Presidential Candidate's Wife Gets to Know Chinatown

by Rev. Norman Fong

June 10, 2019

norman fong

Did you know that it was a United States President’s Wife that helped Chinatown get it’s first Public Housing project which we all call the Ping Yuen? If you didn’t know, Chinatown Community Leaders back in the late 1930’s tried to get government assisted funds to build public housing for Chinatown. However, at that time, there was still the “Chinese Exclusion Act” and many state and local laws discriminated against all Chinese. The community had to find a way to get around all these anti-Chinese laws.

eleanor roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1939, Dr. Theodore Lee (who was in the restaurant business back then), heard about the President’s wife coming to visit San Francisco and possibly coming to eat in Chinatown. He got her to tour the living conditions of Chinatown. Eleanor Roosevelt was taken to see the Nursery at the Chinatown YMCA. She wrote that “all the mothers had to work and so this school is a real help to them” . In 1938, Chinatown had the highest infant mortality rate, the highest tuberculosis rate… and terrible housing conditions. Doctor Lee told Eleanor Roosevelt that this terrible living conditions contributed to the sufferings of poor babies and others and asked “Could she tell her husband to do something about our Chinatown Housing Situation." The First Lady said she would talk to her husband – The President.

Eleanor did indeed talk to her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, and on October 30, 1939, he created the “Chinatown Housing Bill” which allocated $1,365,000 for housing to serve Chinatown. Ultimately, over the years, this funding bill led to the development of the first Public Housing project (the Ping Yuen) to serve the Chinese Community in the country! (Although it had to be segregated housing serving primarily Chinese American Veterans and their families).

jane sanders norman fong ping yuen jane kim
Jane Sanders and Jane Kim

mrs lee jane sanders ping yuen
Jane Sanders and Mrs. Lee

Last weekend, I was so thrilled to take Jane Sanders (the wife of Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders) around Chinatown to visit various housing projects. It was former Supervisor Jane Kim that asked me to lead this tour which included Chinatown CDC buildings. Of course, I had to bring her to meet with Mrs. Chang Jok Lee, tenant leader for decades at the Ping Yuen. I told Mrs. Sanders the story of Eleanor Roosevelt hoping that maybe she could talk to her husband about helping Chinatown Housing in the future. Who knows?

jane sanders former sro tenant
Jane Sanders visits former SRO tenant

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Mrs. Chang Jok Lee

Jane Sanders also took the time to visit a Chinatown Single Room Occupancy (with kids and babies too) and visited former SRO Families and Homeless that we now house in a Chinatown CDC building. What was more amazing, she took the time to meet with the Community Tenants Association (CTA) at New Asia Restaurant to hear all their stories and she asked what were their concerns. I was so deeply impressed with her concerns about housing and seniors too. Mr. Leung and Mrs. Lee shared Mr. Leung’s experience of being threatened by Ellis Act evictions and their struggles for housing justice. CTA shared their concerns for seniors that cannot afford to live in government supported buildings. Most of the housing are not affordable to the very low income who live on fixed incomes. CTA said our seniors need more subsidies to even qualify to live in affordable housing.

jane sanders cta community tenants association
Jane Sanders and Community Tenants Association

This coming week, I am joining others to fly all the way to Washington D.C. to fight against a new White House administrative ruling that discourages immigrants from using “Public Benefits”. It’s like going back to the old days when various groups including the Chinese could not use anything funded by the government. People are afraid to use public benefits now for fear that their relatives may be denied entry into the U.S. Some immigrants and refugees fear that they could be deported for using public benefits. This president is trying to scare all immigrants and divide our communities unless they look like him. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Sanders care for immigrant communities like Chinatown and beyond. This President (who seeks to create more anti-immigrant policies) could learn a lot from them.

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on June 9, 2019

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