[PROFILE] Hoyt. A. Cheng - Chinese Medical Pioneer
- HOLT CHENG, M.D.
Holt Cheng was the first Chinese American who graduated from a U. S.
medical school and passed the California Medical Board. It happened
in 1904. He was born on November 6, 1878 in the Wu Shi Village,
Zhongshan County, Guangdong Province, China to a farming family.
At the age of eight, he and his cousin were sent to Honolulu, Hawaii
to work for their uncle in a small grocery store. When their uncle
retired, the boys traveled to California. Holt worked his way
through the College of Physician and Surgeons in San Francisco
(known nowadays as the University of Pacific) by picking apples and
selling pictures on the street.
He graduated in 1904 and passed the California Medical Board
examination. After graduation, Dr. Cheng returned to China to
practice Western medicine and to be with his parents. He was awarded
the "Medical Ju Ren" by the Imperal Chinese Government. He was
appointed the Expectant Secretary of the Grand Secretariat and Head
Master of the Imperial Army Medical College in Guangzhow.
In 1908, he and his friends founded the Guangdong Guang Hua Medical
College which was the first western medical college established by
Chinese. He married Edna Rachel Lee of San Francisco on March 20,
1910. He retired in 1931 due to health problems. During the WWII,
the family moved to Guangxi Providence. He passed away in 1942 with
his wife and son, Homer, at his side. His physician son believed he
died of cancer and/or liver disease.
Dr. Cheng was honored in a special ceremony in San Francisco on July
26, 2003. Several members of Chinese American Physicians Society
were invited to attend.
Holt Alexander Cheng, MD
A Chinese Medical Historical First
In November 2002, the Guangdong Guang Hua Medical College of
Stomatology, Sun Yat Sen University, celebrated its 94th Anniversary
in Guangdong Province of China. Established in 1908, the Guang Hua
Medical Society was founded by Dr. Holt A. Cheng, who graduated from
the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco in 1904 and
became the first Chinese to pass the California Medical Board
In 1953, the medical college was merged with two other medical
schools in Guangzhou and eventually became the Sun Yat Sen
University of Medical Sciences. In 2002, during the reorganization
of the Sun Yat Sen Universities, the medical university became the
Sun Yat Sen Medical College of the SYSU. And the dental school which
was part of the Guang Hua Medical College before the 1953 merger,
was renamed the Guang Hua College of Stomatology of the Sun Yat Sen
University to honor its founder and in commemoration of Dr. Cheng's
remarkable life and achievements as the first dean of the Guang Hua
A bronze bust of Dr. Cheng was also unveiled on the campus. The San
Francisco Medical Society recently joined in the congratulations by
retroactively recognizing Dr. Cheng as an honorary member in
commemoration of his medical care to Chinese people on both sides of
the Pacific and featuring this article about his life in our
historical issue of San Francisco Medicine.
Holt Cheng was born on November 6, 1878 in the Wu Shi Village,
Zhongshan County, Guangdong Province, China, to a farmer's family.
At the age of eight, he and his cousin, Yuk, were sent to Honolulu,
Hawaii, to work for their uncle, who owned a small grocery store.
After closing hours, the boys attended evening school and eventually
graduated from a Hawaiian high school. When their uncle retired, the
boys traveled to California. Holt worked his way through the College
of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco by picking apples and
selling pictures on the street. In 1904, he became the first Chinese
ever to pass the California Medical Board examination.
After graduating, Dr. Cheng returned to China to practice Western
medicine and to be with his parents. But shortly after his return,
he was invited to a special symbolic examination in the Imperial
Palace in Peking and was immediately awarded the special degree
of "Medical Ju Ren," the fourth highest scholarly degree given by
the palace. Not long afterward, Dr. Cheng was appointed as the
Expectant Secretary of the Grand Secretariat and Head Master of the
Imperial Army Medical College in Canton. In June 1909, Dr. Cheng
represented the Imperial Chinese Government at the International
Leprosy Conference in Bergen, Norway. After the conference, he
traveled back to San Francisco to marry his longtime sweetheart,
Edna Rachel Lee. The wedding, which took place on March 29, 1910,
was a celebrated event in Chinatown according to a news clipping
from a San Francisco newspaper at that time.
"One of the most notable events in the Chinese circles of this city
will be the wedding of Miss Edna Lee, daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Tsai
Leong Lee of 254 Eighth St., and Dr. Holt A. Cheng, dean of the
Imperial Army Medical College of Canton, China, which will take
place in the First Baptist Church of this city, March 29, when the
Rev. Homer J. Vosburg, pastor of the church, will perform the
ceremony in accordance with the American customs. The bridal couple
will be attired in American dress and the only hint of the
Orientalism will be displayed in the ornaments worn by the bride-to-
be. Her trousseau will be up-to-date and made in a becoming fashion
to suit the pretty and winsome girl, who was wooed during her high
school days by Dr. Cheng, who was at that time student in the
medical college in San Francisco. For the past five years the couple
have been corresponding and they only awaited reaching the age of
maturity to wed...
...After the ceremony the couple will be feted at a banquet in one
of the large Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, where the friends
and relatives of the couple will exchange greetings and shower
congratulations upon them. It has not been determined as yet where
they will spend their honeymoon, but after that they will go to
Canton, China, where they will make their home again, will wear the
costume and assume the manners of the native land. . .Miss Lee is
one of the most brilliant students in the University of California,
which she entered with the class of 1912. While at college she was
active in the Young Women's Christian Association and Associated
Young Women's' Society of the University of California. She
graduated from the Denman grammar school, where she received a gold
medal and up to the time of the earthquake of 1906, she was a
student in the Lowell High School, and from that institution she was
transferred to the Oakland high school and graduated with the class
Back in Canton, Dr. Cheng became a successful doctor and an astute
businessman. He was one of the founders of the Hong Nian (Healthy
Life) Life Insurance Company, one of the biggest and oldest
insurance companies in Hong Kong. According to his son, Homer, the
executives of the company gave the family tremendous financial help
shortly before and during the first part of the war years before the
Japanese occupied Hong Kong.
In those days, Imperial China was under Manchurian control. There
were very few Chinese practicing Western medicine and consequently,
medical authority fell into the hands of foreigners, mostly the
British, who had very little concern for the welfare of the Chinese
people. In the winter of 1907, a Chinese worker was beaten to death
by the English-controlled Indian police force in the Fo Shan
Steamboat. The British doctor on the ship recorded that the cause of
death was a heart attack. Chinese doctors did not have the authority
to investigate. The incident provoked huge public outcry and
protest, but the Imperial Chinese government did nothing to rectify
Dr. Cheng and his physician friends could no longer remain silent.
They decided to fight for the Chinese people's right to medical
care. But in order to do so, they needed as many well-educated
Chinese physicians as possible. Hence in 1908, they founded the
Guangdong Hua Medical School. The school was the first of its kind,
completely run by Chinese, taught by Chinese and the first to admit
female students. Many of its graduates played critical roles in the
Chinese history of medicine. From this point on, Dr. Cheng devoted
his entire life to medical education in China. He was the medical
school chancellor for 23 years and graciously refused all
compensation paid to him at that time, except that of his private
Dr. Cheng retired in 1931 due to health problems. After his son
Homer's elementary school was bombed the Japanese, the family
decided to go to a friend's home temporarily in the Guangxi
Province, situated deep inside the mountains. Little did they know
that the temporary village refuge would become their home for an
eight and half year ordeal. Dr. Holt Cheng died there with his wife
and son, Homer, at his side in 1942. There was no medical care
available and his physician son believed he died of cancer or liver
The medical school moved from Guangzhou to Hong Kong shortly before
the Japanese occupied the city. After Hong Kong fell to the Japanese
army in 1943, the school closed and students transferred to other
schools in the interior of China.
In 1945, the school reopened at its original campus in Guangzhou,
but there was no building as all structures had been destroyed by
the Japanese during their occupation. The alumni association rebuilt
the school and erected a monument in memory of Dr. Cheng. In 1951,
after the communists took over, the newly elected dean Dr. Li
Qihong, one of the graduates of the first class, put Holt's enlarged
photo in the hall of the registrar building with a brief summary of
the school's history and Dr. Cheng's accomplishments.
During one of the political movements, however, the communist regime
destroyed the monument and practically destroyed the photo. But at
the last minute, the picture was saved by an anonymous individual
and returned to Dr. Cheng's son.
In a fitting tribute to its founder, the photograph and a bronze
bust of Dr. Cheng, sculpted by a famous Chinese artist, were
presented to the college during a special dedication ceremony held
in November 2000.
44. 031251 [Commending Holt A. Cheng, MD] Supervisor Ma
Resolution commending Holt A. Cheng, MD for his lifelong dedication
and commitment to medical education and for his related work in the
7/15/2003, REFERRED FOR ADOPTION WITHOUT COMMITTEE REFERENCE AGENDA
AT THE NEXT BOARD MEETING.
Question: Shall this Resolution be ADOPTED?
The Father of All Chinese Doctors
Holt A. Cheng was a trailblazer
By Julie Soo, Special to AsianWeek, Sep 26, 2003
Recognition came nearly a century after Holt A. Cheng graduated from
the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco in 1904 and
handily passed the California Medical Board examination to become
the first Chinese American licensed physician in California.
Surrounded by three generations of Chengs at a formal San Francisco
Medical Society ceremony on July 26, Dr. Homer Cheng, Holt's 76-year-
old son, said tears came to his eyes when he received a copy of a
November 2002 letter.
The correspondence from Dr. Robert Lull, then president of the 135-
year-old San Francisco Medical Society, written to Dean Ling of
Guang Hua College (part of the medical school Holt Cheng founded)
announced that the San Francisco Medical Society would honor Cheng.
Even though he never practiced as a doctor in San Francisco, he
would retroactively become a member of the society.
"This has to be the greatest honor my father could receive in the
United States," says Homer Cheng. "Although he may not have
accomplished all he set out to do in his relatively short life, I
believe he accomplished quite a bit. In fact, I am sure my father is
smiling down on us today, here in San Francisco as well as the Guang
Hua campus in Guangzhou, China."
`Enterprising Chinaman' with No Queue
Dr. Holt Cheng first made news headlines on Aug. 8, 1904, in The San
Francisco Call newspaper. Although his picture was prominent, the
compliments were backhanded and even his name was butchered. The
newspaper described "Chang A. Holt" of 804 Stockton St. as
an "enterprising Chinaman" who "enjoys the distinction of being the
first Chinaman admitted to practice by the Board of Medical
Examiners of California. He has been Christianized and wears no
The article told of Cheng's journey as an 8-year-old sent to the
Hawaiian Islands in 1886 to work for an uncle, who was a grocer in
Hilo, and his subsequent desire to become a medical doctor: "With
much money in his pocket, the slant-eyed boy then sailed to America.
He commenced upon his studies immediately and applied himself as
busily as ever to the fulfillment of his purpose."
Cheng indicated his desire to bring his Western medical training to
the people of his birthplace in Guangdong Province. The San
Francisco Call wrote: "He will cure their bodies of physical ills,
teach them the advantages of civilization and instruct them
Upon his return to China, Cheng was invited to the Imperial Palace
in Peking and was awarded the special degree of Medical Ju Ren, the
fourth highest scholarly degree given by the palace. He was
appointed as the expectant secretary of the Grand Secretariat and
head master of the Imperial Army Medical College in Canton. In June
1909, Cheng represented the Imperial Chinese government at the
International Leprosy Conference in Bergen, Norway.
Marriage on the Front Page
Nearly six years after his California medical induction, Cheng again
made Bay Area news headlines. On the front page of the March 23,
1910, Oakland Tribune, it announced Cheng and Edna Lee as
a "prominent Chinese couple who will be married March 29th in the
First Baptist Church, according to American customs."
This time, the coverage was more accepting, even if a cartooned
character of Cupid uniting the bride and groom's photos was shown
with a queue, a Chinese cap and slanted eyes. The Oakland Tribune
described Edna, the daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Tsai Leong Lee, not
only as a "pretty and winsome girl" but also commented on her
scholarly accomplishments. Edna was a student at San Francisco's
Lowell High School until the 1906 earthquake and subsequently
graduated from Oakland High School in 1908. At the time of marriage,
the newspaper said, "Miss Lee is one of the most brilliant students
in the University of California, which she entered with the class of
1912." The college coed sacrificed her education and career for her
husband and kinfolk by making the family home in Canton, where son
Homer and six other children were born. Well beyond the role of wife
and mother, she took an active part in her community and taught
English to the Guang Hua medical students.
China's Western Medical School
Cheng's story first came back to San Francisco attention in 2002.
San Francisco State University Asian American Studies professor
Lorraine Dong learned of him after offering a letter of
congratulations to the Guangdong Guang Hua Medical College in
Guangdong, in honor of its 94th anniversary.
Cheng founded the Guang Hua Medical Society in 1908, which became
the Guangdong Guang Hua Medical School in 1909 (and the Guangdong
Guang Hua Medical College in 1929). At the time, there were very few
medical doctors in Imperial China trained in Western medicine.
Living under Manchurian control and colonialism, Cheng fought for
the right to medical care for all citizens.
Run by a Chinese staff, Guangdong Guang Hua employed all Chinese
professors and was the first Chinese medical school to admit women
students. Cheng served as the medical school's first president,
never accepting compensation, except from his private practice
patients, during his 23-year tenure.
Not only had Cheng been a successful doctor, he was an astute
businessman. He was one of the founders of the Hong Nian (Healthy
Life) Life Insurance Company, one of the largest and oldest
insurance companies in Hong Kong. According to son Homer, the
executives of the company gave the family tremendous financial help
during the first part of the war before the Japanese occupied Hong
Cheng retired in 1931 due to health problems. After the Japanese
bombed his son Homer's elementary school, the family relocated to a
friend's home in the Guangxi Province, deep within the mountains.
The temporary village refuge became their home for an eight-year
ordeal. Cheng died there in 1942 with Edna and Homer at his side. No
medical care was available and his physician son opines that his
father died of cancer or liver disease.
Training a Doctor in Exclusionary America
"What if America was more welcoming? What could Holt Cheng have
accomplished?" ponders professor Lorraine Dong. "Those of us in
Asian American studies always wonder: `What if we did not have this
cloud over us racism and discrimination? How successful might we
really be or how much might we really contribute?' "
Dong said that even today, many U.S.-born Chinese find great success
in China or Asia that they can't seem to attain here.
Still an open question in the Cheng story is how he was able to
enter a medical school in San Francisco, given a growing anti-
Chinese sentiment. Dong believes that religion may have been at play.
"Holt Cheng was Christian. Students then, especially international
students, were usually sponsored by the church," Dong says. In that
backdrop, San Francisco's Chinese Hospital, still a thriving
institute today, was chartered in 1899, the year before Cheng's
admission to medical school.
Homer Cheng also points out that his father's Affidavit of Travel
stated, "Never been a laborer," indicating an educated or mercantile
class outside of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restrictions.
Ironically, the act was extended "indefinitely" in 1904, the year of
Holt Cheng's graduation, before its repeal in 1943.
History of Going Back to China
San Francisco native Dr. Rolland Lowe says his father dreamed that
when he finished medical school, he would go to China to teach
medicine and serve the people there. Was it a similar philosophy
that took Holt Cheng back to China?
"Back then, immigrants were committed to `a cause,' " Lowe
says. "They vowed to serve their community back in China."
Lowe ultimately did not serve a community in China, but has been
serving the San Francisco Chinese community professionally and
socially for over four decades.
"At the time I finished medical school in 1955 and finished training
in 1963, the environment in China had changed, so I didn't follow my
father's wishes," Lowe says. "I realized that I could still help the
Chinese community, but in San Francisco."
Lowe went on to become the first Chinese American elected president
of the San Francisco Medical Society and only Chinese American to be
elected president of the California Medical Association.
Lowe says not so long ago, discrimination was so severe that Chinese
Americans could not find jobs despite their professional
training. "During World War II, UC Berkeley-trained engineers were
left to open groceries," Lowe says. He noted that some Chinese found
success in the "melting pot," but that often meant becoming part of
the "old boys network."
Back in his day, Lowe says that only five Asian Pacific Americans
were admitted to a medical school's class of 75 students. Today, 25
percent of medical school students nationally are APAs a
percentage, Lowe says, that many people think would only apply to a
state like California.
"What is the legacy of someone like Holt Cheng?" Lowe asks. "I think
it concerns the obligation to improving our community; the spirit of
giving back; we, not me.
"Today, many seem less committed to community and look for personal
comfort. Chinese Americans have great opportunities in the U.S. and
a great number are successful because of the sacrifices for we and
because of the working-for-we-and-not-me spirit."
Father-Hero Missing in History
That "we" spirit could have been revolutionary. The founder of
modern China, Sun Yat Sen, and Holt Cheng could have crossed paths.
Thus far, no documentation has firmly established a relationship,
but Homer Cheng said his mother, Edna, also known as Li Ligie, was a
friend of Madam Soong Qing Ling, one of the famous Soong sisters and
the woman who married Sun in 1911. Sun went on to become the father
of democracy in China and the father of the Republic of China.
Sun and Cheng were trained in the United States as medical doctors.
Both were born in China's Xiangshan County in Guangdong Province.
Both traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, San Francisco and New York.
Homer Cheng is now 76 years old. For the soft-spoken and humble son,
the fifth child of Holt Cheng, the search for his father's story
eluded him until very recently.
For years, he had looked under historical indexes for "Cheng"
or "Chang" and found little or nothing. Then, he became inspired
again to search after a keynote speech given by Helen Zia, a noted
Chinese American author and activist, at the 90th anniversary dinner
of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance in May 2002. Zia spoke of
Chinese Americans and other APAs as "missing in history" or "MIH."
"It was the first dinner in the San Francisco Chinese community that
I had attended," Homer recalls. "Frankly, I was overwhelmed after
being in Ohio, where there are no Chinese, and then seeing so many
Chinese and how friendly they all were."
Shot in the Dark
By mere chance, CHSA board member Joyce Chan met Homer at that same
dinner. Moved by the story of his father "MIH," she joined his
search but decided on a whim to look under "H" for "Holt" and
found "Chang A. Holt," uncovering a lost chapter in history.
Zia says she is touched that she has opened up one family's search
for missing history.
"It wasn't until I had become a writer, conducting research for
Asian American Dreams, that I learned the hidden details about our
Asian Pacific American history and culture," Zia says. "In my book,
I called this history MIH, missing in history. As I learned each new
detail, I was surprised, delighted, excited and angry. I learned
information that I had never known before, about my history, my
heritage, my culture. I learned things that every American should
know, yet so few people do."
Homer's son, Los Angeles physician Rex Lee Cheng, appreciates what
his father's continuing quest means for the family, including his
two sisters, also doctors.
"I didn't know a lot about my grandfather because my father didn't
know; he only had bits and pieces of information," Rex Lee Cheng
says. "My father is thinking of going back to China one more time
for the 95th anniversary of the Guang Hua Medical College."
Reflecting on his grandfather's life and his parents' life as
immigrants from China, he says, "When you look back and try to put
yourself in their shoes, what stands out are their survival skills.
Their choices were not always appealing but were necessary to
achieve their ultimate goals."
Dr. Cheng and Sausage
Joyce Chan and Homer Cheng continue to search for more clues in the
Holt Cheng story.
"My friends think this new hobby has become an addiction," says
Chan. Indeed, less than two weeks after the San Francisco Medical
Society event, she left for Honolulu to do more research. Her latest
findings from the Hawai`i State Archives include documents showing
A. Chang Ho arrived on the Oceanic on July 17, 1893, at age 14,
disputing The San Francisco Call article stating that Holt arrived
in Hilo at age 8. C.A. Holt filed for an application for merchandise
and tobacco, cigars and cigarettes on May 9, 1898, allowing him to
be a successful grocer. C.A. Holt paid $17.75 in taxes, according to
the Tax Assessment and Collection Ledger, 224-4-1899, Vol. 2, page
59. Ah Holt C. was a Chinese interpreter for the Hilo law firm of
Wilder, Wise and Wakefield in Husted's Directory of Honolulu, 1899.
A book evidences Chang Ho as part of Sun Yat Sen's Chinese
Revolutionary Team in Hilo in 1903.
Chan chuckles, "We can thank Holt Cheng for having lop cheurng
(Chinese sausage)." One of the San Francisco Chinese-language
newspapers dated March 15, 1910, notes that at a Chinese Chamber of
Commerce banquet, "President Tan expressed gratitude to Dr. Cheng,
who persuaded the U.S. government to repeal the ban on Chinese
sausage import. He signed a document to prove that Chinese sausage
was not harmful to one's health."
"It is so exciting each time I make a discovery so I can connect one
[more] piece of the puzzle with a new finding," Chan says. "One of
the Guang Hua alumni wrote in a letter, `You have brought glory to
the Chinese people across two continents.' What more could I ask?"