UC Davis students seek to get long-dead Chinese immigrant admitted to state bar

Next month, the State Bar of California will decide whether to admit Hong Yen Chang, a Chinese immigrant who died in 1926 in Berkeley and was never licensed to practice law in California because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The unusual request to admit Chang posthumously was filed by UC Davis law students and their adviser, professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin, to right a long-standing historic wrong. Chang had become the first Chinese immigrant to be admitted to any bar in the United States when New York State accepted him after a long legal battle. The California Supreme Court in 1890 ruled that despite Chang’s admission to the New York bar and his naturalization papers issued by a New York judge, “a person of Mongolian ancestry is not entitled to naturalization under the laws of the United States.”

Chang – the subject of newspaper accounts around the nation attesting to his intellect, qualifications and character – has practically achieved folk hero status in Asian American studies, perhaps because his experience as an undocumented immigrant who came here as a boy resonates today, Chin said.

“Admitting Mr. Chang would be a powerful symbol of our state’s repudiation of laws that singled out Chinese immigrants for discrimination,” Chin said. Though the U.S. Congress and the California Legislature have both apologized for laws that barred Asian immigrants from citizenship, land ownership and most careers, there are hundreds of cases in which immigrants were wrongfully accused, convicted or excluded, Chin said.

Rex Bossert, spokesman for the California State Bar, created in 1927, said: “As far as I know, there has never been anything like this.” The Committee of Bar Examiners, which will consider Chang’s case in late June, is set up to evaluate a candidate’s moral character, Bossert said. By that standard, Chang should breeze through.

His great-niece, Lani Ah Tye Farkas of Stockton, in her book “Bury My Bones in America” says Chang was born in Zhongshan, China, where thousands of California Chinese can trace their roots. His father, a merchant, died when he was 10. At age 12, he came to the United States with 29 other Chinese youths chosen for a special mission to provide China’s future leaders with a Western education.

Chang was taught English by his host family in Bridgeport, Conn., and attended Hartford Public High School, were he and a fellow Chinese student were teased because they wore traditional Chinese long gowns and their hair in a long braid, Farkas said. “After many fights, the Chinese dresses gave way to coats and pants. The boys either hid their queues (braids) under their coats or coiled them around their heads.”

Chang transferred to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and gave a speech on “The Influence of Greece beyond Greece” at graduation. He entered Yale College, but was then recalled to China to attend the naval school in Tianjin, where he and other American-trained students met with hostility, Farkas said. After visiting his aging mother, he sailed to Honolulu in 1882 and worked at the law office of A.S. Hartwell. He then moved to New York, where he earned his degree from Columbia Law School in 1886 and cut off his braid, Farkas said.

According to Li Chen, a scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, the dean of the law school in his commencement address declared Chang “a gentleman fit in every respect to be a professional brother to any one of us.”

In 1887, a New York judge naturalized Chang despite the Chinese Exclusion Act, but he still was denied admission to the New York Bar, even though he drafted a special bill that passed the New York Legislature exempting him from the Act. The New York Tribune published an editorial, “Give the Chinaman A Chance,” declaring that his credentials compared favorably to any other applicants. “The considerable number of Chinese residing in this city should have a well-qualified advocate of their own race to look after their legal interests,” the Herald wrote.

Chang, interviewed on Chinese New Year in February 1888, remarked: “It does not seem that I am able to convince the judges that a Chinaman is a competent person to take into the fold. … There are more than 6,000 Chinamen in New York, and I think they should have lawyers of their own race.”

In 1888, the New York State Bar finally admitted both Chang and William M. Randolph, an African American from Brooklyn who’d graduated from New York University. In 1889, Chang moved to Northern California, “where a substantial number of his countrymen lived and anti-Chinese sentiment was the highest,” Chen wrote in a study on Chinese American legal pioneers.

Though he worked for a San Francisco law firm, the California Supreme Court in 1890 held that he was not entitled to naturalization because of his race, and declared his naturalization in New York void.

Chang went on to a distinguished career as a law professor in China, a banker in San Francisco and a diplomat for the Chinese government in Vancouver, Canada, and Washington, D.C., where he attended a wedding at the White House. A firm believer in Western education, Chang wrote in an 1889 article: “China’s awakening from her sleep of a thousand years must come, if it comes at all, either over the corpse of her literary hierarchy (based on Confucius) or through regeneration and its willingness to attune to the times.”

UC Davis law professor Chin noted that other states have posthumously admitted applicants excluded from their respective bars because of discrimination. Washington in 2001 admitted Japanese immigrant Takuji Yamashita, denied in 1902; Pennsylvania in 2010 admitted George B. Vashon, an African American turned down in 1847 because of his race.

“Germans, Irish, Italians and Jewish Americans had this opportunity to become citizens and lawyers, but Asians did not for generations,” Chin said, noting the Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1943. Many years later, Chin said, Chang’s great-niece Rachelle Chong became the first Asian American to serve on the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission.

“Our family’s extremely fortunate to have three of us admitted to the California State Bar,” Chong said. “It would be fitting and right to have my granduncle’s exclusion reversed … to ensure that justice, albeit late, is done.”