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In San Francisco's Chinatown, community building starts with a turkey in every oven

The Chinatown Community Development Center plans to give away 300 turkeys this year ahead of Thanksgiving.
Rev. Norman Fong with youth volunteers at a Chinatown CDC Super Sunday gathering.
Rev. Norman Fong with youth volunteers at a Chinatown CDC Super Sunday gathering.Courtesy of Chinatown CDC

The nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC) in San Francisco has long given away turkeys during the holidays, but the Rev. Norman Fong, the group’s executive director, says this year is special.

Fong is planning to give away 300 turkeys donated by local businesses, community members, groups, and city agencies Monday at Ping Yuen, a former public housing project that Chinatown CDC took over last year and recently finished renovating.

The apartments, built in 1952, were the first segregated public housing for Asian Americans in San Francisco and served Chinese-American veterans and their families, Fong said. But the buildings had not been renovated since they were built and were in bad shape when the nonprofit took them over. Now, the newly renovated building houses 300 families.

“We’re trying to build the ‘Beloved Community’ here. Key to that is bridge building. It’s not just turkeys.”

“We’re going to throw our first big turkey giveaway in the Ping Yuen that we just fixed up," Fong said. "Three hundred turkeys for three hundred families.”

One of the precursor organizations of the Chinatown CDC was founded in 1977 — days before the last tenants of the International Hotel, a single-room-occupancy residential hotel housing mostly Chinese and Filipino bachelors, were evicted. The nonprofit acts as a neighborhood advocate and organizer, as well as a developer and manager of affordable housing. It now has 29 properties in San Francisco — providing housing to more than 3,700 low-income individuals, according to the group.

While Fong said other Chinatowns have failed because of gentrification, he noted that, as one of the oldest Chinatowns in the U.S., San Francisco’s community has been fighting for survival since it was established after the California gold rush of 1840s and '50s.

Because of lessons learned in the 1970s, San Francisco’s Chinatown has been able to negotiate its survival through rezoning and requiring one-to-one replacement housing, he added.

“That’s why Chinatown is old but houses thousands,” Fong said.

About 17 years ago, Fong began organizing monthly community town hall meetings he calls “Super Sunday” gatherings that he said bring together about a thousand tenants to discuss issues.

Prior to these monthly gatherings, many Chinatown residents would not come out of their rooms, Fong noted. Now, he said they come, eat lunch, and socialize. The residents are also civically engaged.

“We’re getting Chinatown residents to vote and to get involved,” Fong said. “Now, everyone that we know, they get it.”

The majority of residents in properties owned and managed by Chinatown CDC are still Chinese, but about 25 percent are now African American, Latino, and white, according to Fong.

For the organization’s residents not at Ping Yeun, especially families and seniors living in single-room-occupancy units without ovens, Fong said the nonprofit plans to gift chickens around Christmastime at a themed Super Sunday. But the community building the organization does goes beyond free meals, Fong noted.

“We’re trying to build the ‘Beloved Community’ here,” Fong said, referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Key to that is bridge building. It’s not just turkeys.”

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