Monday, March 30, 2015

Constance Han-Jun Lam (Class of 1933): Humanitarian and Heroine

March is Women's History Month. To celebrate, our Spartan Stories this month feature alumni from the Woman's College, North Carolina College for Women, or State Normal eras. 

Constance Lam
Against the increasingly violent backdrop of war-torn China, Constance Lam became a humanitarian and a heroine.

A native of Canton, China, Lam’s goal was to gain the education and practical experience in social work to successfully return to her homeland and improve conditions for her people. After attending high school in New York, Lam entered the Woman's College of North Carolina, now UNCG, and majored in sociology. She was a member of the Young Voter's Club, the Physics Club, and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Lam was an excellent student and was described by her professors as intelligent, poised, and determined, with a great deal of personality and energy.

In 1933, as a senior at Woman's College, Lam was awarded the prestigious Elizabeth Lowe Gamble scholarship from The New York School of Social Work. While she studied in New York, she also worked with the local Chinese population. In 1936, she returned to China and planned to pursue medical studies in Peking. The war with Japan broke out in 1937 and interrupted these plans. She instead traveled to Hong Kong where she began her work with the hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into the already overpopulated city.

It was at this time that she began working closely with Dr. Percy Selwyn-Clarke, the Director of the Division of Medical Services in Hong Kong. She greatly admired his humanitarian work and it is evident that he thought highly of her, even encouraging her to pursue creative writing. Lam quickly became the director of a refugee camp housing over 2000 Chinese girls. She also served in various capacities in the Foreign Auxiliary of the Chinese Red Cross, the Chinese Defense League, and the Eugenics League.

During this time, Lam kept up with several friends and faculty members that she had known at Woman's College, especially French professor Jessie Laird who sent her money as well as reading material, which was expensive and hard to obtain. She particularly requested Lin Yutang's Moment in Peking and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. She realized that she was living in very historically significant times and prayed for the defeat of Hitler. Lam wrote in a letter to Laird, "I somehow feel that I shall not live long, so I must return to society some of her gifts."

In 1939, Lam became seriously ill due to poor working conditions and exhaustion. Although her health improved, she never regained her full strength. She attributed her recovery to Selwyn-Clarke and was forever grateful to him. When a relapse occurred several years later, she moved in with the doctor and his wife, Hilda. In 1943, Selwyn-Clarke was arrested by the Japanese who believed that he was a British spy. He was imprisoned in horrible conditions and at one point sentenced to death. Lam smuggled food, soap, notes, and other items to her friend. She was even detained and questioned about her association with Selwyn-Clarke.

She cabled friends in September of 1945 with news regarding the mass exodus from the city. Lam reported that she was safe, but that her sister Rose had been killed in an air raid and that her father had died. She was concerned that she would not survive the war and her premonition was almost realized -- she died in Queen Mary's Hospital in Hong Kong on November 30, 1945. It was apparent that Lam was held in very high regard amongst the people of Hong Kong, as her health status was reported in the daily newspaper and her funeral was attended by both Chinese and British officials.

At her death, Professor Jessie Laird donated funds to the Woman's College library to acquire beautifully illustrated books on China, in memory of her friend.

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