[COMMUNITY] Y.C. Hong Worked to Get Citizenship for Thousands of Chinese
- Chinatown Time Capsule: Building once owned by lawyer who helped
thousands of Chinese gain U.S. citizenship is sold. His files go to
By David Pierson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
In Chinatown's Central Plaza, elderly men sit on benches sipping
milk tea, old women nosily shuffle mah-jongg tiles and cooks clack
metal spatulas against their woks, filling the air with the pungent
aroma of ginger and garlic.
Overlooking this scene is a white, three-story building guarded by a
pair of stone lions. Venturing up the building's darkened stairway
to the top floor is like entering a time capsule that tells the
history of Chinatown and the community that grew from it.
An intricate, 1930s typewriter with minuscule Chinese characters
stained with ink rests on a counter. A private office is adorned
with shaped wood and Art Deco furniture. Then there are the dusty
file cabinets whose contents date to the 1920s. Within those
yellowing pages is the story of the burgeoning Chinese diaspora.
For nearly 60 years, You Chung Hong practiced law here. His office
was a legendary entry point for the thousands of Chinese he helped
gain citizenship, often despite economic hardships and prejudices.
Many of his clients became successful businessmen. One is a federal
Hong's office was for years the only place that Chinese Angelenos
could find immigration advice. The first Chinese American to pass
the California bar, Hong testified before the U.S. Senate to reform
His workplace appears frozen in time from the day he died of a heart
attack in 1977; it was largely untouched by his family. But this
month the family sold the building. And that left Hong's youngest
son and head of the family trust, Roger, with the task of sorting
through the papers and artifacts in the office.
Some of the papers mainly personal immigration files that stretch
from the 1920s to the 1950s will be donated to the Huntington
"This collection has been very much sought after," said Suellen
Cheng, curator at the El Pueblo Historical Monument and executive
director of the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. "In the
field of Asian American studies, this is a treasure."
Hong, who was referred to by his first two initials, Y.C., was born
in San Francisco in 1898. His father came to the United States to
work on the railroads, but died when his son was only 5. That left
his mother, Lee Shee, with a son and a daughter, whom she took care
of by working as a cigar roller and seamstress, according to John G.
Tomlinson Jr., who wrote about Hong in a USC law magazine.
It was her hardship as a single parent that Hong recognized when he
erected Central Plaza's now famous, neon-tinted, east gate facing
Broadway in 1938 to commemorate mothers everywhere.
He moved to Los Angeles after graduating from high school, and began
teaching English to Chinese immigrants and worked as a bookkeeper in
Chinese restaurants. Hong was dropped as a baby, causing a deformity
that curved his spine much like a hunchback. Fully grown, he was
only 5 feet 3, but his ambition and his American-accented English
distinguished him, Roger Hong said.
Hong became an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Service in 1918,
and was encouraged by a Japanese American at USC Law School to
attend night classes. He enrolled, but was so poor that classmates
had to lend him textbooks.
Hong, the first Chinese American to graduate from USC Law School,
passed the bar in 1923, becoming the first Chinese American to
become a certified lawyer in California, Roger Hong said.
Then Hong set up an immigration law practice in Chinatown and
married Mabel Chin Qong, a U.S.-born Chinese American who graduated
from Oregon State University.
"For someone like him to show up and claim he was a lawyer at the
time was pretty outrageous. But of course he had the credentials, so
there was nothing they could do," said Hong's eldest son, Nowland, a
litigator based in downtown Los Angeles.
At the time, thousands of Chinese men who came to the United States
many of whom worked on the railroads, in laundries or as house
boys could not bring their wives or family over because of the
Chinese Exclusion Act. Hong often had to argue meticulously for his
clients, proving that many were American citizens and legally had
the right to have their loved ones come here.
Such was the case of U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew's family,
which was separated for nearly two decades because of the Chinese
"My father arrived in 1922, and it wasn't until 1939 that my mother
and brother came," Lew said. "How Y.C. did that, I don't know."
Lew's father encouraged him to follow in Hong's footsteps, which he
did, passing the bar in 1971 and becoming a judge in 1982. Hong was
something of a folk hero to Lew's father's generation when he
testified before a U.S. Senate committee to advocate immigration
reform while only 28 years old. He was also a prominent leader of
the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, which fought for civil
"He was very small in stature, yet he was so powerful because of
what he did," Lew said.
Roger Hong, the youngest son, said Lew's family records probably are
among the 6,500 client files he found in his father's office. He
spent more than four years searching for a suitable institution to
receive the papers settling on the Huntington Library in 2003
because it specialized in archival exhibits and is in one of
Southern California's newer Chinese enclaves, San Marino.
"Each file has a photograph, and they're in good condition," said
Bill Frank, a curator at the library. "There's maps of villages, so
it also tells us a great deal about life in China. We're very
interested in the [Chinese character] typewriter too. It's a gold
The library also received such Hong family artifacts as photographs,
documents, letters and books, which all will be made available to
the public. The client files, the bulk of which are from the late
1920s to the 1950s, are far more complicated. Many will remain
protected under federal privacy laws unless the client has died or
75 years has passed since the document was initiated, Frank said.
Cheng, of the El Pueblo Historical Monument and Chinese American
Museum, said not much research has been devoted to Hong, though he
is known by Asian American historians.
"However, once the Hong papers are made available, I would guess
many scholars would be very interested in studying them," she said.
As for the office building, it has acquired a great deal of
sentimental value for Roger, 63, and his brother Nowland, 70. They
would visit their father there when they were youngsters, often to
get noodles and tea or eat at Little Joe's, an Italian restaurant
that has since closed.
In the kitchen, a glass soap dispenser is still half full. Vintage
yellow tin cake covers and cookie jars lie on the counter. A sleek,
shoulder-high, General Electric refrigerator is still stocked with
all the firecrackers that Roger Hong's mother didn't want her sons
to play with.
Hong's office is surrounded by law journals. They are illuminated by
a square ceiling lamp made of white frosted glass and brass strips
evoking a Chinese screen door.
Everywhere there are cardboard boxes, especially in the former
waiting room where clients often sat with bags of groceries they
used to pay Hong with for his services.
The boxes were removed from the former Hong home in Country Club
Park. The house was purchased in the 1930s for $1 from a white
family friend who wanted to defy neighborhood laws that prevented
Chinese from owning property. The family sold it in 1997 shortly
before Mabel Chin Hong died.
Hong's office building is being sold to Richard Liu, a Burmese
Chinese interior architect who also bought two other buildings owned
by the Hong family. He converted one into his company's headquarters
and the other into a trendy store that sells Asian-inspired
dishware, glassware and books.
The buildings were completed in 1938 as part of the so-called New
Chinatown that Hong and other community leaders designed after the
construction of Union Station forced everyone out of the old
The new Chinatown was the first Chinatown in America to be owned
entirely by Chinese; it became a nightclub district for Hollywood
celebrities in the 1940s and '50s.
The Hong buildings had many lives. Some as restaurants. Others as
banks. One was an underground nightclub that once served as the
city's punk rock epicenter.
But Roger Hong says one thing will live on: his father's private
office, which the new owner assured he will retain almost the same.
"I wouldn't have sold the building if I didn't find the right
person," Roger Hong said. "We have a culture here in L.A. that needs
to be preserved."