Dennis Casey Wu, a student at Lowell High School in San Francisco, did not know much about his city’s history of racism against Chinese Americans.
But when he saw nearby Antioch apologize for the 1876 burning of its Chinatown by white residents, he thought: What about San Francisco?
Wu and his friends started researching. They concluded that San Francisco also needed to apologize to Chinese Americans. They took their proposal to the city’s Board of Supervisors, which unanimously approved the apology on Tuesday.
“I feel that this is the history that people need to learn,” Wu, who is Chinese American, said at a committee meeting last week. “I know some people are going to say that an official apology is merely performative activism, but personally, I feel the apology would be notable, as it would be an important step in advocating for social justice and equity.”
Long before it became a tourist attraction and one of the biggest ethnic enclaves in the nation, San Francisco’s Chinatown was one of the only places in the city that Chinese Americans could live, due to exclusionary housing policies.
For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese Americans in San Francisco were persecuted by city officials who banned gongs, prohibited the transport of goods with carrying poles known as yeo ho and forced hundreds of Chinese-owned laundries to close.
In 1877, an anti-Chinese mob swept through Chinatown, claiming four lives and damaging many businesses.
As a student in San Francisco, Wu was especially struck by the exclusion of Chinese students from public schools in the late 19th century.
“I thought the discrimination was only a Southern thing, not something that happened in my hometown of San Francisco,” he said.
San Francisco becomes the fourth California city to apologize for historical wrongs against residents of Chinese descent, after Antioch, San Jose and Los Angeles.
Much like the rest of the nation, San Francisco — whose population is 36% Asian American — has seen a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. About 60 Asian Americans were victims of reported hate crimes in 2021, up from nine in 2020, according to the city’s police department.
Wu said he saw parallels between what happened a century ago, when the city targeted and racially profiled Chinese Americans during an outbreak of bubonic plague, and now, with some blaming Asian Americans for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The resolution is an important step toward “healing and inclusion,” Supervisor Gordon Mar said at the committee meeting.
“Discriminatory policies the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have passed, all of which were eventually overturned by state and federal courts, continue to have lingering impacts on our city, particularly its API community,” Supervisor Matt Haney, who sponsored the resolution, said at a committee meeting last week, using an acronym for Asian and Pacific Islander. “This formal apology is long overdue.”
The resolution is also a nod to the resilience of Chinese Americans, Malcolm Yeung, the executive director at Chinatown Community Development Center, said at the meeting.
“Segregation is what really drove the creation of Chinatown,” he said. “But the brilliant thing about our community is that over time, we transformed Chinatown from a place that was a function of perhaps the worst elements of the history of this country into a true resource and gateway for the generations of working families that come to San Francisco and to America.”
Still, many community advocates noted that the city’s Asian American neighborhoods are reeling from the pandemic.
More than 40% of San Francisco’s low-income residents are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to Cally Wong, director of API Council of San Francisco. Some programs that help struggling Asian residents are facing budget cuts, she said.
Yeung said his organization is seeing more buildings listed for sale in Chinatown than at any point in two decades, a sign of how the economic distress from ailing businesses is fueling property owners to sell and sparking real estate speculation in the process.
“Keeping Chinatown Chinatown requires an intentional and continuous commitment from the city to make sure it can serve the function it has served for so many generations,” he said.
Dean Ito Taylor, executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, called for more investment in Chinatown and other neighborhoods.
“Our cultural districts are at the risk of being wiped out,” he said at the meeting. “We are the fabric of San Francisco. Can you imagine San Francisco without Chinatown? Without Japantown? Without Little Saigon? SoMa Filipinos?”