[PROFILE] Peter Chang - 1st Korean American
- First Korean-American Turning 100
By Park Jong-se
Chosun Ilbo (S. Korea)
September 2, 2003
PALO ALTO, Calif -- Next month will mark the 100th birthday of Peter
Chang, whose life itself is the history of Korean immigrants. His
mother boarded one of Korea's first immigrant boats, the Gallic, in
1903, well into pregnancy, and gave birth to Chang at the Crusaders
Hospital in Oakland near San Francisco, as Chang became the first
Korean-American. Chang considers himself 100 percent Korean and 100
percent American. He is a citizen of the United States, but he
cannot escape from being a Korean, which is what makes him a
"My father (Chang Hong-bong) was a ginseng trader who escaped to the
United States to flee Japan's imperialism, but he also disliked the
racism of America that only gave Asians dirty bottom work," Peter
Chang explained. "So he took the family to Shanghai, China, and went
back and forth between China and Australia selling ginseng before he
met with a sea accident."
While Chang was working as a waiter at a restaurant in Shanghai, he
met a Mr. Cunningham, the U.S. consul-general in Shanghai, who
helped the 18-year old who spoke fluent English get on a boat to the
United States. En route, he learned navigation skills and earned an
AB certificate as soon as he got off the boat.
Chang enlisted in the U.S. Navy and became a sailor in 1922. He
wanted to enter the U.S. Naval Academy, but he was not given the
chance to apply because of racial discrimination. Chang chose
torpedo school and submarine school and graduated both at the head
of his class. Afterward, he became a torpedo specialist in the U.S.
Chang's wife, Helen, who died in 1999, once wrote a long letter to
the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt when Chang was denied promotions
because of his race. This letter moved the first lady and Chang was
appointed as chief warrant officer of the navy in 1943, a rare case
at the time for an Asian.
Their son, Peter Jr., 67, was the first Korean to graduate from
Stanford Law School. Their daughter Vula, 62, earned a master's
degree from Stanford's graduate school of the arts. In 1963, Peter
Jr., at the age of 26, was selected as the county prosecutor of
Santa Cruz, becoming the first Asian on the mainland and the
youngest person to become a selected chief public prosecutor.
Chang's grandson Peter the third, 44, earned a Ph.D from Maryland
University in naval architecture and currently works in supplying
commodities to the navy.