By May S. Ruiz
The United States is one big melting pot – a land of immigrants who come from far-flung corners of the world. Therefore it is almost inconceivable that there was a time when Americans were openly hostile to certain foreign nationals who wanted to come into this country. And yet, this was the reality that You Chung (Y.C.) Hong, foremost Chinese-American immigration lawyer, encountered during the early years of the 20th century.
A practicing immigration lawyer from 1927 to 1977, Y.C. worked relentlessly on behalf of Chinese settlers and, in the span of his career, helped over 7,000 enter the country legally. He was one of the Asian experts invited to take part in President Harry Truman’s commission to study and reform the US Immigration system.
Y.C.’s history and life’s work is the subject of a show currently going on the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Li Wei Yang, curator of western American history, says, “We were compelled to mount an exhibition because it was the first time the Huntington has received a collection about the life of a major Chinese-American figure in Los Angeles. We felt it was important to let the community know, especially in San Marino and the San Gabriel Valley, that we are serious about the preservation of Chinese-American history. We want to show that we care about this community and that we encourage future collections of this kind.”
To make the exhibition more accessible to a greater number of visitors, the Huntington presented it in bilingual form – translation panels are available to Chinese speakers. Six topical sections divide the 77 items on display – from a broad overview of why and how the Chinese came into the country to the last section showing the establishment of a family-friendly Chinatown in L.A.
As the exhibit reveals, Y.C. was born in San Francisco in 1898 to Chinese-American parents who originated from southern China. His early childhood was marked by two significant events – his father died at an early age leaving his mom to raise two boys on her own. And he was accidentally dropped by a relative who was taking care of him. The resulting spinal damage limited his full height to reach only four feet and five inches tall.
In spite of his early misfortunes, Y.C. had a normal childhood. He graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915, then traveled around the country for a while, and worked as a bookkeeper at a Chinese restaurant in Boston.
In 1918, Y.C. came to L.A. and was employed as Chinese translator for the Bureau of Immigration while attending night school. He passed the California Bar Exams in 1923, a remarkable feat as he was still a year away from receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California (USC). He was one of the first Chinese-Americans to be licensed to practice law; he graduated in 1924 and earned his master’s degree in 1925 at USC. His 74-page master’s thesis analyzed how the extension and administration of the Chinese Exclusion Act deviated from the original decree, making Chinese-Americans second-class citizens in their own country. In 1927, Y.C. became an immigration lawyer.
Y.C. grew up during the period when Chinese laborers were considered persona non grata. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in effect from 1882 to 1943, prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. Chinese miners who were in California during the Gold Rush were singled out, and had to pay $4 each month for the right to engage in mining. This tax practically legalized discrimination.
The Chinese Exclusion Act made it essential for every Chinese traveler to carry a passport when they came into the U.S. China’s Qing government issued passports to all merchants, missionaries, students, and all returning residents.
Beginning in 1909, all Chinese with legal status in the U.S. were issued Photo Certificates of Identity – a requirement which only applied to the Chinese, until 1928. This residence certificate became their proof of their legal right to be here – if stopped by the police, they had to produce such identification or they could be arrested or deported. It was eventually replaced by the Alien Registration Receipt Card, informally known as the “green card”.
As rules became ever more stringent, making it extremely difficult for Chinese immigrants to file the necessary paperwork, much less navigate the complex process, lawyers became requisite. Successful entry into the U.S. depended on their ability to recall precise details of family history during long hours of interrogation. While immigration officers used this deterrent, it did not stop the Chinese from coming as they adapted to the technique. Y.C. provided his clients with a list of commonly asked questions (which numbered in the hundreds), to which they constructed all the answers. They then used this cheat sheet to pass the test – they had found a way to outsmart the authorities.
On March 28, 1931, Y.C. married Mabel Chin Qong, another Chinese-American whom he met during a student exchange in San Francisco in 1928. Mabel was one of the first Chinese-Americans to graduate from the University of Oregon. Their marriage produced two boys – Nowland and Roger.
In L.A. there was an old Chinatown which was a haven for gambling and prostitution. When it was razed in the 1930s to make way for Union Station, a group of Chinese entrepreneurs purchased land to build a new Chinatown on Broadway. It was designed and erected to appeal to families, and a place not just for the Chinese, but for everyone who wanted to learn about this Asian culture. It was the first planned Chinatown in the United States. Y.C. commissioned three buildings where he moved his law offices.
During World War II the Chinese became American allies as they joined the fight against a common enemy – Japan. Mabel helped the American Women’s Volunteer Services raise funds for and run the Chinese Canteen, located in Chinatown, providing meal services and entertainment to servicemen in L.A. Approximately 1,500 military personnel patronized the Canteen every month. Y.C.’s and Mabel’s war relief efforts in Chinatown were a huge success that a military ambulance airplane was named “Los Angeles Chinese” in recognition of their contributions.
A very astute man, Y.C. recognized the value of political connections sympathetic to the Chinese. He befriended politicians and contributed to their campaigns; he worked the system.
The Hong family papers document that in 1947 Senator Philip Hart introduced S747, which was merged with a bill proposed by Representative Emanuel Celler to form the basis of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This act served as the foundation of the current immigration system, which abolished the National Origins Formula and emphasized job skills and family reunification.
Executive Order 10392, issued by President Truman on Sept. 4, 1952 established the President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization. Y.C. was one of the experts invited to give their opinions. The Commissions’ report “Whom Shall We Welcome” urged reform of the then-current immigration system.
Y.C.’s and Mabel’s two sons went on to lead distinguished lives. Their older son, Nowland C. Hong, graduated from Pomona College in 1956 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. And like his father before him he matriculated at USC’s School of Law, earning his juris doctor degree in 1960. In 1961, he passed the California Bar Examinations and was appointed deputy city attorney of L.A. by City Attorney Roger Arnebergh. He served as chief general counsel for the L.A. Board of Harbor Commissions. He was also a founding member and two-term president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association. He served as grand president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (of which his late father was an active member). He lives in Pasadena.
Roger S. Hong, their younger son, graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from USC in 1965, and a Master of Science degree in city and regional planning in 1968. He was certified as a licensed architect in many states, including California. Some of his notable projects include the expansion of the California Exposition and State Fair (Sacramento), Thomas and Mack Center (Las Vegas), Kunlun Hotel (Beijing), and Chieh Shou Sports Park (Taipei). He co-founded Arechaederra Hong Treiman Architects in the late 1970s. After his retirement in the early 1960s, he devoted himself to preserving his family’s history. Between 2000 and 2006, he donated the Hong family papers to the Huntington; he died of cancer in 2006.
Y.C. practiced immigration law from 1927 until his death on Nov. 8, 1977. For 50 years the Chinese came to him for help and he responded with grace. He advocated for his people to gain acceptance into society and achieve economic stability. Any one of his countrymen who had lived through the exclusion era knew his name.
Circumstances beyond Y.C.’s control made him physically small and seemingly insignificant. But his unforgettable life and many accomplishments prove him to be extraordinary writ large.