Faai Di La! (快啲啦): Hurry Up!
Twilight in Chinatown. While tourists retreat to hotel rooms to conclude the day, grandmothers bundled in fleece jackets and wearing Converse tennis shoes stream out of apartments, dragging wire carts ready for cargo. “Yut mun, yut bao!” cry the fruit and vegetable vendors. One dollar, one bag! It is the enchanted discount hour when Stockton Street comes alive with giddy shoppers about to snag a good deal.
“Apricots are so cheap today,” proclaims a tiny Cantonese-speaking woman outside a produce shop. Plopping the fruit into a plastic bag she’s ripped off the roll, she nods toward the handwritten sign flapping in the San Francisco wind. “Fifty-nine cents a pound! Who cares if it’s sweet or sour? They are so cheap, you can take some home and play with them. Just buy some!”
At a nearby seafood market, a shopper waits in line, clutching a flailing frog in one hand and her purse in the other. A second customer grabs a dried squid, announcing to all that she will make jook (rice porridge), but the cashier scolds her, saying that the squid should be steamed with rice and a salted duck egg instead. Before the sun sets, the bargain hunters return to their one-room dwellings to prepare dinner.
The neighborhood’s fifteen to twenty thousand inhabitants include the retiree, the produce worker, and the bartender mixing his thousandth lychee cocktail. More than half of the populous are age sixty-plus; children and teens represent less than 15 percent. Babies are an extremely rare commodity, which is probably why the new Chinese Hospital has no maternity ward or pediatric services. The surgery department is hopping with cataract operations, however.
According to the San Francisco Planning Department, 70 percent of Chinatown’s citizens have a high school education or even less. Of total households, approximately 80 percent are Asian speaking, which implies that they are first-generation immigrants.
New residents converge from regions throughout China and Southeast Asian countries. One third of Chinatown households live in poverty. Collectively, these statistics run contrary to the rest of San Francisco, where the trend leans toward a young, college-educated, and wealthy demographic.
Chinatown’s many occupants dwell in low-income SRO (single-room-occupancy) apartments. Of the sixty-two hundred housing units in Chinatown, 52 percent are SRO rooms, where life can be suffocating. As one former tenant describes, “You don’t live like we did without it doing something to your mind.” Renters hand-wash and hang laundry outside windows because they have no facilities. Neighbors fight over using a single stove in a kitchen serving thirty families. Up to seven people have been known to sleep in bunk beds stacked three levels high in a closet-sized room with no windows. No elevators means that the sick and disabled cannot get to the doctor because the stairs are too dangerous to tread.
SRO residents exercise patience daily, waiting to use shared restrooms and showers. This is not transitional housing; this is home. Building inspectors cannot keep up with the mounting infractions of neglected apartments suffering from leaky pipes, antiquated wiring, and poor ventilation. Unsanitary conditions can breed cockroaches and rats. How long people stay in SROs depends on their financial situation. Many spend decades living out the rest of their lives in an SRO if they cannot afford to leave what people call the “housing of last resort.”
Not everyone in Chinatown lives in an SRO, however. On Stockton Street, the sixteen-level Mandarin Tower is an odd duck. It is Chinatown’s only condo complex with individually owned units that have sold for nearly a million dollars each, not including monthly homeowner’s association fees.
Neighborhood amenities feature cultural twists—a hospital with acupuncturist offices, a police station with Asian officers, and hair salons stocked with Chinese movie magazines. Unlike other San Francisco schools, children bring home permission slips in English and Chinese. Chinatown is home to the Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School, the only public elementary school in San Francisco dedicated to helping Chinese children and parents adapt to America.
Meanwhile, parents scramble for open spaces so that the few children who do live in Chinatown can expend pent-up energy. Only four small parks are available in this, the densest urban neighborhood west of Manhattan. Children of early Chinatown entertained themselves outdoors in empty lots and alleys, but by 1927, the city finally built the first Chinatown playground, with swings, a slide, and a tennis and basketball court. The Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground is named after the phenomenal five-foot-five basketball player, the first Chinese American to achieve success in basketball, in 1948. His fans shouted “Woo woo!” each time he scored for the University of San Francisco Dons varsity squad.
For an SRO kid, the after-school ritual involves heading straight to the Him Mark Lai Branch Library to complete homework or play computer games. SRO apartments have neither room for study desks nor access to the Internet. Other children attend Chinese school until their parents pick them up after work.
Chinatown supplies everything necessary to preserve culture, history, and traditions. Students can master the erhu Chinese fiddle at Clarion Performing Arts. During the Friday night youth program at Donaldina Cameron House, a social services center, teens learn to make Chinese herbal soups. Others can sign up for dragon-boat racing, lion dancing, or kung fu throughout the neighborhood.
Each day, the elderly attend to fixed routines. Retirees “wash” mah-jongg tiles in family association halls. At Portsmouth Square, Chinatown’s “living room” and largest park, is a pivotal gathering spot. Old bachelors lay out Chinese chess pieces on parchment paper. Widows play cards on cardboard boxes yanked from the bushes.
Chinatown holds a soft spot for these vulnerable immigrants and citizens. Groups such as Self-Help for the Elderly, On Lok Lifeways, and many others empower seniors, offering resources and explanations of current events and issues that affect their lives. The YMCA and the First Chinese Baptist Church provide conversational English, nutrition workshops, and classes in using cell phones. Opened in 2016, the new Chinese Hospital is the only one of its kind in the country with language assistance in Cantonese, Sei Yap Wa, Mandarin, and other dialects.
Every village boasts its heroes, and Chinatown is no exception. Crusaders and allies have saved Chinatown from relocation, destruction, and gentrification. Founder of the Chinatown Community Development Center in 1977, Gordon Chin has served as a driving force advocating for affordable housing. His foresight to rally for reasonable rents has benefited seniors and the poverty stricken who would have nowhere else to live. His successor after retirement, Rev. Norman Fong (see profile), does not shy away from the hard issues either. Fong cannot remember how many times he has been tossed in jail for protesting over tenants’ rights and Chinese immigration policies. Born and raised in Chinatown, he finds no greater joy than raising up the next generation of activists.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, known as woo so lo (the bearded man), has been representing the Chinese community for more than a decade. He says that he can finally raise a toast in Cantonese. Chinatown leaders were relieved when he backed their decision to block marijuana dispensaries. Energetic Peskin routinely talks to merchants and, through a translator, takes notes as residents air their concerns.
Never to be forgotten is the late activist Rose Pak, the neighborhood’s most controversial ambassador, called both a bully and a hero. As consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, she swore like a sailor and terrified everyone at City Hall. Rose loved to seize the microphone during the Chinese New Year parade and mock politicians as they motored by. She died in 2015 at sixty-eight, but her two biggest legacies include championing the new Central Subway project and fundraising for the $180 million Chinese Hospital.
Still praised is the late Edwin Lee, the city's first Asian American mayor. The sixty-five-year-old politician who called himself the “Jeremy Lin of mayors” led San Francisco for six years and died of a heart attack in 2017. In the documentary Mayor Ed Lee, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton commented, “Nobody could doubt his deep humanity, his decency, and love for San Francisco.” Lee, once managing attorney in Chinatown for the Asian Law Caucus, fought for low-income housing, an increase in the minimum wage, and the creation of the $1.4 billion Chase Center event arena, built entirely from private funds.
“To many his legacy was public housing, but that is too short a list. He continuously sought to expand the opportunity to serve the public,” says former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. When Mayor Lee passed away, the heartbroken city flew flags at half-staff for thirty days.
The Bay Area is transient. In a 2018 poll by the San Jose Mercury News, 46 percent of those surveyed said they intend to leave the area within the next few years due to increasing traffic congestion and the high cost of living. Meanwhile, although Chinatown quarters are cramped, there is strength in community. Families are tight-knit. All of life’s necessities lie within walking distance. Many of Chinatown's residents who have fled oppressive homelands will tell you that, in comparison, life is better here. They have food. They have shelter. They have choices. And they are content to remain.