I Owe My Life to Wong Kim Ark

By Kenneth Hong
May 30, 2023

The threads of history are woven together in unexpected ways. My family's story is inextricably linked to that of a man who fought for his rights as a U.S. citizen. A man whose name I had never heard of until a few years ago. I owe my very existence to that man named Wong Kim Ark.

Wong was born on Sacramento Street in San Francisco in 1870. My great-grandfather, HONG Yin Ming was born a few blocks away on Washington Street that same year.* We don't know whether or not they ever met, but they lived almost identical lives.

Identification Photo of Wong Kim Ark
 on 1904 Immigration Affidavit
(National Archives)
Identification Photo of Hong Yin Ming
 on 1899 Immigration Affidavit
(National Archives)

Official Map of San Francisco Chinatown 1885, with
Sacramento and Washington Streets Highlighted

Keep reading to learn more about Wong's legacy and how it affected Hong Yin Ming and his descendants.

Fighting for Their Rights in Federal Court

My great-grandfather and Wong were both born before Chinese women were barred from entering the United States by the Page Act of 1875 and before Chinese workers were barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Both traveled to China as young boys or men to visit family, and both had to sue in U.S. Federal Court to be allowed to return to the land of their birth when they returned after the Exclusion Act. Both men would spend much of their lives working as cooks in the United States trying to build a better future for their families.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Let's go back to 1888, when my great-grandpa returned to the U.S. after a trip to China. After arriving in San Francisco, the Bureau of Immigration refused to give him permission to land. Fortunately, with some help, he filed and won a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Northern District of California in a case known as "In the Matter of Hong Yin Ming on Habeas Corpus," no. 6514. The case affirmatively established Hong Yin Ming's status as a natural-born citizen of the United States, and he was allowed to land.

1888 Tin-type photo of Hong Yin Ming. From U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California case “In the Matter of Hong Yin Ming on Habeas Corpus,”
no. 6514. (National Archives)

Wong Kim Ark was not so lucky. When he returned from one of several visits to China aboard the S.S. Coptic in August 1895, Wong was denied entry to the Port of San Francisco. Authorities argued that he was not a U.S. citizen despite his having been born in the U.S., but was instead a Chinese subject because his parents were Chinese.

With the assistance of the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association, Wong also filed suit in U.S. District court. While his case was pending, Wong was locked below deck on steamships anchored off San Francisco for five months. On January 3, 1896, the judge declared Wong Kim Ark to be a citizen because he was born in the U.S.

Supreme Court Test Case: United States v. Wong Kim Ark

Despite Wong's success in U.S. District Court, the U.S. government decided to use Wong as a test case and appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fuller U.S. Supreme Court, 1898 - 1902 (Library of Congress)

On March 28, 1898, the Court decided Wong's case, ruling that because Wong was born in the United States and his parents were not "employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China," the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment automatically made him a U.S. citizen. Justice Horace Gray authored the opinion on behalf of a 6-2 majority, in which the Court established the parameters of the concepts known as jus soli—citizenship based on being born in the U.S.—and jus sanguinis—citizenship inherited from a parent who is a U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, Hong Yin Ming had been living and working in the United States for the last 10 years. It is almost certain that Yin Ming stayed in the U.S. because he knew that he might not be allowed back into the United States if he traveled to China. It wasn't worth the risk even if it meant being separated from his family. However, on June 21, 1898, less than three months after the Wong Kim Ark case was decided, Yin Ming obtained the affidavit below, certifying that he was the very person cited in the 1888 case affirming his U.S. citizenship.

Attorney A. L. Worley’s June 21, 1898, Deposition that Hong Yin Ming is the same person mentioned in the 1888 court case establishing Hong Yin Ming’s status as a natural-born citizen of the United States. Deposition was obtained prior to Yin Ming’s return to China on July 14, 1899, to prove his right to return to the US. (National Archives)

New Opportunities and Old Struggles

On July 14, 1899, Hong Yin Ming used this document to travel to China on the S.S. Coptic. One year later, on July 19, 1900, my grandfather, HONG Hock How, was born.

S.S. Coptic at Anchor Hong Hock How, Palo Alto, CA, 1916

Hong Yin Ming returned to the United States where he worked as a cook and domestic worker until 1932. He traveled to China a few more times and tried to bring his children to the United States to be educated and live as Americans.

Hong Yin Ming and Wong Kim Ark still faced unfair treatment because of their ancestry. They still had to file affidavits from white witnesses swearing that they were U.S. citizens prior to traveling abroad. They had to carry certificates of identification and produce them on demand or risk detention and deportation. They were limited in where they could live and what types of jobs they could do. Some of their children were denied entry from China because immigration officials did not believe their relationships were valid. In spite of all this, both knew that working in America meant more pay and better futures for their families. Today, their descendants, now spanning five or six generation, continue to thrive in the United States, with many proudly serving in the U.S. military and as civil servants, contributing to the rich fabric of American society.

November 11, 1914 Certificate of Identity for Wong Kim Ark
Age: 44;  Height: 5 ft 6 1/4 in;  Occupation: Cook, San Francisco, Cal.
Admitted as: Native #13893/9-9, S.S. Korea, November 2nd, 1914
Physical marks and peculiarities: Scar on right temple and on right cheek bone
(National Archives)

November 18, 1915 Certificate of Identity for Hong Yin Ming
Age: 45;  Height: 5 ft 4 3/8 in;  Occupation: Cook, Palo Alto, Cal.
Admitted as: Native (US District Court of N D Cal.) #14776/1-6, S.S. Mongolia,
October 27, 1915; Physical marks and peculiarities: Pit on bridge of nose
(National Archives)

Long Awaited Reunions

National Archives documents show that in July 1931, Wong Kim Ark filed an application to leave the U.S. which noted his plans to return. He was identified as a cook, age 62. He departed on July 31, 1931 on the S.S. President Pierce and never returned as planned. It is not known when he died.

In 1932, Hong Yin Ming reunited with his wife in China after living apart for 40 of the past 46 years. He was 63 years old. In July 1941, he died in his ancestral village. Even though the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, my great-grandmother never saw America or her children and grandchildren's homes there. In 1963, she passed away in the Hong family village at the age of 83.

1931 - Wong Kim Ark Departure Application
(National Archives)
1931 - Hong Yin Ming
(National Archives)

Lasting Impact on Generations of Americans

So, it is through this fateful chain of events that I owe my very existence to Wong Kim Ark. If Wong had not won his case in 1898, it is unlikely that my great-grandfather would have traveled to China in 1899. My grandfather would not have been born in 1900, and his descendants, including me, would never have existed.

For the last 125 years, Wong's victory has affected millions across the America. Every child born in America is an American, regardless of their parents' background. This is a defining part of being a nation of immigrants and separates the U.S. from countries that only determine citizenship based on blood relationships.

Wong Kim Ark and Me: A video short based on this article


Brockenbrough, Martha, et al. I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. 2021.

De Maus, David Alexander. The steel screw steamer Coptic at anchor. 1847-1925 :Shipping negatives. Ref: 1/2-012532-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22366260

Fischer, Erica. Official Map of Chinatown in San Francisco (1885), Cropped with Washington and Sacramento Streets highlighted by Kenneth Hong.

Hong Family records.

Library of Congress. Photo of the U.S. Supreme Court 1898-1902 (the Fuller Court). 

Moore, Robert. “He Won a Landmark Citizenship Case at the US Supreme Court. El Paso Tried to Deport Him Anyway.” El Paso Matters!, 4 July 2022, https://elpasomatters.org/2022/07/04/wong-kim-ark-vs-united-states-history-immigration-supreme-court/

United States National Archives. Immigration documents and photographs.


*    The exact birth dates and years for Wong Kim Ark and Hong Yin Ming are not known and range from 1869 to 1873. The last documents in the National Archives that refer to either of them indicate that they were both 62 in 1931.

   The citizenship clause of the post-Civil War 14th Amendment states that: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

   This article was published in 2023 in celebration of 123rd birthday of my grandfather, Hong Hock How, who might never have been born if not for Wong Kim Ark's Supreme Court Victory.

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