SF could become the 4th city in California to apologize to its Chinese community. Three students are the reason why

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Drew Min was at a Chinese restaurant last month when he got the chance to help San Francisco cope with over 150 years of hardship.

The UC Berkeley junior and his two friends – Lowell High School senior Dennis Casey Wu and Stanford University sophomore George Tilton-Low – were researching the city’s mistreatment of former students. Chinese immigrants since May, when Antioch became the first city in California to apologize to its Chinese community. for historical injustices. In the months that followed, San Jose and Los Angeles issued their own apologies.

But not San Francisco, which functioned as a quasi-laboratory for anti-Chinese laws in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I remember looking at the news about Antioch apologetically and remembering thinking, ‘Why not San Francisco? “, Recalls Wu, 17.

During a lunch in early October with leaders from the Asian community at Harborview Restaurant & Bar, Min asked supervisor Matt Haney this question. The dialogue that began then culminated in a resolution Haney plans to present at Tuesday’s supervisory board meeting.

If passed, San Francisco would become the fourth California city to apologize for the historic wrongs that still haunt the present. The resolution comes during what Haney has described as a year of “overdue recount” for the nation as a whole in the treatment of Asian and Pacific Islander communities. And he credited the three local students for making this possible.

Chinese workers first arrived in San Francisco in the 1850s, as the Gold Rush was taking off. Discriminatory laws were there to meet them. In 1850, California enacted a “foreign minors tax” for non-white minors, primarily affecting those in China.

According to the resolution prepared by Wu, Min and Tilton-Low, Haney said, the San Francisco supervisory board was responsible for issuing “some of the worst local laws targeting Chinese residents” in the state, if not the nation. .

“It was really the center of a lot of terrible xenophobia and violence towards Chinese residents in particular,” Haney told The Chronicle. “At the time, San Francisco was largely the urban center of that region, so it had ripple effects throughout the state. “

In 1870, the Supervisory Board banned anyone of Chinese descent from working for the government, banned the use of gongs and yeo ho poles, which Chinese residents carried on their shoulders to transport goods. From 1873 to 1883, the board passed more than a dozen ordinances aimed at cracking down on Chinese laundries, culminating in the infamous riots of 1877, which left four dead and 20 washhouses destroyed.

People cross Stockton Street in Chinatown on Friday November 5, 2021 in San Francisco.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

The San Francisco Unified School District has also adopted racist policies, according to the resolution. A decade after the state banned Chinese students from attending public schools with white students in 1860, the district closed the city’s only separate Chinese school, essentially leaving Chinese children without formal education opportunities until that a decision of the Supreme Court of California overturned the decision of the district in 1885.

“These separate education systems were unequal in terms of resources, with Chinese children receiving an inferior education,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a nonprofit in San Francisco. “For years, the Chinese community and other Asian communities have been subjected to this type of institutional racism.”

Wu, Min, and Tilton-Low pored over books and archives and consulted with historians at the Chinese Historical Society of America museum to piece together the largely neglected local archives. They found that the laws and the hostility they fueled also impacted other communities in Asia and the Pacific Islands, as discriminatory policy makers painted with a broad and ignorant brush.

“Koreans, Japanese, Mongols – they’ve been kind of pushed into this umbrella group of ‘Chinese’,” said Min, 22, of Korean descent and executive director of the nonprofit SF Community Alliance for the unity, security and education. “And so an attack on the Chinese community was and is an attack on all of us. “

Eight years after the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the country’s first anti-immigration law, supervisors adopted policies to control where local Chinese residents might be. One forced them to go to the outskirts of town, while another allowed the Board of Health to essentially quarantine all of Chinatown because its residents were wrongly scapegoated for carrying bubonic plague.

For Wu, picking up this story more than a century later – in the midst of a different pandemic fueled by anti-Asian rhetoric and an increase in hate crimes – was a call to action.

(Left to Right): Dennis Wu, Dennis Casey Wu and Drew Min take to the Chinese Cultural Center at Portsmouth Square on Friday, November 5, 2021 in San Francisco, California.  Dennis Casey Wu and Min are two of three students who led the effort to get San Francisco supervisor Matt Haney to introduce a bill to formally apologize for the city for the mistreatment of its Chinese residents during decades.

(Left to Right): Dennis Wu, Dennis Casey Wu and Drew Min take to the Chinese Cultural Center at Portsmouth Square on Friday, November 5, 2021 in San Francisco, California. Dennis Casey Wu and Min are two of three students who led the effort to get San Francisco supervisor Matt Haney to introduce a bill to formally apologize for the city for the mistreatment of its Chinese residents during decades.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Wu, who is also involved with Project Yellow Whistle, which distributes whistles in neighborhoods where Asian elders have been attacked. “The same thing was happening again and I felt compelled to do something. “

The story is not abstract for Wu. His grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s, his father a few years later when he was 16.

“My parents couldn’t buy a house here in the 1950s,” recalls Dennis Wu, the eldest, who is now president of the SF Community Alliance for Unity, Security and Education. “I think every Chinese family has faced some type of discrimination at some point. It becomes a way of life, something that we learn to navigate.

Haney said it was crucial to recognize the “very shameful role” played by the supervisory board in legislation on discriminatory policies, which were ultimately overturned by state and federal courts. But he said it was also important to recognize that this story did not stay in the past.

“There is a legacy that is still with us now,” he said.

Resolution follows that arc to the present day, with the Stop AAPI Hate follow-up project recording more than 4,500 anti-Asian hate incidents this year through June, with more than a third of those reported in California.

In addition to calling for an admission of wrongdoing, the resolution also pushes the city to find ways to “rectify the lingering consequences of discriminatory policies”.

The resolution doesn’t outline specific remedies, and Haney said he wanted to hear directly from the community what they should sound like. The supervisor suggested that next year’s budget may provide the opportunity for targeted investments, similar to what the city has done with its Dream Keeper initiative, a two-year, $ 120 million investment in neighborhoods historically. blacks that the Mayor of London Breed and Chairman of the Board Shamann Walton unveiled in February.

After the 1906 earthquake, the people of Chinatown rebuilt the cultural enclave and fought pressure from the local government to relocate. Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the country, up to two dozen bustling city blocks. In addition to apologizing, the resolution would recognize the resilience and contributions of the Chinese community to the city, “and their commitment to foster reconciliation and friendship.”

Justin Hoover, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, said it was important to recognize the damage that has been done. But what’s next is the big question.

“What does the repair look like? Are repairs on the table? What about reinvestment in the Asian community and its organizations? Hoover wondered. “An apology is good, it’s true, but it can’t just be a gesture. “

For Wu, 17, this is a starting point.

“The apology from San Francisco is notable,” he said. “It’s a way to advance social justice and social equity.

Shwanika Narayan is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]; Twitter / Instagram: @shwanika

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