Hilary Chung: a forceful and funny teacher

Obituary: Hilary Chung was a force of nature, writes Professor Paul Clark.

28 May 1962 – 16 August 2020

Even in Hilary’s last four years, as she battled breast cancer, she never seemed to lose the energy that characterised everything she turned her hand to. All who encountered her as colleagues, students, and bike-riding or paddle-board enthusiasts will not forget that typical drive and enthusiasm. Only in the last months did that light begin to diminish.

Dr Hilary Chung sitting at a table, wearing purple.
Dr Hilary Chung set up the University's successful Global Studies Programme. Photo: Dean Carruthers

Hilary started teaching at Auckland in 1999. A Chinese literature graduate from the University of Cambridge, she had chosen to do her doctoral studies at Durham. While there she co-edited a pioneering volume of essays on Soviet and Chinese versions of socialist realism in the literatures of those two countries.

I first learned of her from an old friend who was then Professor of Chinese at Edinburgh. As an Australian and mentor of Hilary, she thought a move to this part of the world might help avoid the prejudice she had encountered and harness her skills. Happily, a vacancy for a lectureship in Chinese came up in the Asian Languages and Literatures Department that I headed, and we recruited Hilary after an entertaining late-night (for her) phone interview.

Hilary arrived in Auckland with her young daughter. She immediately plunged into the world of university work and bike clubs. Mia rode first on mum’s bike and later graduated to her own. Through the world of biking, Hilary met her partner Trevor, a Canadian New Zealander. Mia grew up, graduated from the University of Auckland, and spent a year on exchange in Beijing, as her mother had done in the 1980s.

Hilary made her mark in her teaching of postgraduate students in comparative literature, gender and Asian studies, among other fields. Her insights, mastery of theory and ability to inspire students were memorable. Her research on the creative work of the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand and worldwide captured valuable moments in time.

All those who encountered her will remember a forceful and funny teacher, colleague and friend.

Paul Clark, Professor of Chinese University of Auckland

Hilary’s skills in administration and service were apparent from the beginning of her years here.

She took on the headship of the then School of Asian Studies for three years from 2012 and had already been in charge of Faculty of Arts international relationships. She travelled with Deans to Latin America and China to build academic relationships. She was in Taiwan on research leave when she learned of the grave turn in the disease that eventually took her from us on 16 August.

Her experience of illness drove Hilary to apply her skills to the campaigns to gain Pharmac support for life-extending drugs for women like her battling metastatic breast cancer. She became something of a media star, albeit a reluctant one, appearing before a select committee and being interviewed widely.

Hilary determinedly returned from sick leave to lead the complex approvals process and launch of the long-planned cross-faculty Global Studies undergraduate degree programme. Without Hilary’s drive, negotiating skills and clear vision, Global Studies would not have got off the ground.

She was determined to attend the graduation of the first Bachelor of Global Studies degree students. Sadly she will not be there next autumn, but all those who encountered her will remember a forceful and funny teacher, colleague and friend.

Paul Clark is Professor of Chinese and Director of the North Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence (CAPE). 

This article first appeared in the September 2020 edition of UniNews magazine. 

Tributes to Hilary can be found on Forever Missed.