Chinatown was the focus of Infinite San Francisco, a discussion series analyzing the histories and challenges of the city’s most eclectic neighborhoods, on Tuesday February 21. This was the third event of the series hosted by the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.
Dawn Lee Tu, director of Cultural Centers, moderated a five-person panel composed of Chinatown community center directors and a USF professor.
The panelists discussed their experiences growing up in Chinatown and the government’s neglect of the area’s residents. They stressed the need for community between Chinatown residents and the rest of San Francisco.
Located between the Financial District and North Beach, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest Chinatown in North America.
“Chinatown is a vibrant, cultural immigration hub with transnational migration spanning over 200 years,” said Kevin Chun, psychology professor and co-founder of the USF Asian American Studies program.
“There’s still an ongoing narrative as we speak today. It really begs the question: what does it mean to be American? [Chinatown] is at the epicenter for cultural resiliency and civic participation,” Chun said.
Panel members said challenges with racial identification stem from the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a 10-year immigration ban on Chinese immigration signed by President Chester A. Arthur. Negative stereotypes, social isolation and government neglect influenced by the legislation have echoed through centuries of Chinatown’s history.
“Those stereotypes need to go,” said Reverend Norman Fong, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. Fong’s work is centered on building community engagement, assisting Chinese immigrants with housing and getting youth involved in improving Chinatown’s streets and alleyways.
Fong, who grew up in Chinatown in the 60s, had first-hand experience of the disparity between the Chinese and Italian North Beach locals. Disputes ranged from the violent to the rash including brawls over racial differences and challenges over which ethnic group between the Chinese and Italians served better food.
The disdain between people from the two areas grew so strong during the 60s and 70s, that many Chinese families would not let their children out of their homes after four in the afternoon in fear of violent crimes, said Jenny Lam, director of community initiatives for Chinese Affirmative action. Lam oversees policies and advocacy programs among immigrant rights and workforce development.
In addition, many Chinatown residents experienced mistreatment from postal services due to constricted living spaces.
Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America and leader of Chinatown historical tours, said many buildings in the locale are built upward instead of outward. This results in countless single room occupancy (SRO) buildings.
While SRO buildings provided housing for tenants unable to afford San Francisco’s high cost of living, Chinatown residents faced further inequities, including a disorganized mail system. Mail carriers refused to sort out each building’s mail due to the high number of residents per building, said Fong. Instead, mail was dumped onto the floor of the SRO lobbies. Since then, Chinatown has steadily worked its way out of marginalization while retaining its cultural identity in the city. Panel members indicated that preservation of Chinatown’s rich history and importance as a core neighborhood of San Francisco’s Asian American community can only occur by educating locals and tourists about the hardships faced by Chinese immigrants.
“Just look at the demographics of San Francisco: over 30% of San Francisco is made up of Asian Americans,” said Chun. “This is what sets USF apart— our dynamic, long history with waves of Asians. The city is a gateway for that. Why not take advantage of our environment?”
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