Chinese immigrant receives California law license, 125 years after being denied

Hong Yen Chang
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It took 125 years, but in giving a law license to Hong Yen Chang posthumously, the California Supreme Court has finally righted a major wrong that took place in 1890.

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"It is past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong," the court said in its decision. "Even if we cannot undo history, we can acknowledge it and, in so doing, accord a full measure of recognition to Chang's path-breaking efforts to become the first lawyer of Chinese descent in the United States."

Chang was a Chinese immigrant who graduated from Columbia University's law school and, after being naturalized in New York, passed the bar there and became the first Chinese lawyer in the United States. When he tried to get his law license in California, he was rejected on the grounds that he was a "person of Mongolian race," and thus not allowed to hold citizenship due to the Federal Chinese Exclusion Act. Since citizenship was a requirement to get a law license — and the state said the New York judge had erred by allowing Chang to become naturalized — he could not practice in the state.

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Chang went on to become a banker and diplomat, and although he was very successful in both enterprises, he has long been remembered primarily for the fact that he was denied a law license. The push to finally get him his license started in 2011 with UC Davis law school students and their professor, and Chang's great-grandniece, Rachelle Chong, told the Los Angeles Times her family was thrilled for him to be recognized. "We are so excited, you have no idea," she said.

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Catherine Garcia

Catherine Garcia is night editor for Her writing and reporting has appeared in Entertainment Weekly and, The New York Times, The Book of Jezebel, and other publications. A Southern California native, Catherine is a graduate of the University of Redlands and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.