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Dr. Holt Cheng - Pioneer Physician

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Recognition came nearly a century after Holt A. Cheng graduated from medical school.

Julie Soo wrote the following feature on Dr. Holt A. Cheng. I am very pleased to be able to reprint her article at AsianConnections.com, with special thanks to AsianWeek.
- Joyce Chan, AsianConnections Contributing Community Editor

THE FATHER OF ALL CHINESE DOCTORS
HOLT A. CHENG WAS A TRAILBLAZER

By Julie Soo

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, Holts 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 queue.

The article told of Chengs 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 spiritually.

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 grooms 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 Franciscos 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.

Chinas Western Medical School

Chengs 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 schools 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 Kong.

Cheng retired in 1931 due to health problems. After the Japanese bombed his son Homers elementary school, the family relocated to a friends 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 cant 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 Franciscos Chinese Hospital, still a thriving institute today, was chartered in 1899, the year before Chengs admission to medical school.

Homer Cheng also points out that his fathers 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 Chengs 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 didnt follow my fathers 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 schools 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 Chinas 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 fathers 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 familys search for missing history.

It wasnt 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.

Homers son, Los Angeles physician Rex Lee Cheng, appreciates what his fathers continuing quest means for the family, including his two sisters, also doctors.

I didnt know a lot about my grandfather because my father didnt 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 grandfathers 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 Hawaii 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 Husteds Directory of Honolulu, 1899. A book evidences Chang Ho as part of Sun Yat Sens 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 ones 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?

Julie Soo is a Features Contributor and former Staff Writer with AsianWeek. She is Staff Counsel for the California Department of Insurance in the Legal Division's Compliance Bureau. Julie was fascinated by the life and work of Dr. Holt Cheng and how Dr. Homer Cheng and Joyce Chan documented this through their research which led them to New York, Ohio, Caifornia, Hawaii, and China.