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Asian American
Community Heroes Mural


Graphic Designer: Anne Marie Lapitan, Wells Fargo Community Mural Program

Location: 706 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94133

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Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco (CCC) and Wells Fargo are proud to honor twelve Asian American community heroes. This is an exciting and timely project that has welcomed students of all ages to submit inspirational figures, either from history or their personal lives, to be celebrated on a public mural. 

The Community participation was a thrilling experience. Over a hundred nominations were received across California; the project serves as a platform to share important but often overlooked Asian American stories and voices. The result is a diverse set of figures that a panel of community leaders and educators voted on the final design, and the mural was unveiled on April 27, 2022, ahead of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May.


With the current state of increased xenophobia and anti-Asian violence, it is important now, more than ever, to celebrate and recognize the rich history of leadership, talent, and resilience in our communities, and the leaders who paved the way for the next generation. Recognizing the gaps in Asian American history and resources for educators and teachers, the participatory mural fills narratives missing from mainstream curriculum and public history. The organizers hope students feel empowered through this process and gain a sense of ownership over their community space.

The mural aims to highlight important Asian American figures, giving youth a platform to uplift voices and share untold stories. It includes stylized portraits of inspiring figures Ruth Asawa, Caroline Cabading, Cynthia Choi, Layton Doung, Norman Fong, Yuri Kochiyama, Jeanette Lazam, Tiffany Long, Alok Vaid-Menon, Betty Ann Ong, Judy Yung, and Wong Kim Ark. 

To learn more about these figures and Chinatown, book an educational program with CCC - Chinatown History & Art Walk 

Community panelists decide on the final twelve heroes

Pictured: Front row: Asian American Youth Rising; Back row: Wendy Liu, Josephine Chew, Caroline Cabading, Cathie Lam, Norman Fong, and Eric Mar

Mural Unveiling Day! Images by Joyce Xi 

Instagram: @Joycexiphotography


Ruth Asawa: Renowned artist and arts education advocate (1926-2013)

            Ruth’s artistic journey began at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, Calif., where she and her Japanese American community were detained during World War II. Walt Disney Studio animators, who were also Japanese American,  provided informal art classes for the children, and young Ruth thrived under their guidance. As a teenager, Ruth looked up to these professional artists who inspired her to continue drawing and pursuing creativity.           

After completing high school at the Rohwer, Arkansas internment camp, she pursued an art teaching degree at Milwaukee State Teachers College but could not complete it due to lingering anti-Japanese racism.  Undeterred, Asawa attended the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She flourished under mentors including painter Josef Albers and philosopher-mathematician Buckminster Fuller. 

            In 1949, she settled in San Francisco and established herself in the art community. Extremely prolific, the artist, wife, and mother of six created art from everyday materials, constantly drew, and developed her now-iconic looped-wire sculptures that would be displayed in the nation’s most prestigious art institutions. Her son, Paul Lanier, observed that, for his mother, cooking, activism, raising children, caring for others, and making art were merged together into one continuous activity.

            By the 1960s, the renowned artist established her legacy as a passionate arts education champion. Understanding art’s potential to transform lives, she wanted these opportunities for everyone, no matter their economic level or ability. When her son came home with a coloring page from art time in elementary school, she was appalled.  Ruth sprang to action and co-founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in 1968 where professional artists and parents would come after school to teach, exposing students to different mediums. The program was so successful it later spread to 50 public schools.   

            As a member of the California Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Ruth relentlessly lobbied for public arts programs to benefit children and adults. She co-founded the prestigious public arts high school, San Francisco School of the Arts in 1982, which was renamed in her honor in 2010.   It was the first public high school dedicated to the arts in the West Coast. Students audition in order to be accepted, and the school offers seven visual and performing arts disciplines.  

            At the same time, she continued her artistic endeavors, landing numerous commissions around the San Francisco Bay Area. Two of her last public commissions, the Japanese American Internment Memorial in San Jose (1990-1994) and the Garden of Remembrance at San Francisco State University (2000-2002), focus on the shared experiences and resilience of the Japanese and Japanese American communities before, during, and after internment.

            Years after her passing, museums continue to exhibit Ruth’s art and her contoured looped-wire sculptures which are lauded as ethereal, elegant, and voluminous. She is regarded as one of the most important modern artists of the 20th century.

            In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of ten Ruth Asawa Forever stamps, showcasing seventeen of her hanging sculptures derived from basket-making techniques she learned as a young artist visiting Mexico. Actor George Takei, chairman emeritus of the Japanese American National Museum said of Asawa’s wire sculptures, “They are all made of artfully steel wires, the very material that confined her so long ago. She had taken ugly, biting symbols of hate and incarceration, and with her creative imagination, created and transformed it into buoyant things of beauty.”


             In 1904, Caroline Cabading’s Filipino ancestors set roots in San Francisco. A century later, Cabading picked up the torch as a culture bearer for the San Francisco Filipino-American community.  No less than five generations of her family have been born and raised in this city, specifically in Manilatown and Chinatown. “Asking me what has led me to care for Manilatown is basically asking me why I care for my home and family,” cites the jazz musician and filmmaker.  

            Her love for the neighborhood has never waned. Today, Caroline is Board President and Executive Director of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. Her influence and voice ensuring that the history of Manilatown will never be forgotten. In the early 1900s, Manilatown stretched along as many as ten blocks of Kearny Street, abundant with Filipino-owned barbershops, restaurants, and grocery stores.  Today, the foundation’s core mission is to preserve the legacy of Historic Manilatown and steward the story of the International Hotel eviction of Filipino and Chinese tenants in 1977.

            Her great-grandfather and succeeding generations have actively served in Manilatown and Chinatown. Her grandfather lived on Kearny Street in a low-income Single Renter Occupancy (SRO) apartment before meeting her grandmother.  “My DNA runs through both neighborhoods, and I have been raised by great community leaders,” she stresses. “I have been supported by great Chinatown neighborhood organizations and friends who understand that we are all Asian American sisters and brothers.” Caroline’s great grandparents opened their home to Filipino immigrants, particularly the migratory “Manong” bachelor generation who looked to Filipino families like Caroline’s as surrogate families while they stayed in San Francisco. Such tangible support and hospitality would continue down the Cabading’s family line for many generations.

One of her biggest life achievements has been bringing back the three original Filipino residents to the International Hotel apartments in 2019, nearly 42 years after the SRO eviction. The I-Hotel was historically the heartbeat of Manilatown. She is producing and directing a documentary “Long Live the I-Hotel” chronicling this tumultuous event. “It was an honor to be a part of completing the full circle stories of these original I-Hotel defenders,” she says. As Caroline explains, the biggest challenge was not locating them, but proving they were original tenants. Research included finding names in archived  records to convince the property manager. “In order to prove that these community heroes were actually former tenants, it took a whole community coming together to bear witness.”

            In her role as a musician, she is creating a Filipino-American poem and musical suite to tell the story of the Filipino San Francisco experience from 1904 to 2005. She heads a jazz quintet called The Autonomous Region that plays at the I-Hotel Manilatown Center.  Her love for the culture also has led her to form Kapwa, a Southern Philippines music and dance ensemble.

            Longtime friend and fellow culture bearer Tony Robles shares memories with Caroline’s family which reach back generations.  “Our families walked the streets of Kearny Street, Manilatown and planted the seeds of our songs, the smell of our history, the lingering taste of our struggles and joys.”  Robles adds that through music and art, she shows her love for her heritage, “continuing to plant seeds in the I-Hotel, in Manilatown, welcoming all, connecting our history and art to the motherland and back to Manilatown.”

            At the end of her email signature is the quote, “And still we rise,” a line from the late Bill Sorro, who was an original I-Hotel defender. “It’s a great statement about how we as a community need to always have our eyes on the prize and to always believe we are rising and are empowered despite the obstacles thrown in front of us.” 

Caroline Cabading: Filipina-American Culture Bearer


Cynthia Choi: Asian American woman advocate and movement leader

 The year 2020 would prove to be a brutal one for Asian Americans. Cynthia Choi, co-executive director for Chinese for Affirmative Action, noticed the disturbing trend early.  Media accounts of community members being racially profiled, harassed, and in some cases, attacked. Meanwhile, tourists and locals were avoiding Chinatown as the president blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on the Chinese community.

            Something had to be done. She teamed with Manjusha Kulkarni, head of the AAPI Equity Alliance and Professor Russell Jeung of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. Within weeks, they launched Stop Asian American Hate, a ground-breaking, multi-lingual website for reporting attacks, violations of civil rights, and discrimination aimed at Asians. For the first time in history, detailed data would be tracked and collated to document violence towards Asian Americans. Their data and analysis would be used to advocate for legislation and policies locally, statewide, and nationwide. In the days, weeks, and ensuing months, Stop Asian American Hate became the leading hub for thousands of everyday people to share their harrowing stories.

             Cynthia has always urged Asians to be civically engaged and to not shy away but to practice participating in difficult conversations about race, gender, and sexual identity. As she considers the next generation, the Korean American mother of three daughters finds herself even more “committed to creating a world that is just and equitable for everyone.” Raised in Los Angeles in the mid ‘60s, “there was no single event that inspired me to become a social justice advocate,” she explains. Her choice to pursue public service was affirmed over time. She saw how her immigrant parents strained to understand how to live in a new country; Cynthia also experienced racism and sexism personally. Her ethnic studies major equipped her to think critically regarding institutional inequities. Grassroots community efforts also gave her tools to understand how change happens when people and organizations work in unity.

            Sarah Ching-Ting Wan, executive director of Community Youth Center, has partnered with Cynthia for years under various organizations. “Cyn is one of the most compassionate and courageous allies I have ever met,” says Sarah. “She is not afraid to bring up difficult topics regardless of who is in the room, and accepts critical feedback from all perspectives.”

            Cynthia has invested over 30 years in advocacy work in reproductive justice, gender equity, environmental justice, and immigrant rights, to name a few. For her, hope is real. “I am inspired by a new generation of activists and leaders who have a deep understanding of what it means to work within the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, class, abilities and so much more.” She emphasizes she is always hopeful “because our collective history reminds us of our resilience and strength.” She draws inspiration from a Mexican proverb that reads: "They tried to bury us, they didn't know we were seeds."


           Layton Doung was a 4th-generation Chinese American who felt disconnected from his heritage as a child. This led him to explore the many facets of Chinese performing arts and culture. As a teen, he became a top student in a Chinese martial arts school taught by a renowned sifu. His knowledge and enthusiasm for Chinese culture deepened when he majored in Chinese Studies at SFSU in the 70s. During this timeframe, he lived abroad in Taiwan for two years to immerse himself in the Chinese language and culture.

           A pivotal point in this interest came when Layton introduced a special Yangge dance style of stilt-walking, drumming, fan, and ribbon dance to the Chinese New Year Parade in 1993. This form of dance which originated in the Shanxi region of China was performed by the Chinese Immersion Program (CIP) students at West Portal School.  This experience resulted in forming a drum group named Yellow River Drummers (YRD). The original group of drummers was the youth from the CIP. Eventually, parents and friends started joining YRD, and the troupe grew in success over many years because of its unique style of drumming. YRD was the only group of its kind in the United States and entertained audiences for more than 25 years. In 2008, they performed at the 2008 Olympic Torch Ceremony. 

           The CIP students continue to perform the Yangge style of stilt walking, drumming, and dancing at the annual Chinese New Year Parade. Thanks to Layton, CIP and parents continue to entertain crowds at the annual Chinese New Year parade and at many venues.  Layton was considered a visionary and a trendsetter.

           Janet Chan, Layton’s wife, and widow recall: "Our weekends and weekdays/nights were always full of drum practices and great fun. Students and adults loved watching Layton because he was so inspiring and charismatic.  He was an extrovert and loved putting a smile on everyone who was fortunate to watch him in action. He was larger than life.” A plaque that was given to Janet says it all about Layton: "Nothing is impossible and anything is possible."

Layton Doung: Chinese Performing Arts Leader (1955-2014)


            When Norman Fong came home from high school one afternoon and discovered his tough-as-nails mother trembling, he knew something was terribly wrong. In her shaking hands was an eviction notice.  In 30 days, the entire family, parents and four children, would have to vacate the only home they had known for 18 years. He will never forget that punch-in-the-gut feeling of becoming nearly homeless.  Today, Fong gives credit to youth workers at Donaldina Cameron House, the social services center which aided his family when they were at their lowest. Their love and community connections landed the family in another apartment before eviction day.

            That incident made a profound impact on the third-generation Chinatown kid. He would later become Reverend Norman Fong and the Executive Director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) which oversees low-income, single renter occupancy (SRO) properties. His advocacy and innovative methods of managing the SROs and keeping them affordable has served as a role model around the country. 

           He is now retired from CCDC, but his legacy of advocating for low-income renters and the elderly lives on.  The outspoken, upbeat crusader has been arrested several times in his defense of immigrant rights. As a grassroots organizer, he has been known to lead marches with Chinese grandmas and grandpas to City Hall to defend their right to low-income housing even when they cannot speak English. In 1991, he launched the Adopt-an-Alleyway program in 1991 challenging youth to make a difference by cleaning up Chinatown’s neglected alleys. Because of their efforts, the City of San Francisco now recognizes the alleyways as part of the official street grid which now receives funding and maintenance. Adopt-an-Alleyway has expanded with youth services to support the elderly and families living in SROs.

           Norman is also a bridge-builder among the Asian and Black communities. For more than a decade, he has led the collaboration between the Chinese and Black residents of the Bay View neighborhood to organize a joint event celebrating Lunar New Year and Black History Month. In a move to encourage and model Asian and Black solidarity, in June 2021 Norman, together with Rev. Jesse Jackson and other Asian American leaders, commemorated the anniversary of the 1982 hate crime murder of Vincent Chin.

           Norman, a fixture in Chinatown, cannot walk down the street without being greeted by locals.  Says friend Rev. Harry Chuck, “Norman has demonstrated over the decade that church and society can work closely together in creating change. He is still going strong. Hardly a week goes by when he doesn’t remind us of our own potential as Christ’s messengers of love and justice.” When Norman is not busy talking to Chinatown residents, he can be found playing saxophone and singing with Jest Jammin, his soul band of more than 50 years.

Norman Fong: Affordable Housing Crusader & Community Leader


Yuri Kochiyama: Black liberation, anti-racism activist, Nobel                                                                       Prize nominee (1921-2014)

         In 1940, the world view of 19-year-old Yuri Kochiyama shifted drastically after she and her family were relocated to a Japanese internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Influenced by her incarceration after seeing governmental abuse firsthand, she fearlessly championed civil rights for all races whenever and wherever she saw inequity.

         Yuri would become an outspoken ally for the Black community and a Black liberation leader. Born and raised in San Pedro, CA, she was a member of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She became a friend of Malcolm X and was on the scene with the charismatic leader when he was assassinated in 1965. The FBI kept a close record of her activities on file. Undaunted, she also stood up for Latinx and Asian communities. Many looked up to her as she fought for racial solidarity between the Asian and BIPOC communities. “Build bridges, not walls,” she would often say.

         For more than 40 years, she and her husband, Bill Kochiyama, lived in a Harlem housing project in New York where they raised six children. Their home, adorned with protest posters and relevant news clippings, was a revolving door for freedom fighters and operated as a nerve center for activism. She would invite her community to listen to leaders championing social justice causes. Never one to rest, she maintained written correspondence with political prisoners incarcerated in places like San Quentin and Solano State Prison, Kochiyama advocated strongly for their release.

She participated in sit-ins to protest racism around the world. She stood against the Vietnam War and against nuclear proliferation while fighting for decades for Japanese-American reparations from the U.S. government that incarcerated over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. The WWII camps in Europe, she stressed, were death camps. In 1988 President Ronald Reagan issued a presidential apology to the wartime victims and granted $20,000 to each survivor. Yuri was often asked to speak of her experiences. In one assembly, she exhorted, “Asian Americans must be more vocal, visible, and take stands on crucial issues.” The activist urged listeners to “stand with the dispossessed, the oppressed, and marginalized” and to be resolute in advocating “human work, human rights, and human dignity.”

Her daughter Audee Kochiyama-Holman said her mother raised her to understand that “it is important to learn about your history, your culture, your roots, and about social injustice.” According to Kochiyama-Holman, her mother believed “when you work with one or more organizations you have a stronger voice.&rdq