Norman. Norman. Norman. Rock musician. Ordained minister. Elder champion. Affordable housing crusader.
Sixty-something Norman Fong, the former executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center knows what it is like to be nearly homeless. The third-generation Chinatown kid grew up with his three siblings under the protective wing of both parents. Norman’s mother was born and raised in Chinatown in 1919. That same year, his father, who was older, came through Angel Island during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Young Norman would always regard his mom as a woman who was as tough as nails and deep in faith. But, as the story goes, one day, Norman (a teenager at the time) came home from school and saw his mother shaking with a letter in hand. The letter was a notice of eviction from the landlord.
In 30 days, the family would be required to leave the little apartment they called home for 18 years. When he told the youth group staff at the Donaldina Cameron House, they sprung to action and helped to relocate them into another apartment so they were never homeless for a single day.
Events such as these have shaped Norman’s attitude and outlook. When he was a child, older Chinese adults would tell Norman repeatedly never to venture outside Chinatown or he might get beat up. So what did he do? His curiosity led him to meander past Columbus Avenue beyond the quarter’s invisible borders into the Italian neighborhood of North Beach. And yes, those legends were true. A gang of tough high school boys tied him to a fence and hurled water balloons at him until he was soaked to the bone. The humiliation resulted in a trauma that would sear him for a lifetime, but would be used as a turnaround tale for the good of the community.
Years later when he was deputy director of the CCDC, he told the bullying story to the North Beach leaders and merchants who were embarrassed and humbled after listening to him. But he offered an olive branch between Chinatown and North Beach and challenged both communities to a contest, a contest to see which had the best noodle or pasta dish. It actually came down to a Noodle Fest in 2010 where judges would vote for the best Chinese noodle and best Italian pasta dish to keep everything friendly. “My dream was to get the cultures to get along better, set a model of collaboration on what we have in common rather than what divides us,” he said earlier in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.
Norman admits that he could have become negative and bitter and chosen a life in the bad lane. He was, after all, somewhat of a rascal. In the 1960s, as a child, Norman attended Chinese classes at his mother’s church every day after school and, more than once, got into trouble for “mouthing off.” He recalls, “One time, my friend and I talked a little too much. The principal often wacked our hands with a ruler or feather stick, and this time my friend got hit so hard that the stick broke! I was next, ready to get hit, and the principal smiled and tapped my hand lightly saying ‘I know your mom who always comes to church’… Thanks Mom!”
Knowing that young people are capable of doing great things, in 1991 he launched the Adopt-an-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project, a program where he challenged teens to serve the Chinese community in Chinatown rather than focus on being served. That campaign to clean up alleyways of Chinatown was a hit, and today, the City of San Francisco is involved in providing the funding and resources to make sure there is proper drainage, lighting, street cleaning, and plantings to make the alleys attractive and safe places to walk and live.
Up until his retirement, he has overseen over 34 single-renter occupancy properties in the CCDC portfolio, many in Chinatown, but also in North Beach, Tenderloin, South of Market districts and others. Collectively, the SROs house some 4,500 seniors, single adults, children and parents. The work he has achieved in keeping Chinatown a neighborhood that strives to support and maintain affordable housing is hailed by other communities in the country. Other urban centers want to emulate the CCDC model.
His work has not gone unnoticed. In 2013, he received the White House Champion of Change award, given to select citizens making a difference in their communities.
Then more recently in 2018, he was honored with the San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Distinguished Alumni Award. “Norman has demonstrated over the decades that church and society can work closely together in creating change,” says friend Rev. Harry Chuck, who put forth Norman’s name as a nominee.
CCDC’s former executive director still takes on gigs for his 50-year-old dance band Jest Jammin’, works with SRO apartment residents, and preaches at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown. The guy appears indefatigable. “While Norman is close to what most would consider retirement age, he is still going strong,” Chuck says. “Hardly a week goes by when he doesn’t remind us of our own potential as Christ’s messengers of love and justice.”