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Community Voices: Preserving Chinese Culture in the Sunset

This piece was originally published in our April-June 2022 edition of SF Heritage News. To view the full issue, click here.

BY LILY WONG and KELLY NG with Wah Mei School

Lily Wong
Kelly Ng

Lily Wong is the Director of Community Engagement at Wah Mei School. Lily is a first-generation San Francisco native and immigrant from Hong Kong. She grew up in a working class household, in a San Francisco that was full of diversity. For over two decades, Lily has been committed to advancing the power of historically marginalized communities. Her range of experience includes youth empowerment, immigration, workforce development, affordable housing, and land use/CEQA processes. Kelly Ng is the Development Director at Wah Mei School, where she takes great pride in promoting the work of an organization that provides bilingual education and programs accessible to the community with no barriers to income, language, or culture. Her love of stories comes from a life of immigrant journeys and appreciation for the here and now.

What is the Sunset Chinese Cultural District (SCCD), and what is its vision?

The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to establish the Sunset Chinese Cultural District in July 2021. Cultural districts are a formalized, collaborative partnership between the city and communities, providing resources to assist in stabilizing vulnerable communities at risk of displacement or gentrification. The SCCD will preserve the authenticity and cultural richness of the Sunset neighborhood of working-class families and seniors, as well as enhance its cultural assets and unique character. This neighborhood’s distinct identity holds historical, social, and political significance for the Chinese American community and the city of San Francisco overall.

Students at Wah Mei School’s Weekend Program. Courtesy of Wah Mei School. 

The Sunset is a community where families grow up, where seniors grow old, and where intergenerational roots of each can spread widely amidst the chaos of a bustling city. It is our vision to preserve the rich culture of opportunity and growth that is vital to each generation of immigrants who call the Sunset their home.

What form does preservation take in that framework?

Wah Mei School is thrilled to join forces with the city and Sunset community partners to embark on this historic path to preserve and enhance cultural assets, neighborhood character, identity, and diversity, and develop innovative strategies for survival and sustainability.

With gentrification and displacement relentlessly encroaching, the Sunset community has a precious opportunity to counteract these forces and enable our economic recovery while helping to ensure that neighborhood businesses and nonprofits can continue to thrive and contribute to our city’s unique cultural and economic vitality. As part of the citywide Cultural District program, the SCCD will be tasked with completing a Cultural History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategies (CHHESS) Report. This report provides a blueprint for the cultural district, including needs and strategies to address those needs. Priority needs include affordable childcare and housing, small-business support, providing culturally-responsive services, and countering the rise in violence towards the Asian community. We envision the strategies to include: economic development through small business support, convening community events that bring community members together, creating community gathering spaces, embedding art throughout the district to promote a sense of neighborhood cohesiveness, and developing an intergenerational housing strategy. We believe that by identifying and representing the broad spectrum of characteristics that make up this community, we can, only then, begin to authentically represent this district’s rich culture.

Lily Wong (left) with representatives from the Sunset Chinese Cultural District working group and Supervisor Gordon Mar on February 6, 2022. SF Heritage photo. 

In 2019, Wah Mei School was added to San Francisco’s Legacy Business Registry, in recognition of its longtime contributions to the city’s — and particularly the Sunset’s — cultural landscape. Tell us a little about its history and how you have adapted during the pandemic.

Wah Mei School is a significant part of the fabric and history of the local Sunset District community. Wah Mei 華美 means “ChineseAmerica” and is appropriate as we are one of the first bilingual schools in San Francisco and are deeply rooted in the Asian American community. Our organization was born out of the Chinese American civil rights movement. The 1974 landmark Lau vs. Nichols case, which legalized bilingual education, prompted a group of community activists, bilingual educators, and parents to breathe life into what is now known as the Wah Mei School, paving a way for bilingual-bicultural education in public schools.

Wah Mei School’s present location at 1400 Judah Street is the original Calvary United Methodist Church, built in 1908. [Methodist Church on west side of 19th Avenue, north of Judah Street] San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, San Francisco Public Library

Wah Mei School is honored to be distinguished as a San Francisco legacy business and a cultural anchor that has served generations of families for over 48 years. Our unique mix of language, culture, and high quality early care and education keeps us thriving, over four decades and through the pandemic. We are committed to serving all children, youth, and families across a diverse socioeconomic and cultural spectrum.

When the pandemic began, Wah Mei School and its staff were quick to pivot and reshape our programming to meet the many challenges of Covid-19. When the first shelter-in-place order went into effect for San Francisco in March 2020, Wah Mei School closed all programs. We reopened nine days later as an Emergency Child Care program, immediately serving children of essential service workers who needed a safe place to learn and grow while their parents keep our city moving.

During San Francisco’s 18-month systemwide school closures, we pivoted our after-school programs to provide full-day, in-person hubs to support distance learning and social-emotional enrichment activities for students. This year, Wah Mei School is pleased to provide the first public Covid-19 testing sites in the Sunset. With the recent Omicron surge, demand for Covid-19 tests also skyrocketed and made it difficult for our community to get tested. We’re proud to offer testing that is available free to the community at two locations in the Sunset, at our program site on 19th Avenue and Judah and Alice Fong Yu School on 12th Avenue and Kirkham. More information is available at http://www.wahmei.org/covid-testing/.

What are some of the other longtime businesses that contribute to the rich history of the Chinese in the Sunset?

We are thrilled that there has been such strong support for the Sunset Chinese Cultural District! Wah Mei School is partnering with District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar as well as citywide and local organizations including: Self Help for the Elderly, ASIAN, Inc., SF Heritage, People of Parkside Sunset, NEMS, Sunset Mercantile, Great Wall Hardware, and the Chinese Historical Society of America on a collaborative effort to establish and build the Sunset Chinese Cultural District.

What are the next steps for the cultural district?

As the Sunset Chinese Cultural District ramps up, we will create the structure and develop the CHHESS report, as mentioned previously. We’ll build an advisory board and will look to our current working group membership and other Sunset neighbors and organizations to help make the SCCD meaningful for our community.


If you’re interested in staying up to date and getting involved, please sign up for Wah Mei’s listserv at https://tinyurl.com/wahmeinews.

Tags
intangible cultural heritageCommunity Voicescultural preservationSunset Chinese Cultural DistrictLegacy BusinessesSunset DistrictOuter SunsetHeritage News

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