"Life is about balance"

By Rev. Norman Fong

October 9, 2017

Growing up as a Chinatown kid in the 50’s, I was so happy. All of us kids who went to Jean Parker Elementary School (on Powell / Broadway) were from Chinatown or around the area. It was so safe back then that as a kid, we all walked to school ourselves.

It was a time of segregation so all us students were Chinese but the teachers were white. My mom & most of our relatives worked in a sewing factory on Pacific and Mason St. Later she worked for May Louie at the many curio shops on Grant Avenue. She loved working in Chinatown all her life and she was a very strong Christian and got me and my sister & brothers to go to church in Chinatown as well.

My dad worked in many restaurants then, but when he came from China in 1919 he was a farm worker like many Chinese who came to America back then. Did you know the Chinese did a lot of agricultural work in all of California (not just building the railroads & mining for gold). My dad faced much discrimination because it was during the Chinese Exclusion Act. I remember my dad saying to be careful when you bump into people of another race, but I didn’t worry about it at all.

However, when I got a little older, I had to go to Francisco Junior High and had to cross Columbus Street to walk to school. It was my first exposure to “racism”. As I was walking alone, I saw a group of boys (who were white) staring at me and I just smiled, then someone yelled “Let’s get the Chinaman” and they grabbed me and pulled me to a fence on Filbert St near Powell St (it was part of St. Peter’s & Paul Church across from Washington Square Park). They held my arms against the fence and the others threw Water Balloons at me. They had a whole bunch of water balloons in a back pack. I was used for target practice.

I was totally drenched and my innocent happy-go-lucky smile & life was gone. After they let my hands free, I remember clenching my fists and screaming at the top of my lungs like never before – I was filled with rage… They left after I screamed. I remember “Not Crying” and being filled with anger. I went back home and remember having one of the most serious talks in life with my mom which I appreciate more today than at the time. I said to my mom, “Why do Italians hate the Chinese?” My mom was so cool in her response. She said: “Not all Italians are bad. Did you know our landlord was an Italian and he has never raised our $90 a month rent for many many years. Remember this – Life is about BALANCE”.

Ironically, when I was graduating from Galileo High School, my mom showed me a letter and asked me what it meant. It was a Sheriff’s Notice saying that we were being EVICTED and we had 30 days to move out. A new Chinese Owner had bought the building and evicted all of us, my family, my auntie’s family downstairs and my uncle’s family living in the basement… 30 days to move out.

All my friends helped us move out and luckily, a member of my church & Cameron House, helped us find a new place to rent outside of Chinatown… but I will always remember my mom’s words about “Balance” and the nice old Italian man who never raised our rents for almost 2 decades.

I told this story to many people in North Beach where our Chinatown CDC main office is located. I mentioned to some of the Italian leadership – you beat me up when I was kid… Can we do something to promote positive relationships? I said I want Chinatown & North Beach to have a “Fair Fight” today! I want a Food Fight. Spaghetti versus Chow Mein. (This was all in fun)… and Supervisor Peskin & the North Beach Business Association, Chinatown CDC ended having the first “Noodlefest” on the Chinatown & North Beach sides of Grant Avenue! We did the Noodlefest for a few years… Yeah, Life is about Balance.

Pictured: Z&Y Restaurant, one of the Winners of the NoodleFest!

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on October 8, 2017

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