Hong Yen Chang

First Chinese Lawyer In America Finally Granted Law License 125 Years Later

The Supreme Court of California is finally recognizing a Chinese man who was denied admission to the California State Bar in 1890 by posthumously granting him a law license 125 years later.

Hong Yen Chang died in 1926, but in his lifetime he accomplished much. According to the Spreadit, Chang was born in 1859 or 1860 in Xiangshan, Guandgong Province, China, but came to America when he was 10-years-old. The loss of his father and an opportunity given to him by the Chinese Educational Mission brought him to America to live with an American family.

The very smart Chinese teenager attended Hartford Public High School in Connecticut and then went to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1879, that Chang delivered a commencement speech.

Chang had his mind set on law, and soon he enrolled in Yale College. However, in 1881, the Chinese government called all students studying abroad under the Chinese Educational Mission back to China.

Chang did not give up on his hopes of returning to America and attending law school. Two years later, the hopeful Chinese man came back to America and went to Columbia Law School. He became the first Chinese lawyer in America in 1883.

The Chinese Exclusion Act made it nearly impossible for Hong Yen Chang to become a lawyer in America. The New York State Bar dictated that lawyers must be American citizens, and even though Chang had become naturalized, the racist act would not allow Chang to be an American citizen without bending over backward first. Finally, the New York State Legislature passed an act which allowed Hong Yen Chang to apply to the bar.

Soon, Chang decided he wanted to live and work in California. California was very tough on the Chinese who wanted to live there, let alone work there. California laws kept Chinese people from voting and being hired. The California Supreme Court went a step further to make sure Chang could not practice law there. It found the judge who made Chang an American violated the Chinese Exclusion Act and then barred Chang from practicing law in California.

Hong Yen Chang did not give up and found work with the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.

Chang worked for the Yokohama Specie Bank of Japan, and later moved back to China, where he taught international law at Nanjing Government University. He was named the Accountant-General to the Treasury’s Shanghai branch.

Eventually, Hong Yen Chang found his way back to America and worked in Berkeley, California, until his retirement in 1920. He passed away in 1926 in Berkeley, California.

In 2011, Professor Gabriel Chin and members of the U.C. Davis Asian Pacific American Law Students Association petitioned the Supreme Court of California to give Hong Yen Chang his law license, even though it would be many years too late. Finally, 125 years later, the Supreme Court of California gave one very deserving Chinese-American man the recognition he deserved.

“Even if we cannot undo history, we can acknowledge it and, in so doing, accord a full measure of recognition to Chang’s pathbreaking efforts to become the first lawyer of Chinese descent in the United States. The people and the courts of California were denied Chang’s services as a lawyer. But we need not be denied his example as a pioneer for a more inclusive legal profession. In granting Hong Yen Chang posthumous admission to the California Bar, we affirm his rightful place among the ranks of persons deemed qualified to serve as an attorney and counselor at law in the courts of California.”

The court also acknowledged how it had wrongly denied “countless others” who had wanted to be lawyers but were denied because of their “race, alienage, or nationality.”

Chin was thrilled with the outcome of the petition, saying,”This is a fantastic result. The world has changed dramatically since then.”

Hong Yen Chang has undoubtedly left impressions upon his own family. Chang’s grand-niece, Rachelle Chong, is the first Asian-American appointed to the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission. Chang also has three other descendants who are lawyers, according to Newsmax.

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