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[COMMUNITY] Y.C. Hong Worked to Get Citizenship for Thousands of Chinese

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  • madchinaman
    Chinatown Time Capsule: Building once owned by lawyer who helped thousands of Chinese gain U.S. citizenship is sold. His files go to Huntington Library. By
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 20, 2005
      Chinatown Time Capsule: Building once owned by lawyer who helped
      thousands of Chinese gain U.S. citizenship is sold. His files go to
      Huntington Library.
      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
      immigration laws.

      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
      Exclusion Act.

      "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."
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