The Flip Side of America

by Rev. Norman Fong

June 18, 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.

In 1939, Dr. Theodore Lee heard about First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting San Francisco and making a stop in Chinatown so he arranged for her to tour the living conditions of Chinatown. Mrs. Roosevelt saw the Nursery at the Chinatown YMCA and later wrote that “all the mothers have to work and so this school is a real help to them”. At that time, Chinatown had the highest infant mortality rate and the highest tuberculosis rate… and terrible housing conditions. Dr. Lee told Mrs. Roosevelt that the terrible living conditions contributed to the health sufferings of Chinatown residents and asked “could you tell your husband to do something about Chinatown’s housing situation?” Mrs. Roosevelt kept her promise and 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. Ping Yuen was built and opened in 1951, providing homes for Chinese-American veterans and later for low-income seniors and families.

Last weekend, I was so thrilled to meet Jane Sanders (the wife of Presidential Candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders) and gave her a personal tour of Chinatown! We visited several housing projects and I introduced her to Mrs. Chang Jok Lee, tenant leader for decades at the Ping Yuen. I told Mrs. Sanders the story of Eleanor Roosevelt in the hopes that maybe she would talk to her husband about helping Chinatown in the future - who knows what could happen?!

Jane Sanders saw for herself families living in a Single Room Occupancy building and then met with former SRO Families and former homeless adults that we now house in a Chinatown CDC building. She took the time to meet with the Community Tenants Association to hear all their personal stories and concerns. Some shared their experience of being threatened by Ellis Act evictions and others shared their concerns about housing in San Francisco that is already subsidized and is still not affordable to the very low income who live on fixed incomes! Additional subsidies are needed so these seniors can qualify to live in affordable housing.

The concern for immigrant communities felt by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s and Jane Sanders in 2019 provides us with a ray of hope for a better future and ending anti-immigrant policies.

On June 10th, I joined others in Washington DC to protest a new White House administrative ruling that would expand the types of public benefits that would not be accessible to those considered a “public charge” (a term used by U.S. immigration officials to refer to a person who is considered primarily dependent on the government for subsistence). This would include subsidized housing! It’s like going back to the old days when certain ethnic groups, including the Chinese, were not allowed to access anything funded by the government. Today, the anti-immigrant sentiment in our country has caused many immigrants and refugees from using public benefits out of fear of being deported or their relatives being denied entry into the U.S.

congresswoman barbara lee
Group photo with Congresswoman Barbara Lee

group photo in front of the capitol
Group photo in front of the U.S. Capitol building

congressman mike honda
Congressman Mike Honda

eddy zheng
Eddy Zheng

congressman mike honda
Congressman Mike Honda

Back in D.C. I loved the unity and solidarity with representatives from the Congressional Asian, Black and Latino caucuses on this issue. They spoke out on the devastating effects this could cause to families already living here and they highlighted the important contributions being made in this country by immigrants.

On a personal note, I feel there has always been TWO Americas. One America believes that we are all a nation of immigrants (like John F Kennedy wrote); it’s the “America the Beautiful” side. The other side of America is very UGLY and one that considers immigrants as “Monsters” who get blamed and scapegoated whenever there are economic, political or social problems.

seattle director

Everyone who lives in America should have access to health care and other public services without being labeled a “Public Charge”. There are times when everyone needs a little help. GET READY EVERYBODY, WE HAVE TO FIGHT AGAIN, TO KEEP AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL!

Here at Chinatown CDC with so many immigrant families and seniors from around the world, I always start their meetings by having them turn to the person on their left and right and say: You’re beautiful! The seniors laugh at me all the time when I do that. Whenever we can, we need to uplift the “America the Beautiful” side of our country in our communities. But, we also need to stand up when the “Ugly” side arises. “Stay Beautiful!”


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