This just in

On Yale & Yale alumni.
Ico comments 2 comments | Ico print Print | Ico email Email | Facebook | | RSS

After 125 years, living Yalies help first Chinese American lawyer win admission to the bar

Hong Yen Chang, Yale Class of 1883, accomplished a great deal before his death in 1926. Now he has one more achievement to his name: posthumous admission to the California bar.

Chang, the first Chinese lawyer in the United States, won the right to practice law in New York despite laws discriminating against Chinese immigrants. But when he moved to California, the state’s Supreme Court denied his request for a law license.

This week—spurred in part by Yale Law School alumni—that very same court unanimously reversed itself. In “a candid reckoning with a sordid chapter of our state and national history,” the court declared: “It is past time to acknowledge that the discriminatory exclusion of Hong Yen Chang from the State Bar of California was a grievous wrong.”

The court took up the case at the urging of Chang’s family and law students at the University of California, Davis. Working with law professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin ’95LLM and attorneys from the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson—including Joshua Meltzer ’12JD—the students petitioned the court to “right this historic wrong.”

Hong Yen Chang came to the US in 1872, at age 12, as part of a Chinese government program to educate outstanding young men, according to a family history, Bury My Bones in AmericaHe graduated from Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, and enrolled at Yale in 1879.

But after his sophomore year, the Chinese government called him home, according to a biography in the Class of 1883’s 25th reunion book. Chang soon found his way back to the US, where he gained admission to Columbia Law School without his undergraduate degree. (Yale eventually granted his bachelor’s in 1913.)

In 1886, after graduating from Columbia, Chang sought admission to the New York bar. He was denied because candidates had to be US citizens—and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigrants from that status.

With the help of powerful friends—including a Republican lawmaker whose son, Thomas Husted, was a Yale College classmate—Chang persuaded the New York Assembly to make a special exception, granting him citizenship and eligibility to practice law. He did so for about two years, representing fellow Chinese immigrants. Then he moved to California.

There, Chang’s legal career came to a halt. Like New York, California required that lawyers be eligible for citizenship. In its 1890 decision In Re Hong Yen Chang, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that, with the Chinese Exclusion Act still in force, Chang could not qualify.

More than a century later, attorney Jack Chin went to Yale Law School to get his master’s degree and to learn more about Asian American legal history,” he says in a phone interview. “And this was one of the cases that was sort of like a fossil, that represented permanent, tangible evidence about the way things used to be.”

For 20 years Chin, whose areas of scholarship include race and immigration law, had his eye on righting this historic wrong.

“As a lawyer myself, I was sensitive to the particular injustice of a person studying for a profession and then being excluded for an arbitrary reason,” he says. So he jumped at the chance to team UC Davis students with Chang’s family—including grandniece Rachelle Chong, a prominent California lawyer who emphasizes by e-mail that “despite the setback relating to his bar admission, Chang had a successful and distinguished career in banking, academics and diplomacy”—in a bid to overturn the 1890 decision.

Chin’s rationale was not only to clean up the legal record by overturning a blatantly discriminatory case, but also to provide “a chance for people to hear about the history,” he says.

The court’s March 16 decision does that, devoting much of its eight-plus pages to a discussion of the extensive history of formal anti-Chinese discrimination in the US and California.

“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,” wrote the court, whose seven justices include three Yale Law School graduates: Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar ’97JD, Goodwin Liu ’98JD, and Leondra Kruger ’01JD.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Hong Yen Chang, Gabriel Jack Chin


  • Curious
    Curious, 8:33pm March 19 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    What happened to Mr. Chang after being denied admission in California?

  • Jack Chin
    Jack Chin, 12:12pm March 21 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Mr. Chang had a successful career in banking and then in the Chinese diplomatic service after he was denied admission to the bar.

The comment period has expired.