Judge Michael Kwan — Remembered

Photo of  man Michael Kwan
The Honorable Judge Michael Kwan (photo courtesy KLS-TV)

A Thousand Words for Michael
By Max Chang

As a board member of the Spike 150 Foundation, I had the honor and privilege to work side by side with Judge Michael Kwan and the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association of which he was the Founder and President. We and our respective organizations wanted to make sure the Chinese railroad workers were properly recognized and honored at last year’s 150th anniversary celebration of the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

Our relationship, which surprising to most, lasted just shy of 3 years. It quickly evolved from being acquaintances to colleagues to friends to brothers. Any amount of quality time spent with someone as remarkable as Michael makes one a better person. Michael was intelligent, articulate and witty. He was my go-to person for advice and mentorship. Above all, he was compassionate.

The first time I met Michael was right after our first Spike 150 Commission meeting at the Utah State Capitol. After wading through a crowd, I finally caught up to Michael and Karen both of whom I only knew by reputation. Admittingly, I was a bit star struck and the conversation went something like this:

Max: Pardon me, are you Judge Michael Kwan, sir?
Michael: That depends, who’s asking?
Max: Well sure, sir. I’m Max Chang. I’m at your service, sir. I have been looking for you. Michael: I’m getting nervous.

After explaining I wanted to help in any way to ensure the Chinese railroad workers would receive their proper recognition at the sesquicentennial celebration, he glanced over at Karen with a diabolical smile and a glean in his left eye as he folded his arms and chuckled, “Oh, do I have some work for you. . .”

Hey and if you don’t know, now you know. The rest is history.

Reclaiming the history of Michael’s ancestors, the Chinese railroad workers, was not just a mission but his passion. Michael, Margaret Yee and I spent countless hours in his chambers planning ways to put the Chinese railroad workers back into the narrative of the many those who helped build this great nation. It was much more than just about the omission of Chinese railroad workers from Andrew Russell’s famed “Champagne Photo”. We wanted an inclusive history reflecting the before and after this particular moment of time. This includes but not limited to tunneling the unforgiving Sierra Mountains, the Ten Mile Day, establishing Chinatowns in Utah and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

To help tell these stories, Michael contacted award-winning composer and lyricist, Jason Ma. Jason had written a beautiful and powerful musical, Gold Mountain, which tells the tragic story of a fuse runner who would light the fuse to the nitroglycerin and run for his life out of the tunnel. The fuse runner led a gang of Chinese railroad workers by blasting through the granite curtain one inch at a time. While the fuse runner was the most essential and highest paying, it was the riskiest job. More often than not, the fuse runner paid the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of his gang.

Michael and I as co-executive producers along with CRDWA and Spike 150 brought Gold Mountain to Utah for four sold out performances to help tell this important history through Jason’s creative lens of music, storytelling and empathy. I will always remember Michael’s proud face when he saw my daughter’s third grade class sing, Fuse Runner, during a Spike 150 assembly at Oakridge Elementary.

In one of our countless text conversations, Michael, Jason and I talked about how we all grew up with only sisters but because of Gold Mountain, we each gained two brothers.

Michael was instrumental in righting a 50-year-old wrong. At the centennial celebration in 1969, Philip Choy of the Chinese American Historical Society was removed off the agenda at the last minute and without explanation. With Michael’s assistance, we were able to get the highly regarded writer/historian, Connie Young Yu, whose parents had accompanied Choy, to open the sesquicentennial ceremonies. It was the first time a descendant of a Chinese railroad worker spoke at a milestone anniversary at Promontory Summit.

These are just two of countless examples of how Michael help make history at the 150th Anniversary. However, success did not come without a cost. Every time his fellow workers cheered the fuse runner after a successful run, the fuse runner knew the farther they dug the tunnel, the harder for him to safely return.

Michael selflessly and sometimes quietly absorbed blows from both internal and external factions so the rest of us could continue the good fight. The undercut punches ranged from attempting to shift the focus from the Chinese railroad workers to self-serving agendas to unjustly disparaging and discrediting his judicial integrity. Yet, after each blow, Michael stood tall like Ali over Liston.

He calmed us during chaos. When we were angry, he helped us smile. When we cried, he comforted us. When we fell, he was the first to offer a helping hand. He always shied away from the accolades so the rest of us could stand tall and proud on the podium and in the spotlight. He always had our backs.

Judge Michael W. Kwan was our Fuse Runner.

Following the 150th Ceremony, Asian American historian and photographer, Corky Lee, stood high on a ladder to take his interpretation of the “Champagne Shot.” Fittingly, you’ll find the Jupiter and 119 trains in the backdrop and Michael, flanked by hundreds of Chinese railroad workers descendants and supporters, front and center, smiling.

Michael, as we send you on your journey home, let me share our commitment to you.

Your relentless pursuit for diversity, equality, inclusion and justice here may be D-O-N-E, but we will do our best to continue building the railroad of your unparalleled legacy. We cannot and will not be satisfied in just filling your big shoes. We must also fill your humongous heart.

I’ll see you on the other side, my brother. I love and miss you, Michael.
Rest in Peace.
Rest in Power.

Max Chang August 1, 2020