Chinatown Rising

by Rev. Norman Fong

May 20, 2019

norman fong

There was a film documentary about Chinatown which showed for the very first time on May 9th at the CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) Film Festival. Rev. Harry Chuck, who was my former boss at Cameron House, showed off footage of Chinatown’s history since 1969 that no one has ever seen before! His son, Joshua helped his dad in putting together these old film clips into a powerful documentary. As I watched it, I felt really proud of our community’s long struggle to get housing into Chinatown and other efforts to improve Chinatown over the past 50 years.

In the film, Rev. Chuck interviewed many Chinatown leaders who were involved in various issues such as the Third World Strike at SF State University that ended up creating the first Asian American ethnic studies program, the fight to save the International Hotel, and the activism needed to build the Mei Lun Yuen Housing project across the street from Cameron House. What I loved the most was seeing the hundreds of seniors together with us young people back then united to advocate for Chinatown Housing. After watching the film (there were 1,400 of us) many of the young watching said they didn’t know about this history. They didn’t know that we had to fight to save Chinese Playground or the I-Hotel … They didn’t know how hard Chinatown had to advocate for so many housing sites in Chinatown and for our own civil rights.

activisim chinatown rising

chinatown rising

norman fong gen fujioka

As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I recently found a very old picture of some of us from San Francisco standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. joining with other Asian Pacific American leaders from across the country. We all wanted our country to appreciate our communities more and acknowledge our needs as well. This year, the focus was on the 150 years of the Chinese contributions to building the railroad. Wow! Imagine how much the Chinese suffered to build the train tunnels (by hand) through the Sierra mountains. Our history was acknowledged a bit more this year but we still have a long ways to go. My friends even dressed up as Chinese Railroad workers and pretended to hammer in a fake Golden Spike to highlight the Chinese being ignored in the past.

150th transcontinental railroad
150th anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad

150th transcontinental railroad

We can no longer be ignored, especially here in California. My friend Steven Lee and many others have been working for years now to create a monument and place to honor the Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers in the Sacramento Area. Temporarily, the monument honoring the 15,000 Chinese workers and the 1,200 who died building it can be viewed at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. I am so happy that this generation can benefit from our history being acknowledged today. Thanks to all the folks who are now working to ensure that our history will never be forgotten again.

Now, to all you young people out there, “Honor your parents, grandparents and great grandparents…” and talk to them now, to learn about their histories. Who knows, maybe you have an ancestor who worked on the railroads? Most importantly, get involved with the community! Actively learn about our Chinatown History. Volunteer somewhere for the community, so that you can educate others about our Chinese American or Asian American contributions to San Francisco, California, the United States, the civil rights movements… As a youth, I didn’t have ethnic studies or the internet. Don’t laugh at me, but we didn’t even have cell phones. Today, there’s no excuse for not learning about our collective history. My son volunteered to help both seniors and youth cleaning up Chinatown. It really touched his heart to be there especially with the seniors living in Chinatown’s many lonely single rooms. Today, we have the same SROs, and many seniors and families in need. I hope Chinatown Rising is not just about the past, but inspiration for our future.

steven lee monument chinese transcontinental railroad workers sacramento
California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, CA

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on May 19, 2019

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