I went to San Francisco for a very quick work trip, visiting the set of my Christmas movie. I was excited, but also really nervous. Throughout the pandemic, it seems like San Francisco and the Bay Area have become a massive danger zone, especially if you're Asian. Since I was only bringing a carry on, I realized I wasn't going to be able to bring my pepper spray, and I worried. Thankfully, I also have a self-defense alarm and I also thought about how my big heavy water bottle could also serve as a weapon if needed. This may seem overdramatic, but I was very concerned about being Asian and a woman, walking around this once charming city.
Well, I can tell you now that the city is still charming, and though it's still important to be cautious and attacks against Asians are still a regular occurrence, I found that especially in Chinatown, I felt safe. And Chinatown looked more beautiful than ever.
I hadn't been back to San Francisco since the pandemic, and since the pandemic, I've learned more about Asian American history, especially as it relates to San Francisco and Chinatown. There's really no San Franciscan history without Asian American history. And a part of our Christmas movie is specifically set in Chinatown, to bring love, light, and joy to this part of the city that is so rich in culture and history.
So, I was really excited to spend my short amount of free time in the city, roaming Chinatown. Growing up, I had in my mind that Chinatown was dirty and crowded, and just a place we went to eat Chinese food. As an adult now, I'm not sure if that were true or if somehow that image was implanted in my head as a child. Back in the late 19th century and early 20th century, that's exactly what the media and white Americans did - they made out Chinatown to be this dirty, filthy place to try to drive business out. So, I have to wonder if that imagery continued to plague Chinatown and somehow made it into my mind as a child.
Anyhow, this time walking through Chinatown with a new appreciation, I found it to be safe, clean, and beautiful. There are so many vibrant murals that add to Chinatown's incredible energy, and I loved seeing a group of elderly Chinese men and women playing traditional Chinese instruments out on the street. I also got some tasty popcorn chicken handed to me in a paper bag with wooden skewers (now that's legit). I was so happy walking through Chinatown and enjoying the sites. I felt as much at home as I did a tourist, especially since most shop owners in Chinatown speak Toisanese or Cantonese, so I was unable to communicate with them. But that was the whole point of Chinatown when it was rebuilt after the big 1906 earthquake and the city continued to try drive out the Chinese Americans. It was made to be a tourist attraction, and something not quite Chinese and not quite "American." Before that, it just looked like the rest of San Francisco.
When I mentioned to my aunt how safe it felt there, she told me that that's because shop owners got together to teach and learn kung fu to help defend each other. And there are also groups that patrol the streets. Nothing, or not enough, was being done to prevent the violent anti-Asian attacks that kept occurring, so the community had to band together to defend itself.
Hearing this made me a little teary-eyed (still does as I think about it), but it also makes me incredibly proud of the community. People don't realize that Chinatown has a history of incredible resilience. So it should be no surprise that Chinatown is thriving. And clearly I needed that reminder, too.
When you have chance, definitely visit SF's Chinatown, but also visit your own Chinatown. There's more to Chinatown than Chinese food and souvenir stores.
Been to a Chinatown recently? What has your experience been like?