Shirley Jennifer Lim

Year of Graduation: 
1986
Shirley Jennifer Lim

"Most Americans think of racism as being white versus Black, but on the West Coast, it was Asian Pacific Americans that were segregated from society ..."

Shirley Jennifer Lim ’86 discovered the focus of her life’s work in a stack of films in UCLA’s Paramount Pictures archives. 

A doctoral candidate at the time, Lim was researching the history of Asian American women in film. She was especially fascinated by Anna May Wong, an elegant Asian American actress whose career spanned silent films, talking pictures, stage, radio and television. While reviewing Wong’s films in the Paramount archives, Lim was struck by her performance in King of Chinatown, a 1939 black-and-white film. “She was speaking in a British accent, portraying a surgeon,” Lim says. Asian female characters at the time were often portrayed as prostitutes or evil temptresses. “Wong’s portrayal blew the customary narrative out of the water,” Lim says. “My interest was piqued.” 

Lim, now a history professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has long been interested in the history of Asian Americans, especially women. The daughter of Indonesian immigrants, she grew up in Bakersfield, California. (Her family had previously lived in Libya and Scotland.) When her family moved to China for her father’s job, she headed east to attend Exeter, the first in her family to go to boarding school.

Her first book, A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women’s Public Culture, 1930-1960, is the book she says she wished she’d read while attending Exeter and, later, Cornell University. “Coming from an immigrant family, from the Central Valley of California, and having parents who’d escaped mass murders in Indonesia in the 1960s, it was very hard to be there (at Exeter). I didn’t feel at home or understood,” Lim says. She singles out English instructor Peter Greer ’58, Exeter’s first Bates-Russell Distinguished Professor, as a supportive teacher who inspired her to write. 

A Feeling of Belonging examines how Asian Pacific American women established identities in Southern California by creating their own sorority, beauty pageants and more. “Most Americans think of racism as being white versus Black, but on the West Coast, it was Asian Pacific Americans that were segregated from society, especially from the 1930s to the 1960s,” Lim says. (That included being barred in California from marrying a white person.) “Asian American women’s history is very understudied. History and historical sources accrue around famous, elite people, especially men. It’s harder to come up with records about women.” 

Lim’s most recent book, Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, is getting acclaim at the same time that Wong is being recognized as the first prominent Asian American film star and for creating a 20th-century persona not defined by ethnicity. Lim examines the actress in the larger context of race, contrasting her work with other prominent actresses of color who played Asian roles in films from the 1920s through the 1940s, including Black actress Josephine Baker and Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio. “It’s a more interesting and complete way to think about Wong — that race is developed in conjunction with other races,” Lim says. “The Modern” in her book title refers to the way Wong fought typecasting of Asian characters and made them modern; she humanized Asian Americans during a time of intense racism, when laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigration to the United States, discriminated against Chinese immigration and citizenship. 

The national conversation around racial diversity and equity is enabling Lim to share Wong with larger audiences through television and radio. She’s also writing another book about the actress. “It’s great from a scholarly perspective but also a political perspective to foster greater gender and racial equality,” she says. “It’s why I get up in the morning and why I teach. I hope my work is having an impact.”

— Debbie Kane

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.