Grading and Preparing Chinatown

Norman Fong

Norman was recognized as a White House Champion of Change in Community Resilience and Preparedness. 

Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, my family and I faced many challenges related to poverty and race.  As a teenager, I had a lot of energy but didn’t always know how to channel it.  I could have easily taken a more destructive path, but through a summer jobs program (EOC) at a Chinatown settlement house and church, I was provided with positive and constructive alternatives.  This settlement house was working to preserve 186 units of housing at the corner of Stockton and Sacramento Streets—Mei Lun Yuen Apartments—which would become the first low income redevelopment project in Chinatown.  I thought every church did this type of social advocacy work, which inspired me to become a pastor and influence community development in the future.

Returning home from school one afternoon my mother handed me a letter she had received.  It was an eviction notice saying we would have to vacate in 30 days. Luckily, a member of the settlement house helped us find other housing.  I was also present at the eviction of elderly tenants from the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown, protesting their forced removal from their homes.  Today, at Chinatown Community Development Center we continue to fight morally indefensible evictions of seniors, disabled and low income residents, many who have lived in their homes for decades.  For many residents in the San Francisco community and throughout the nation, the fear of not having a place to live is a very real and pressing concern.  To this day, I still remember the look of fear in my mother’s eyes as we faced eviction and possible homelessness.  As Executive Director at Chinatown CDC, I work to ensure that my family’s experience will never happen to anyone again, and to eradicate those feelings of dread, despair, and hopelessness from the Chinatown community forever.  Chinatown CDC continues to build and rehabilitate affordable housing and we currently have about 2300 units of housing in our portfolio to date.

Shortly after I started as Director of Programs at Chinatown CDC in 1990, I went to back to my old high school (Galileo High School) and recruited eight youth who wanted to make a difference in Chinatown. Since they were being graded every day in school they decided to grade Chinatown’s alleyways and challenge the businesses to help clean up the mess.  This led to the formation of Chinatown CDC’s Adopt an Alleyway program, where AAA youth organize, recruit, and lead peers in monthly neighborhood clean-ups and alleyway beautification projects. Relying on youth to define problems, design solutions, and recruit peers to take action is the model we have used to structure all of Chinatown CDC youth leadership development programs.  The youth serve as Chinatown tour guides, perform outreach and support to seniors and families living in single-room-occupancy hotels, develop recreational activities and provide childcare at monthly Super Sunday town hall meetings and provide lifesaving disaster preparedness training to monolingual Asian immigrants residents of Chinatown.

Since 2009, our youth have been active in leading disaster preparedness trainings for residents living in SROs. Our many youth programs have had a tremendous impact on safety and quality of life issues in our neighborhood.  I am honored to have played a part in this extraordinary cycle of growth and success which continues to blossom with each succeeding generation of Chinatown youth.

We are so proud of the residents and youth who have become champions of change not only for Chinatown but for San Francisco and beyond!

Rev. Norman Fong is the Executive Director of San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC). 

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