an education before anything else. He wanted us to be independent, happy, and fulfilled. He wanted us to do good, help friends, and never forget where we came from. Money is useful but should not be the goal. Health comes first, as does family.

My father has given us all that we need to be who we are today.

He is survived by two sisters, a brother, and a daughter in China and three daughters, a son, and their spouses, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren in the U.S.


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