We would like to take the time to recognize Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month through dedicating this blog post to sharing the story of the first Asian American lawyer in the United States, Hong Yen Chang.
Hong Yen Chang who was originally from the Chinese Province Guangdong, moved to the United States in 1872 as a part of the Chinese Education Mission. This was a program in which academically gifted young men were sent from China to be educated in the U.S. During his early life in the States, he attended Phillips Academy and went on to pursue higher education at Yale University. Unfortunately, he was not able to complete his degree and returned to China due to the recall of the Chinese Education Mission. However, Chang soon returned to America on his own and pursued a degree from Columbia Law School where he graduated with high honors in 1886.
Despite his success in law school, his graduation would mark the beginning of a long battle for Chang as he fought to be admitted to practice law in the U.S. After two years of persistence, he was finally admitted to the New York State Bar because of a special act of congress called “An Act of Relief for Hong Yen Chang.” However, Chang’s pursuit for equal treatment was far from over. Soon after his admittance to the New York Bar he made the decision to move to California where he could provide legal service for the growing Chinese community in San Francisco. Unfortunately, due to discrimination from the Chinese Exclusion Act in effect at the time he was not granted admission to the California State Bar.
Though Hong Yen Chang was not able to pursue his legal practice in California he still forged a notable career for himself. He went on to earn many prestigious positions in the areas of diplomacy, banking, and education in both China and the United States. Such positions include, Accountant General to the Shanghai Bank Treasury and diplomatic positions in both Washington D.C. and Vancouver. He also was the Director of Chinese Naval Students in Berkeley, California. A position that he held until his retirement in 1920. He remained in Berkeley until his death in 1926 and was survived by his wife and children.
Even after Chang’s death his legacy has lived on. In 2015, eighty-nine years after his death, Hong Yen Chang was granted posthumous admission to the California State Bar by the California Supreme Court. This decision was spurred by petition from the U.C. Davis Asian Pacific American Law Students Association with the help of their advisor, Professor Gabriel Chin, to overturn the court’s original ruling that denied Chang admission. His Alma Mater, Columbia Law School, has also worked to recognize his trailblazing career through naming their Chinese Legal Studies Center the Hong Yen Chang Center for Chinese Legal Studies. Finally, his legacy lives on through his descendants, his great-grandniece, Rachelle Chong is a nationally recognized California regulatory attorney as well as the first Asian American to be appointed to the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission.
To learn more about Hong Yen Chang and his story we have included the resources we used for this blog post below: