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Huntington Library's 'Y.C. Hong' show hails Chinese American pioneer

Huntington Library's 'Y.C. Hong' show hails Chinese American pioneer
Two young women walk in Old Chinatown in 1902. This photograph is one of the many items displayed at the the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens for the "Y.C. Hong: Advocate for Chinese-American Inclusion" exhibition. (The Huntington Library, Art Collection)

Among many other things, You Chung Hong, one of the leading Chinese American Californians of the generation born around 1900, was active in Republican politics. It's probably safe to suppose that if he were alive today, the Los Angeles immigration attorney would not be backing Donald Trump for the party's presidential nomination.

"Y.C. Hong: Advocate for Chinese-American Inclusion," which opens this weekend at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, is drawn from Hong's papers, photographs and correspondence, donated to the Huntington years after his death in 1977 at age 79.

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Curator Li Wei Yang chuckled recently when asked whether he feels lucky that Trump proposes rounding up millions of Mexican immigrants and sending them away. It lends a certain immediacy to an exhibition about Hong, who took more than 7,300 cases defending the right of would-be immigrants from China to come to the United States to join spouses or parents who already were here.

Hong was born in San Francisco in 1898, the son of a Chinese immigrant who, like many others, came to America to build railways through the West.

In 1923, while studying law at USC, Hong became the first Chinese American to pass the exam for the California State Bar (another Chinese American lawyer had been admitted a few years earlier in San Francisco, apparently without the written exam). By 1928 Hong was in Washington, D.C., testifying before a congressional committee in hopes of reforming bigoted laws intended to keep Chinese and other nonwhites off of American soil. He persevered until 1965, when a new law specified for the first time that people shouldn't be excluded because of their nationality — although certain quotas remained.

Hong also helped shape downtown L.A. as a founder and key property owner of Chinatown, which opened in 1938. Curator Yang said it's the first Chinese cultural and business district in the country to be planned, designed and owned by Chinese Americans. This "new" Chinatown replaced an old one, an ethnic ghetto rather than a cultural showplace, that had been razed in the 1930s to make way for Union Station.

"Building the new Chinatown to include other people, not just Chinese, was part of the goal," Yang said. "Hong's life was about inclusion — bringing people past the national border and having Chinese become part of the mainstream American society."

Hong's legal practice was a response to decades of legalized bigotry against Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was one of the first laws to regulate immigration to the United States, which previously had been open to all comers. Thousands who had come from China, lured by the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, were seen as low-wage workers who would undercut jobs and keep down pay for whites in the West.

In 1924, loopholes that had allowed some Chinese immigrants to slip through — for example, merchants and spouses of citizens — were shut. Hong joined a successful push to at least allow Chinese men in America to bring over wives and children. Facing a shortage of Chinese women in America, many Chinese American men had returned to marry, then came back to the United States hoping they'd one day be joined by family they'd left behind.

In lobbying for an end to the ban on immigration by spouses, Yang said, Hong "pointed out that `the [Chinese] men in America need to be married, and interracial marriage is not something anyone wants.' He had to appeal to [elected officials'] racism to urge them to keep this channel open."

Often Hong had to help his clients prove that they were who they said they were, in the face of authorities on the lookout for faked blood relations.

The gantlet for new Chinese arrivals at the ports of Los Angeles and San Francisco included a physical exam, Yang said, and "a lengthy interrogation, 100 to 400 questions, tedious questions related to family history," designed to trip up imposters. Yang is himself an immigrant who came to the United States from Taiwan with his mother in 1992, when he was 12.

The show includes a legal brief Hong filed in 1938 for a client who'd been X-rayed by immigration authorities as he tried to return to America after a trip abroad. They said the results proved his bones were four years older than he claimed to be, and he was refused entry.

"I used this case because it showed that lots of resources and effort were spent trying to keep out the Chinese," Yang said. Hong's argument that this was "pseudoscience" did not prevail, and the man was deported.

The legal climate for Chinese immigration improved slowly. But after the 1965 immigration reform law at last ended restrictions based on nationality or race alone, Hong's papers reflected a continued wariness, Yang said.

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"We have correspondence of him talking about the small victories they had won along the way leading up to 1965, saying that 'we have to keep vigilant at all times not to let anything like the Chinese Exclusion Act happen again.'"

Among the show's artifacts are film footage of Hong and his family and a "certificate of identity" that Hong was issued in 1921 — a photo ID that many Chinese Americans carried as a safeguard against being taken for an immigrant who should be deported. .

A text panel carries a quotation from Hong, distilling what he'd fought against: "As long as there are some of us considered still unacceptable politically, economically or socially, it remains a dangerous situation for all Americans."

Follow me on Twitter @boehmm

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