Chapter 1 Stories
The Wok Shop
“A wok is like a woman,” grins Tane Chan. “The older, the better!” According to the owner of the Wok Shop on Grant Avenue, the steel wok is the most versatile, practically indestructible cooking utensil there is. “It will last you a lifetime. If it rusts, you can scrub it off. Aging makes it better. It is supposed to discolor. You can steam in it, deep fry, poach, boil, stir-fry…poor Chinese villagers in the old days had one pan, the wok, and it did everything.”
Tane is Chinatown’s wok ambassador, who has been sharing her passion and knowledge since 1972 when she started the business. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tane settled in San Francisco and started the Yum Yum Gift Store in Chinatown in 1968. It became the Wok Shop after President Richard Nixon’s famous trip to China, which opened up trade relations with the US. According to Tane, media coverage exposed the American public to wok cooking for the first time. Fascinated tourists began asking Tane questions about the mysterious wook, and she would happily correct them saying, “It’s wok, like walk in the park.”
The narrow wok jungle is packed with every size of wok imaginable. They are hanging from the rafters, lining the walls, and stacked on tables. Recipe books, bamboo steamers, spatulas, and wok-related implements share space with colorful paper lanterns and a giant replica of the Golden Gate Bridge in the back. When she is not downstairs packaging woks for online orders, Tane is advising customers on how to season and care for their pans. For now, retirement is not in her vocabulary. “I love what I do,” the eighty-year-old stresses. “I have good rapport with my customers, and they become friends. Plus, I like telling them all my wokking jokes.”
The pulsating beat of Chinese music blares with militaristic fervor. Xumin Liu, donning a golden headdress and grimacing face mask, sweeps across the restaurant, flinging his red cape so fiercely that patrons at Z & Y Restaurant duck to avoid getting smacked in the face. The choreography is swift and precise. With one swish of Xumin’s fan, the lemon-colored mask magically changes to indigo.
This is bian lian, or face changing, an ancient art form that started in the Sichuan province for the distinctive Sichuan opera more than three centuries ago. In the US, bian lian is rarely seen. The instantaneous swapping of masks is deceptive and astonishing, a secret that families pass down only to heirs. Few can master this feat whereby the performer wears a multilayered mask and somehow pulls a hidden trigger to reveal a new “face.” Each expression indicates a mood of the opera character.
Thirty-six-year-old Xumin Liu was trained under bian lian master Shimen Lu more than a decade ago. Master Lu saw his potential when Xumin was entertaining masses at a kung fu tea performance, another revered art form that involves pouring a stream of hot water from an extra-long-spouted copper kettle into a tea cup.
When Z & Y Restaurant owner and chef Li Jun Han was looking for a way to showcase the Sichuan culture at his eatery, he immediately thought of bian lian and convinced Xumin, a native of Sichuan, to come to San Francisco in 2018. On specific days, the performer dazzles audiences with his kung fu tea martial arts skills and face-changing abilities at both Z & Y and Chili House SF, chef Han’s Peking duck restaurant in the nearby Richmond district.
Chinese Historical Society of America
When Chinese American Wong Kim Ark returned to the US from visiting his parents overseas, immigration officials blocked his entry only because he was Chinese. This humiliating act was a clear breach of the Fourteenth Amendment, but with widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, it seemed acceptable to the public in the late 1800s. Nonetheless, he refused to accept this injustice and was awarded victory after taking the issue up to the US Supreme Court.
The Chinese immigration story juxtaposed with current events comes alive at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) museum. Eavesdrop on an Angel Island interrogation during which authorities pummeled Chinese with difficult questions designed to halt their immigration. View a dollhouse miniature of a crammed SRO apartment with rice cooker and half-smoked cigarettes. The mural near the entry shows where it all began in Guangdong, at the Port of Canton where ships carried peasants to Gum San, Gold Mountain, America’s nickname.
Through exhibits, films, books, and lectures, the CHSA tells it like it is. Founded in 1963, the organization was the first to promote the legacy and contributions of the Chinese in the US.
On the walls are watercolor paintings of early Chinese workers in America by the late Jake Lee. These were rescued through the efforts of then CHSA executive director Sue Lee (no relation). Back in 1959, the sophisticated Kan’s Restaurant commissioned the Chinese American artist to paint twelve pieces for the dining room. Years after the restaurant changed hands, the masterpieces disappeared. After much sleuthing and fundraising, Sue Lee has reunited all the pieces; some are on loan, and others are owned by the museum.
Poised for another decade, under the executive directorship of Tamiko Wong, the museum will continue to tell more fascinating stories and unleash more innovative programming, relevant not just to Chinese Americans but to all.
Hak Soon Kim’s pained expression evokes a mother’s suffering. Comfort Women: Column of Strength is a group of life-sized sculptures, one being an image of Hak herself, who in 1991 was the first sex slave survivor to speak out publicly. She gazes up at a trio of young women with joined hands, representing Korea, China, and the Philippines. The monument tells the story of the "Comfort Women,” a euphemism for the young women from thirteen Asian countries who were coerced into serving as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces soldiers before and after World War II, from 1931 to 1945.
Erected in 2017, the monument stands in the annex of St. Mary’s Square on the edge of Chinatown. It leaves a lingering effect on passersby, and a nearby placard summarizes this ugly historical truth. In 1991, thirty-seven women’s groups from Korea boldly came forward, bringing the issue to light. The wartime atrocities are estimated to have impacted hundreds of thousands of women and girls throughout Asia when Japanese soldiers occupied these countries. During that time, many of the enslaved died during captivity.
After the two-year, $205,000 project was unveiled to the public, San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka, Japan, was so incensed by the sculpture that it cut off its sixty-year relationship. San Francisco city leaders refused to remove the memorial, however, agreeing that wartime sex trafficking is a crime against humanity. Sculpted by artist Stephen Whyte, the memorial is a project commissioned by the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, which calls for an end to sex trafficking, exploitation, and all violence against women.
Chapter 2 Stories
Single Room Occupancy (SRO)
This ninety-year-old grandmother is so ill, she cannot muster the strength to walk. Living in a single-room apartment with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, all make room for her to sleep on the lower bunk while they cram onto the upper bed or stay the night with relatives elsewhere in the building. Meanwhile, she cannot get to a doctor because she can’t make it down the several flights of stairs.
Her family is grieved. When the daughter-in-law spies Rev. Norman Fong in the hallway, she pleads with him to visit. Fong is not only a pastor but also the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, which oversees many of the single-room-occupancy (SRO) apartments in Chinatown. As he sits on the edge of the bed, he quietly holds the grandmother’s hands in his and whispers a prayer only she can hear. Her furrowed brow relaxes, and she utters a soft thank you for his kindness.
Across America in the nineteenth century, residential hotels were built to house the working class. They were known as flophouses and tenements. SRO apartments is the official name, and they still exist in high-density urban centers. Of the sixty-two hundred units of housing available in Chinatown, 52 percent are SROs, with rents as low as $250 a month.
In Chinatown, the most famous SRO was the doomed International Hotel, where, on August 4, 1977, two thousand housing activists linked arms to block the eviction of its mainly Filipino and Chinese residents. Police avoided the protestors and entered the building via the rooftop. The building was eventually demolished, but in 2005, advocates joined together to have the International Hotel rebuilt. It opened as an SRO complex with eighty-eight studios and sixteen one-bedroom units for low-income seniors.
As superintendent of the Occidental Mission Home for Girls, founded in 1874, Donaldina Cameron was a relentless crusader who, with her team, rescued as many as three thousand women and girls from sex trafficking and domestic slavery in Chinatown. With an uncanny quiet demeanor, she joined police on brothel raids and faced death threats from those opposed to her work.
Later renamed Donaldina Cameron House, the red brick sanctuary on 920 Sacramento Street was the place where Cameron introduced the young women to the Christian faith and taught them life skills. Today, Cameron House is a lifeline for more than a thousand low-income residents, offering Chinese-language cancer support groups, food pantry services, computer classes, family counseling, after-school programming, and parenting workshops.
The impact on young lives has been immeasurable, as staff empower kids during weekly clubs, summer camps, and sports programs. Laurene Chan’s parents met at Cameron House as teenagers. Today she works as director of youth ministries. Socially isolated children have blossomed with confidence. Says Laurene, “I see miracles of transformation every day. When I can, I tell each of them, ‘You are a person of great value.’”
Martin Ko, now a business manager at Alibaba, affirms that his leadership skills first developed at Cameron House. Martin attended Cameron House summer camps as a youth. By the time he entered high school, he and the other teens led the program. “We had a planning meeting every week to organize activities. We planned out the supplies we needed and the bus routes to take,” he recalls. “We were doing planning logistics, and we didn’t even know it. We had to make sure everyone stayed on track, from leading games to making sure the kids all washed their hands. It was exhausting, but it was a great time.”
Grant Avenue Follies
From 1936 to 1970, Chinatown nightlife thrived. Well-heeled patrons, even Hollywood elite including Ronald Reagan and Bob Hope, converged for shows and drinks at exquisite nightclubs featuring Chinese American performers. Honey-tongued musicians sang like Frank Sinatra, and dancers swept across the dance floor with the grace of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Once the era ceased, the performers had to retire—or did they?
In 2003, former dancer Cynthia Yee reunited with three of her peers to form the Grant Avenue Follies. By this time, the women were in their sixties, but they still had the moves. Plus, their doctors told them they needed to exercise to stay healthy. They performed at senior day-care facilities, later at corporations and charity benefits. The four professional members added women to the ensemble who had the desire but no experience. A retired college professor joined at age seventy. “She’s having the time of her life,” says Cynthia, the group leader. Although in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, Follies dancers are as active as ever, performing in three or more shows a month. Led by a professional choreographer, twice-weekly rehearsals last three hours, equivalent to a strenuous workout.
More popular than ever, the twelve-member sisterhood is booking gigs around the globe. The troupe went to Havana, Cuba, as a cultural exchange where they met elderly Chinese Cubans of the Lung Kong Association. The Grant Avenue Follies, including ninety-two-year-old Coby Yee, tap-danced and sang, never missing a beat, even in the pouring rain.
According to Cynthia, this second phase of her dancing career is not that different compared to prior years. She still needs to rehearse, put on makeup and costumes, and go on the road. “Our audiences are older than before, and we are all getting a big kick out of the whole thing.”
At the cusp of twilight on Lake Merced, a twenty-person crew is plying the water, paddling in unison. A drummer at the front pounds rhythmically while the steering leader, the cox, controls from the rear. The dragon boat seems to glide effortlessly, but these two-hour drills require tremendous power, dexterity, and endurance. Participation is not for the faint of heart.
For these teen boys and girls from Community Youth Center (CYC), dragon-boat racing is a game changer. That powerful sense of belonging, the responsibility, and the physical discipline shield them from activities that might otherwise do them harm. Stories of how the sport and the accountability saved them from gangs, drugs, cutting, and self-mutilation are not uncommon.
Henry Ha, CYC program manager, was one of those at-risk youth who found support. As an immigrant attending Galileo High School, he recalls that there was little for him to do after school, and it would have been easy to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. That’s when the CYC staff encouraged him and others to start a dragon-boat team in 2001. Since then, more than one thousand youth have benefited from CYC’s dragon-boat experience. As a coach, Henry knows each student by name and challenges them to attend every practice, rain or shine.
“This program fuels my passion and commitment to give back all that I've learned to the next generation,” says Henry. “It gives them encouragement to be their best, build up their self-esteem and confidence, and develop leadership.”
Unlike official school teams that require tryouts, CYC accepts everyone who applies. The practices, uniforms, and boat use are completely free. CYC, serving as a community nonprofit for fifty years, is open to helping all, but specifically targets high-need, at-risk Asian youth, providing an array of services from counseling to teaching job readiness skills.
Chapter 3 Stories
It was the lion that got back its roar. A dilapidated lion head costume in the garage of his martial arts teacher caught Corey Chan’s eye. Or maybe it beckoned him. At that moment, he was intrigued with the idea of bringing it back to life, so he took it home and transformed it into something exquisite. Since that first resurrection in 1978, the lion head restorer has rescued dozens.
Approximately the size of a thirty-inch ball, lion heads are made in China and range from $400 to $2,000. Acrobats performing the ancient lion dance mimic the animal scratching, jumping, and licking its fur. Lion heads can last for several years or break after one performance. The bulbous blinking eyes, gaping mouth, and flapping ears are manipulated by hidden strings, which can fray and snap. Thin layers of paper, painted to a glossy sheen, cover the bamboo and wire armature, and can be easily punctured.
Accessories such as metal disks, silk balls, fringe, and fake fur give them personalities. The heads weigh only five to eight pounds, but feel heavy in the arms of an amateur. “Without training, you cannot last the length of a parade. You can get tired after a few minutes,” Corey explains. “You are not just walking around with it on. You must make it look and act like a live creature.”
Each cat comes to Corey with its own set of problems. Corey replaces inferior parts. He strengthens the controls operating eyelids and ears. “It is like bringing memories back to the lion head,” he says. “You can almost feel the gratitude of the lion, and it knows people will see it perform again. Even if I don’t know all the stories associated with the lion, it will have the opportunities to create new ones.”
Winning the 2019 Miss Chinatown U.S.A. competition was the proverbial dream come true for Katherine Wu. But it wasn’t her only dream. The world-ranked athlete from San Francisco practiced archery up to five hours a day, aiming for a spot on the Olympic team. And when she visited schools and read books to preschoolers, the goodwill ambassador seized the chance to tell children, “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”
To be eligible for the coveted crown, every applicant must be between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six, and of Chinese descent. Past honorees include a tech entrepreneur, an Emmy-winning TV journalist, and a software engineer. Rose Chung, the 1982 Miss Chinatown U.S.A., was born and raised in the neighborhood. “You can imagine me being the poor girl fantasizing about the life of Miss Chinatown,” she said in an interview for the Chinese Historical Society of America. “It changed my life. I have never had a boring day in my life.”
Chinese American beauty pageants date back to 1915. The contests were held in great esteem by the community because, for a season, the Miss America pageant was open only to those “of good health and of the white race.” The rule would not be revoked until 1940. But even then, Chinese women were hesitant to enter.
By 1953, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce created the Miss Chinatown contest for local participants. Five years later, the chamber renamed it Miss Chinatown U.S.A. for Chinese women all over the country. The winner receives $10,000 in cash and makes appearances as a cultural ambassador. “The moment I was crowned Miss Chinatown U.S.A.,” says Katherine, the 2019 queen, “it was no longer about me. It’s about inspiring others to be the best selves they can be.”
Green Street Mortuary Band
It is a familiar sight and sound in Chinatown. The uniformed marching band playing soulful hymns. The rolling rat-tat-tat of the snare drum. The photo of the deceased on the roof of a custom-built Cadillac. For more than a century, funeral bands have led processions for Chinese families honoring loved ones with a final farewell.
When author Amy Tan’s mother, Daisy Tan, passed away, Amy requested the band to play Daisy Bell on every corner in Chinatown. “It was marvelous,” recalls Lisa Pollard, the band leader for over twenty-five years. “We are lucky and feel honored to be a part of this beautiful, honorable tradition.”
The beloved institution started in 1911 when Chinatown shop owner Wilson Wong formed the Cathay Boys Band made up of Chinese and Anglo-American boys. They performed before adoring crowds throughout San Francisco and were soon asked to play at Chinatown funerals. By the mid-1950s, however, the group disbanded.
In 1992, manager Clifford Yee from the Green Street Mortuary in North Beach approached jazz musician Lisa Pollard with the opportunity to start a funeral band. She convinced trumpeter and musical arranger John Coppola to be its first musical director. The working partnership between Lisa and John happily turned into a marital one. Years later, Lisa took the reins after her husband passed away.
The ten-member Green Street Mortuary Band has faithfully kept to its mission of offering comfort and closure. Clad in a uniform of military caps with gold trim, crisp white shirts, and black suits, the band plays a variety of music. Hymns, classics, and the occasional Chinese folk song permeate Chinatown’s streets. “There is a lot of love in what we do,” says Lisa. “Our musicianship elevates the service into something singularly special for the family.”
No color compares to the auspiciousness of red in Chinese culture. The color of success, the color of wealth, the color of happiness, the color of longevity—it is a catch-all for everything good in life. That is why the Chinese money envelopes, known as hung bao, are red.
According to one Chinese myth, a monster would come out annually before Chinese New Year, devouring livestock and people. To combat this rampage, the villagers set out red firecrackers and red lanterns to scare it away. The deafening racket and threatening color stopped the monster from appearing again, and the tradition of lighting firecrackers and hanging red lanterns carries through to today.
The red-envelope history stems from the early dynasties of China when currency came in the form of coins with square holes in the center. During Chinese New Year, families gave out a chain of coins tied together with a red string. Later, when bills were printed, it only made sense that red envelopes were used to hold the paper money.
Today, red envelopes signify wishes for blessing and prosperity. Chinese married couples distribute hung bao to elderly parents, single siblings, and children during Chinese New Year. Notes must be new and crisp, never used. In China and Hong Kong, employers hand out envelopes to their staff. Friends may even distribute them among peers. Guests typically give newlyweds a red envelope embossed with the double happiness character. Hung bao as baby gifts and birthday presents are also appropriate.
And when Chinese aren’t sure of what type of gift to buy, a red envelope stuffed with cash always seems to save the day.