by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
On March 16, 2015, a lawyer won admission to the California State Bar, as thousands of attorneys do every year. In this case, however, the newly admitted lawyer had petitioned for entry 125 years earlier and died in 1926.
Justice moved slowly for Hong Yen Chang, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Chinese origin, but it did eventually move. This month the Supreme Court of California gave Chang the license to practice law that state and federal legislation denied him during the nineteenth century.
Chang first arrived in the U.S. in 1872, at the age of 13, as part of a Chinese cultural and educational mission. He studied at Andover, Yale, and Columbia Law School before overcoming multiple obstacles to gain entry to the New York State Bar in 1888. What hindered his admission was the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigrants from receiving U.S. citizenship, a requirement of bar membership. Only after the New York Assembly specially exempted him from the Act and permitted his naturalization would the state bar accept him.
Chang’s real problems began two years later, when he decided to move his law practice to California to assist the large number of Chinese immigrants there. When he applied to join the California Bar and presented his New York credentials, he was turned away. In 1890 the Supreme Court of California issued a notorious ruling that found Chang’s New York naturalization invalid and declared him ineligible for bar membership on account of his race.
Chang never did practice law in California, although he went on to pursue an illustrious career in diplomacy and banking before he died at age 67 in Berkeley.
In unanimously overturning its 125-year-old decision, the California Supreme Court observed that “it is past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong.” Chang’s belated admission was made possible by a petition that students in the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association at the University of California-Davis had filed with the state court.
Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. Viking, 2003.
Farkas, Lani Ah Tye. Bury My Bones in America: The Saga of a Chinese Family in California, 1852-1996. Carl Mautz Publications, 1998.