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  • Writer's pictureKathy Chin Leong

YMCA Chinatown

Immigrant parents must have scratched their heads in disbelief when their kids asked permission to go camping in the woods with the YMCA. In rural China, only beggars slept on the ground. And when their children decided to run in the YMCA Chinatown marathon, the folks would wonder incredulously, “What are you running from?”

Certainly, it was the Chinatown YMCA that put the American in the American-born Chinese with activities the older generation never heard of. Father-son banquets, harmonica choirs, drum and bugle corps, Easter breakfasts and Christmas caroling. For these youth, laughter-filled club meetings and campfire songs played significant roles in developing lifelong bonds of friendship.

Founded by local church leaders in 1911, the Chinatown YMCA was more than a gymnasium for residents of an impacted neighborhood. It was a haven of safety, recreation, and vitality. This was the home-away-from-home for children and teens who had little to do after school and on weekends. The myriad of athletic teams, service clubs, dances, and campouts were created to foster spiritual, moral, intellectual and physical well-being among students who were forming their bi-cultural identities. At home they would speak Chinese to their parents, and at school, they spoke English.

The YMCA proved essential in the lives of young men. In 1923, board member Yong Kay drove across the country to 43 Chinese communities to solicit donations for its first building on 855 Sacramento Street.

Early on, the Chinatown YMCA was open to boys only, and in addition to sports, they learned woodworking and drafting skills and participated in Bible studies and revival meetings. By the 1950s, the Y sponsored its first girls club called the Sophisticates which gathered on Friday nights for skits and games. “I remember loving our midnight snacks after the meetings,” says Judy Wong Sing Bratton in the book The Chinatown Y. “We would go out to Jackson’s or Nam Yuen or even Sam Wo to have noodles or waffles before walking each other home.”

For over a century, generations of YMCA-ers have passed through these doors. In 2010, it opened its new 41,000-square-foot facility with a salt-water swimming pool, kitchen, gym, and plenty of spaces for club meetings, tutoring, and performances. The new Y seeks to meet the deepest needs of Chinatown through its food pantry program, English and Chinese translation services, teen leadership, wellness programs for all ages, and more.

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