Bay Area Chinese American community commemorates Utah Judge Michael Kwan

2019 “Golden Spike” ceremony group photo. Judge Michael Kwan sitting in the front center. (Photo: Han Li)

The sudden death of Judge Michael Kwan(關維斌) from Utah shocked the Chinese American community nationwide. In particular, the Bay Area community felt hit strongly by the tragic news because of its close ties with Kwan.

Kwan was found unresponsive at home between July 21 to 22. The specific time and cause of death are still unclear. He was 58.

For years, Kwan had been an iconic leader pushing for the mainstream recognition of the Chinese railroad workers’ contribution in building the First Transcontinental Railroad, which was finished in 1869 and connected the U.S. east to west.

Each year in Promontory, Utah, where the final part of the railroad construction located, a “Golden Spike ” festival will be held to celebrate the completion of the railroad. In 2019, the 150-year anniversary of the “Golden Spike” was the first time that those early-time Chinese immigrant laborers were officially honored and respected for their works and sacrifices. Kwan was the major initiator and coordinator behind the 150-year anniversary series events, attracting thousands of Chinese Americans, including U. S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao(趙小蘭) to Promontory to join the historic commemoration.

Judge Michael Kwan. (Photo: Han Li)

Many Chinese American community members in the Bay Area, lots of whom flew to Utah and overwhelmingly supported the “Golden Spike”, shared their memories and admiration to Kwan.

“What I was most amazed was his ability to work with Chinese Americans across the political spectrum, because we have a community has very conservative and very progressive people”, said Jean Quan(關麗珍), the former mayor of Oakland and a civil rights activist.

She highlighted Kwan’s effort that “pull people together” and his persistence in organizing for honoring Chinese American history, which helps eliminate the racism against Asian Americans nowadays.

In 2019, Kwan was suspended from the judgeship for six months because of his anti-Trump political remarks. During that period of time, he moved to the Bay Area and lived with C.C. Yin(尹集成), the founder of Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs(APAPA), a prominent national organization focusing on Asian American politics. Kwan also briefly served as the Executive Director of APAPA.

C.C. Yin, Karen Kwan, and Michael Kwan in the 2019 “Golden Spike” ceremony. (Photo: Han Li)

During his time in the Bay Area, Kwan was invited to be a panelist in a San Francisco Chinatown forum on August 31, 2019, addressing the Chinese American political influences in the modern days. The event was reported on the World Journal.

Yin praised Kwan as an extraordinary person with “a sense of justice”. He recalled that ten years ago he started to know Kwan because they agreed on planning for the railroad workers’ recognition.

“He’s passionate about the history and very hardworking,” Yin said, and Kwan always had “attention” on those unfair treatments to Chinese Americans in history.

Two retired San Francisco females judges, Lillian Sing(郭麗蓮) and Julie Tang(鄧孟詩), both expressed their sorrows. “I am utterly shocked by the news. It is so sad”, said Sing, and Tang described his passing is a sad loss of “another fighter for justice”.

“Judge Kwan was a champion of human rights, a lifetime fighter for justice for Chinese Americans, and a historian who devoted his life to ensure our early forefathers' history is not forgotten and will be honored,” said Sing.

Kwan was active in the Chinese American civil rights movement and was the national president of OCA — Asian Pacific American Advocates.

Former OCA national president, San Francisco’s APA Heritage Foundation founder Claudine Cheng(鄭可欣) told the World Journal that OCA leadership has reached out to Kwan’s family on planning a potential public memorial event for him. Cheng has known Kwan for over ten years and labeled him as “humble” and “unassuming”.

“Judge Mike Kwan was a noble soul. He dedicated himself to public service, both as a judge and as a community advocate,” said Cheng.

Kwan’s sister, Karen Kwan(關玉嬚), is an elected lawmaker in the Utah House of Representatives. She posted on Twitter saying “The Kwan family is deeply saddened” and “ask that you give our family some time as we sort through details surrounding his sudden passing”. Utah Governor Gary Herbert also posted “deeply saddened” on Twitter.


Two separate stories about the passing of Judge Michael Kwan were published in Chinese language on the World Journal on July 22 & 23, 2020.

Bilingual journalist. San Francisco-based.