You Are Here: Chinatown Is Worth Fighting For

How I found community through a volunteer street patrol.

san francisco, chinatown volunteer coalition
Celeste Chan

Beyond the Chinatown elders bundled in parkas playing mahjong, the Falun Gong protesters raising their signs, and tourists posing for photos, I spotted the safety patrol in a huddle. I’d arrived late for the early-evening start and missed orientation. “Hello, I emailed…,” I called out, my voice trailing off as I approached and joined them.

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Chinatown’s all-volunteer safety patrol formed in 2021, during a time when Trump called COVID-19 “the China Virus” and anti-Asian violence soared. In California alone, there were over 4,100 reported hate incidents between March 2020 and December 2021, per Stop AAPI Hate, and in San Francisco, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 567 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to police data. In the city’s Anza Vista neighborhood, a teen assailant sucker punched 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee, fatally knocking him to the ground. Had Ratanapakdee lived, he would be the same age as my father. After seeing television news reports of Asian elders being attacked and worrying about the safety of my family and community, I felt compelled to join the safety patrol in February. I’d moved to San Francisco from Portland almost 20 years ago and found a safe haven within the queer and Asian American community, and now I felt afraid. A week earlier on Kearny Street, a man’s piercing shriek startled me from across the street. He dragged his mountain bike and clanged a heavy chain, screaming and staggering against traffic as cars honked and skittered around him. My muscles tensed. He crossed just behind me and, lucky for me, kept moving. A few years before that, I’d felt ready to fight two men as they screamed “gook” and “ugly, you eat dogs” a foot from my face. It didn’t turn physical, but I stood my ground, shouted back, and filmed them.

“Our job is to create a moment to intervene. Even seconds count,” a safety patrol organizer told us. I exhaled as our group of six began our shift. I hoped our four hours of walking around the neighborhood would make a difference for the grandmas I’d seen pulling cans out of the trash.

We marched past the bright pagodas, the five- and six-story buildings painted yellow with green or red trim, or blue bleeding into orange-yellow, like the Golden State Warriors. Established soon after the arrival of the city’s first Chinese immigrants in 1848, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the nation, with Benevolent Society names still etched into building placards. Pikachu, Hello Kitty, and a parade of stuffed pandas stared back at me from gated doors across the street.

“Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?” asked a millennial volunteer tucking the loops of her baby-blue mask behind her ears. “What’s your connection to Chinatown?” queried a baby boomer clad in blue jeans. Some of the patrol members had grown up multigenerationally in this neighborhood; others came here as kids. I drifted to the rear of our group, my motorcycle boots thudding against concrete as we climbed the hills. I was the child of a Chinese immigrant father and a Bronx-born Jewish mother. I didn’t speak the languages of Chinatown, and a friend had once joked that I should tattoo training chopsticks on my biceps.

I wanted to tell myself that I’d fight any attacker with my bare hands.

The sun was setting as we strode up Stockton Street, many of us breathing heavily through our N95s and medical masks. Gone were the throngs of people sorting through bok choy or buying sriracha or black bean sauce. I could still smell the chile oil and fried garlic over the bus vapors and durian fruit. Many of the stores had shut their gates for the night or locked their aluminum roll tops, their fronts now indistinguishable from those that had closed down during the pandemic. A cop car flashed its lights, then gunned it through the intersection before us.

I wanted to tell myself that I’d fight any attacker with my bare hands. If I saw an assailant hitting a grandma with her own cane, I’d snatch it out of his hands, screaming “no” and “stop.” I’d kick him in the shins, deliver an uppercut to his chin, and pummel his belly until he ran away. But what if the sick sound of bones cracking came from a victim? Would they send me running instead? Would I stop the attack?

I reminded myself of the patrol organizer’s words: “Our job is to create a moment to intervene.” Our job, not my job. I looked at my fellow volunteers, then at the ID card attached to a lanyard around my neck. “Non-violent Safety Patrol,” it read.

The wind whipped my hair into my eyes, and I started to sweat under my mask. We crossed Jackson, dipped into a bakery to buy hom bao—BBQ pork buns—and continued walking downhill to where nighttime Chinatown began. Chefs flipped and fried noodles as flames scorched their woks. Bartenders blew up red lanterns.

We were on our way to help a woman close her store. She had been victimized before. I hated to think about anyone hurting her—an Auntie, a petite woman with a bright smile and purplish dyed hair, nearing retirement age. Reflexology, ginseng, “Healing Sale” signs hung in the windows near her store.

We stood guard as she switched off the lights. I heard a rustle in the wind and turned in alarm, but it was only a bottle spilling from the recycling bin, or perhaps a plastic bag floating in the breeze. While I feared someone would attack her again, tonight the six of us were here with her, all of us ready. This moment was about how we’d protect her, together.

T-shirts and blouses waved in the breeze above us, hanging from Chinatown SRO fire escapes and windows. Auntie finished securing the last lock, and we walked with her. “We’re your posse,” someone told her, and she tilted her head and laughed. Auntie, the new rock star, a head shorter than most of us. I had questioned my right to be in this group, but now I felt part of it. We were all in this together.

Chinatown thrummed with life. Auntie smiled at us. A woman in a pink puffy robe passed by, her little Chihuahua mix running off leash to defecate in the alley. A young man whispered into his cell phone outside Li Po Cocktail Lounge. Face lit by neon, a lilt in his voice, he stood like a modern-day miner against the gold cavernous facade. Cartons full of bottles lay by his feet. Clusters of friends drank in Buddha Lounge. A Tesla with no license plates parked alongside stores that hawk rainbow shot glasses and tourist T-shirts, while on the same block, thumping disco mingled with Chinese classical flute.

I heard the electric whir of a self-driving car running along California Street. Beyond Chinatown’s gates, in Union Square, lavender lattes sold for $6 and Hermès Birkin bags cost more than a year’s worth of rent. Homeless people erected cardboard shelters to spend the night in those same shops’ doorways. But here, within these 30 square blocks, you could still rent a room at an SRO or make a $2 meal from char siu bao. It was one of the city’s last affordable neighborhoods, a refuge, a home for low-income immigrants.

I realized that it didn’t matter whether I’d felt like an outsider or didn’t speak the language.

We mobbed Auntie until we reached her bus stop. As we grew noisier and joked about being her paparazzi, I realized that it didn’t matter whether I’d felt like an outsider or didn’t speak the language. The energy produced by what had been my own anxiety was being funneled into something larger, a collective purpose.

What mattered most was stepping up to help, to protect our community. What mattered most was walking with our Auntie. I knew I’d be back to help our community patrol the streets of Chinatown.

We stood with her at the corner, full of cheer, laughing. When the bus arrived, Auntie climbed the steps and blew us kisses. She kept doing it even after the bus pulled away—for as long as we could see her.•

You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto.

Celeste Chan is a San Francisco–based writer and Grotto member.
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