Walking into Woh Hei Yuen, my knowledge of Chinatown and its history was limited. I attribute this basic knowledge to my participation in Cameron House and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, where it is largely inevitable to spend as much time as I have in these establishments without understanding a little bit about Chinatown’s development, accomplishments, and struggle, both past and present. However, I had never delved more deeply into these stories I’ve been told by various older members of the community: the stories about the I-Hotel, Mei Lun Yuen, Ping Yuen’s, and other establishments or events essential to the understanding of this San Francisco neighborhood. I could recite basic chronological story-lines and main events related to the development and history of Chinatown, but I had far from a comprehensive understanding of causes, effects, and the impacts of certain events on the community. I recognized the historical importance of Chinatown and its incredibly unique background, but I was unaware of many of the efforts to establish the community as the cultural and economic hub that it is today.
I have participated in Chinatown CDC’s Urban Institute Program for two weeks now. Though my knowledge of Chinatown is still limited, with the help of Urban Institute I have begun to chip away at my naïveté and misunderstanding of the neighborhood, unveiling new interests as well as new questions.
My interest in Chinatown’s development and community is due to my participation in certain Chinatown developments, and my participation in these programs are due to my grandfather’s history as an immigrant to Chinatown. My grandfather, George Yee, immigrated to San Francisco as a paper son at the age of nine years old. Supporting himself throughout junior high, he worked long hours at a laundromat after school and often ate just gravy and rice during the day before coming home to an SRO. He found solace and community at Cameron House and also began to work odd jobs at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown on Stockton street. My grandpa never seemed to run out of stories about his experiences in an SRO- ones about the lack of space and subpar living conditions, but also the relationships he forged with other residents.
These stories had sparked my interest in SRO’s, but this curiosity was placed in the back of my mind. Because of this, one of my highlights in the Urban Institute Program was our visit to some of the different SRO buildings. Having the opportunity to see the type of conditions my grandfather lived in when he was even younger than I am was eye-opening. The poverty and lack of open space was evident as we looked into various open rooms. But my grandfather spoke of his strong relationships as outweighing his living conditions, and I recognized that though these SRO’s were small, they were still people’s beloved homes and communities. I greatly admire CCDC’s efforts to save the spaces that SRO residents lived in, as well as establish more forms of affordable housing. I’m excited to continue learning about affordable housing efforts, successes, and challenges as we progress in the Urban Institute program.
Another highlight was the Chinatown Alleyway Tour given to us by Maggie. I’ve walked through all of the alleyways we talked about multiple times, but I’ve never known about them from a historical perspective. I found Ross alleyway to be the most interesting because of its unexpected ominous history. I learned that Ross alley was notorious for gambling dens and brothels. Today, that history is unrecognizable as the tourist-popular and successful Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company and other businesses stand in its place. This goes to represent Chinatown’s general history— continuing to be an economic and cultural hub even through adversity.
I also found Malcom’s presentations on Chinatown’s economic development and current economic standing very interesting. I knew that businesses and people were being displaced, but I never knew to what extent this displacement had happened/ is happening. Malcom’s presentation and explanations of vacancy rates made me more aware of what is going on in our community. His photographical reports, which included pictures of streets and businesses in the past and in the present, gave a different perspective to the change and continuity of Chinatown. I agree with Malcome when he said, “Chinatown is not dying. Chinatown is under attack.” I look forward to learning even more about this unique neighborhood’s development, accomplishments, and struggles and Chinatown CDC’s Urban Institute looks promising in providing me with new experiences and that information.