INTERVIEW – Special Advisor to USCET King-Kok Cheung on Defying Expectations and Exploring New Possibilities

By Shwe Einthe

April 18, 2023

USCET is proud to congratulate our Special Advisor, Professor King-Kok Cheung, on receiving the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Asian American Studies this month! A renowned literary scholar and Professor Emeritus at UCLA, Professor Cheung talked with USCET intern Shwe Einthe about her scholarly work and her lifelong commitment to humanity and the humanities.

Professor King-Kok Cheung, born and raised in colonial Hong Kong, feels privileged to have been exposed to both British and Chinese cultures, as well as to many political perspectives.  Regularly absorbing news and ideas not only from mainland China but also from Taiwan and the United Kingdom,  she credits her unique upbringing in Hong Kong for her success as a literary scholar. It was “absolutely the best background possible,” she says.  “I have been exposed to so many truths, and my belief is that you listen to them all.”

Prof. Cheung has been a driving force behind USCET’s popular Asian American Authors Series,  in which she has played an essential role in introducing and promoting the works of writers like David Wong Louie, Shawn Wong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Helen Zia. USCET provides an interdisciplinary platform that allows her to explore different literary perspectives and learn from others.

Professor Cheung’s interests include comparative literature (Chinese, British, Greek), comparative American ethnic literatures (African American, Native American, Chicano/a, and Asian American); and Asian American literature. A prolific author herself, her book on Chinese American Literature without Borders: Gender, Genre, and Form, was published in 2016 (Chinese edition in 2022) and she is now coediting, with Robert Kyriakos Smith and Hannah Nahm, a special issue of Literature entitled “Interracial Dynamics in Asian American Literature.”

Cheung stresses that “my allegiance is to humans” rather than to any single identity. She does not wish to be known only as an Asian American literary scholar, as she is trained in Renaissance British literature and has immerse herself in American literature by writers of all colors. Her most significant contributions to UCLA, in her opinion, are 1) facilitating a workshop to transform the curriculum by integrating material by women of color, and 2) spearheading, with the help of Professor Yarborough, the interdisciplinary GE Cluster in response to the LA Riots in 1992 entitled “Interracial Dynamics in American History, Law and Literature. The course was team taught in successive years with Professors Kimberle Crenshaw (Law), Cheryl Harris (Law), Brenda Stevenson (History), and Henry Yu (History).

Cheung has two big goals upon retirement—to integrate both Taichi and Cantonese opera into the UCLA curriculum. She is currently team teaching, with her Taichi instructor Master Yun Zhao, a seminar entitled “Taichi, Literary and Martial Arts: Unexpected Affinities.” She keeps teaching because her UCLA students past and present are her greatest pride and joy.

Professor King-Kok Cheung’s approach to her life and work is refreshing, emphasizing listening to different perspectives, promoting diverse voices, and living life to the brim by not limiting oneself based on conventions or preconceptions. This June, she will be the faculty commencement speaker for UCLA’s English Department, the largest in the nation.  It is sure to be inspiring and thought-provoking. “I am a crazy rich Asian, albeit not money-wise,” she adds.

This interview has been edited for length, and clarity.