By Rev. Norman Fong

October 2, 2017

As a youth growing up in Chinatown, I wasn’t sure if I would make it through my teen years without getting arrested. There were so much violence and gang fights during the late ‘60’s in Chinatown. Even my high school principal was stabbed at a school dance and I remember getting knocked over as the police rushed in… There were so many gangs back then. Our parents had to work long hours at the sewing factory or restaurants… so us Chinatown youth had a lot of time to get into trouble.

Luckily, there were youth agencies like Cameron House, Chinatown Youth Center, the YMCA… who really kept me and other youth from getting into too much trouble. These youth centers really do a great job getting youth to see life in a different way. Instead of being “destructive” why not do something “constructive” in life?

Rev. Norman Fong's son

In the ‘70’s & ‘80’s, I decided to become a youth leader and youth programs director at Donaldina Cameron House. I wanted youth to be proud of themselves and believe they really could make the world better. Starting the BAP Summer School, I remember going to all the junior high (ESL) classes to recruit the youth. At the time, I believed that youth might get in trouble if they had nothing to do and also, I wanted the youth to keep up with their studies during the summer. Of course, it was fun too. In the mornings, it was English class, social studies, “Chinese American History” but in the afternoon, it was “club time” where youth were assigned to groups where they would make friends and learn fun things like how to make ice cream or go on field trips. They also had group assignments like putting together a binder on Chinatown so they could learn our history and also where to get help and services for their parents.

In 1990, I joined the Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC), and decided to work on a brand new youth program to teach youth to care more about the community, and give them the opportunity to gain leadership skills. In 1991, the Adopt An Alleyway (AAA) youth project was born and still continues today! I started with just 8 youth from Galileo High School. I asked them; “What do you want to change in Chinatown?” The youth immediately agreed that Chinatown Alleyways were the worst. They smelled, there was garbage all over. Rats jumped in and out of these large metal garbage cans…

Adopt An Alleyway youth leaders clean up Walter U Lum Pl in Chinatown

Little did these 8 youth know, that they would be the beginning of a huge youth movement to improve Chinatown Alleyways forever! The youth adopted certain alleyways and first walked through them to “Grade them” like how they were graded in school by their teachers. From “A” to “F”, they graded each alleyway and listed the reasons why they got the rating. We had help from newspaper reporters that published their alleyway report card. Second, they had to organize Chinatown Alleyway Cleanups involving students from Galileo and other high schools. Still, Chinatown seemed to be so dirty. We found out that the city did not clean many of the Chinatown alleys because of a crazy reason that our alleyways were too narrow and did not fit the definition of a normal street which gets cleaned or “maintained”. I remember shouting, “this is institutional racism”. “Cars go through them, it is unfair that the responsibility should be the responsibility of the building owners”.

I remember a young college student that came into my office. She was writing her thesis on “Chinatown Alleyways” and studying to be an architect. Immediately, Chinatown CDC hired her to write the “Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan” which listed all the alleyways that needed renovation and was later adopted as a guide by the city.

In the past 26 years since AAA was born, I have been so proud of AAA and all of Chinatown CDC’s youth programs. I remember youth, who got in a little trouble like I did and whose lives changed through AAA. They have become community leaders themselves and will definitely succeed in life.

Most importantly, I remember my son, who also joined AAA where he learned to care for the community. One time, he had to lead activities for the youth and seniors living in an SRO. He stayed up all night to come up with the “Price is right” game, an activity where the seniors had to guess the cost of different household items. One senior loved my son so much, she wouldn’t let go of his hand! My son learned then and there, to care for the seniors who lived in the tiny rooms. He learned to care for both the alleyways and people of Chinatown. We have other youth programs too like Youth for SROs, the Campaign Academy and Chinatown Alleyway Tours (tours every Saturday at 11am).

president obama
Pictured: Rev. Norman Fong and former President Barack Obama


Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on October 1, 2017