You might not know Y.C. Hong, but people in Los Angeles Chinatown do. If you visit Chinatown, you may not know, but you’ll see his influence. Hong was a disabled man, a minority and an attorney. It’s easy to say bad things about all three of those labels although now it is only politically correct to make pejorative statements about lawyers. Yet during a time when the New York Times can stir up controversy with an opinion piece entitled “Anti-Muslim is Anti-American,” it might be just the right time to remember when the United States was anti-Asian and see the exhibition, “Y.C. Hong: Advocate for Chinese-American Inclusion” at the Huntington Library which is open until March 21, 2016.
There are in contemporary time jokes about the Asian Invasion. Some people make comment by explaining that UCLA stands for the University of Caucasians Lost Amongst Asians. UCLA is 33.5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 27 percent Caucasian and 19 percent Latino.
The city of Los Angeles, however, is 47 percent Latino, 41 percent Caucasian (only 29 percent non-Latino white), 10 percent Asian and 9.8 percent black. That differs from the San Gabriel Valley where the Asian population makes up 26 percent of the population and the Latino population is 45 percent. The white population is 25 percent and the black only 3 percent. There are some cities where ethnic Asians are the majority. That might be disconcerting for some, but the number of Asians might have been higher sooner had the government not made racist rules about immigration.
What kept the immigration numbers down were a series of exclusion acts. The Page Act of 1875 prohibited the immigration from Asia of forced laborers, women who would be prostitutes and anyone who would be considered a convict in his/her country.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first federal immigration law to target a specific ethnic group. With slavery abolished, people looked for a means of cheap labor on large projects. The California gold rush of 1848 to 1855 brought a large number of people to the California, including Chinese immigrants trying their luck, but large building projects like the Transcontinental Railroad used Chinese laborers to do hard and often dangerous work.
While lynchings are commonly associated with prejudice toward blacks, in Los Angeles there were few blacks, but Chinese immigrants had come over looking for gold and later worked on the railroads.
One of the largest mass lynchings in American history was the Chinese massacre of 1871 in which an October riot ended with about 500 white men torturing and hanging 18 Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles. The police had, at times, been willing to assist Chinese gangs and others who offered rewards for the Chinese women they enslaved as prostitutes. Yet in this case, the police looked the other way and the Chinese could not testify against white men.
That was before Hong was born. Los Angeles changed and during Hong’s lifetime, laws eventually changed. Hong was born in 1898 in the San Francisco area and lived until 1977. During his lifetime, he worked on at least 7,000 immigration cases.
To fight the racist laws, Hong helped with various strategies that included maps and interview strategies for the “paper” sons who came to the United States, circumventing the immigration exclusion acts by pretending to be the sons of men who had already immigrated and were therefore already grandfathered in. This small exhibition draws from the Huntington’s You Chung Hong Family Papers that were acquired in 2006 and is divided into six sections. Though the 75 items on display which include historical documents, correspondence, photographs, maps, and ledgers, the exhibition shows the early history of Chinese immigrants in California. That includes Chinese gold miners and railroad laborers and Hong’s childhood in San Francisco and finally his career as an immigration lawyer. Hong also served as a president for the Chinese American Citizens Alliance during which time he met with then-governor Ronald Reagan as well as Soong May-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai Shek. Hong was also one of the founders of the New Chinatown that was raised after the Old Chinatown was torn down to make way for Union Station.
While nationwide people are celebrating the Chinese New Year, it is important to remember how unwelcome the Chinese were and that even in California Yellow Perilism was not just words, but actual legislation at the state and federal level. It’s hard now to imagine California without the East Asian influence and now that influence continues to grow in the San Gabriel Valley area. After you’ve enjoyed Chinese food at one of the many San Gabriel restaurants, take time to remember a man who helped build up the Chinese community in Southern California: Y.C. Hong.