Community Heroes Mural
Graphic Designer: Anne Marie Lapitan, Wells Fargo Community Mural Program
Location: 706 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94133
ABOUT THE PROJECT:
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
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.” In 2005, in fact, Yuri was part of a contingent of women activists nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her legacy lives on in many ways. The Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus has established the Yuri Kochiyama Fellowship which empowers formerly incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders to advocate for changes to America’s prison and deportation systems. Granddaughter Akemi Kochiyama is an activist who helped create a mural in Harlem dedicated to her grandmother and Malcolm X. Meanwhile, the hip hop group, Blue Scholars produced a song on their album named after the influential activist. In the hip hop recording, a repeating lyric goes, “When I grow up I want to be just like Yuri Kochiyama, and if she ever hears this, it’s an honor.”
Like many students in the Bay Area, Jeanette Lazam co-labored with the Filipino and Chinese tenants during the 1970s fight to save their home, the International Hotel, known as the lifeblood of Manilatown. These were familiar faces, people who could have been her own aunties and uncles. At 28, she moved into the I-Hotel to join them in the fight to stop the mass eviction. For three years, she lived among the 150 manong, a term of respect for elder men in Ilocano.
August 4th 1977 was the unforgettable night of the I-Hotel eviction and Jeanette’s job was to ensure the safety of leader Wahat Tampao. That evening, the sheriff and his officers broke through the massive 3,000-member human barricade consisting of activists, students, community members, and residents. Jeanette and Wahat were the last to be escorted out after the nine-year battle. It was a devastating blow for everyone. Afterwards, Jeanette worked low-wage jobs in order to focus on her efforts in anti-racism and human rights. What kept her going, she says, “were the sentiments of all the other tenants that were standing tall against the evictions.”
Jeanette later became a lifelong anti-racist proponent and pro-LGBTQ activist. “I came out over 50 years ago,” she recalls. “It was a tough and long process.” She stresses that she is an American Filipino who is gay. “It is important now, to claim our American identity, especially in the face of a resurgence of racism and national chauvinism directed toward developing countries,” she emphasizes. “I was born in the United States. This is the land of my birth, and I claim that as such. I am from Filipino ancestry and ethnicity because of my parents being born in the Philippines.”
She grew up in the housing projects of Lower Manhattan, unaware of racial inequality until middle school when her teachers went on strike to pressure the district to hire more staff of color. “Prior to this incident, I was not fully cognizant of the impact racism had in our society,” she says. Over the course of her lifetime, she has worked for various human rights organizations. She ended her working career as an aide to Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
Jeanette remains politically active and expresses her convictions through art. Her art practice focuses on animals and plant life on the verge of extinction, and mythical creatures of Asian groups and the Aztec/Mayan/Incas peoples. “The message in my artwork is to demonstrate the destructive relationship between man and nature, and the idea that you cannot tell the history of a people and not include the mythical deities that were central to their beliefs.”
Defending the I-Hotel and its tenants was a sacred cause for the activist. She came to terms with the defeat in 2011 when she wrote an ode honoring the I-Hotel and its tenants. Her poem reads: “Where should we go to save our walls and our souls? Which way did we have to go?” And in another line, “Is anyone left to listen to our music? Maybe just the ghosts…” The hotel was eventually rebuilt in 2005 and renamed International Hotel Senior Residences. Proud to be one of the original defenders of the I-Hotel, Jeanette returned as a tenant after 44 years on June 3, 2021.
Jeanette Gandionco Lazam: Anti-racism and housing activist
It was a typical Southern California beach day in 1998. Ten-year-old Tiffany Long and her little brothers were building sandcastles, happily chatting in Cantonese until three teenagers blindsided them with racial slurs. “I remember in that moment,” says Tiffany, “I felt so small and so ashamed. Not only was I unable to speak up for myself, I also wasn't able to speak up for my two younger brothers. Instead, I just remember how much I hated feeling different and being laughed at, so I made a decision to speak as little Cantonese as possible. It took a long time before I reconnected with my mother tongue and felt whole again by embracing all parts of who I am.”
Tiffany is the American-born daughter of parents from Hong Kong. She understands the challenges facing new arrivals. It was in her Ethnic Studies classes at Berkeley that she began to understand the history of oppression against communities of color in the U.S. It was also in these classes that she was exposed to examples of resistance and activism within immigrant and Asian American communities, narratives that were absent from her educational experience until then. Instead of allowing her childhood trauma to silence herself, Tiffany made a decision to empower and lift up the voices of those who are often unseen and undervalued.
During college, she volunteered with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates where she taught English curriculum to the low-income program participants. She was also an intern for the Immigration Rights Program at the Asian Law Caucus where she helped design a curriculum on leadership development and community organizing skills for undocumented youths. Later on, Tiffany traveled to Yunnan, China to teach English and art at a rural village school. The experience cemented her passion to become a lifelong educator, and she pursued her master’s degree in education.
Says Tiffany, “A good education allows us to reflect on how we got here and where we need to go. It equips us to think critically, to build bridges, and to get in good trouble in the face of injustice.”
Now, as an elementary educator at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, she nurtures an environment where students feel safe enough “to bring their whole selves to class.” Long seeks to continuously improve her instruction “through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Long stresses, “I am motivated to keep learning and growing so I can unlock education's transformative potential for every child in my classroom.”
Her results are fruitful. Pupils hail her as inspiring, loving, and willing to forge close, trusting relationships with each of them. Aiden, a former student, remembers Tiffany as a kind teacher who helped children get through tough times. “She is also a very patient person, very passionate about her teaching. I hope that she can be on this mural because she definitely deserves it.”
Fellow colleague and friend Caroline Carr agrees. “Tiffany goes above and beyond for her students by taking extra care in making sure their identities are represented.” Recently, “not only did Tiffany create engaging lessons that included student interests such as Among Us and Minecraft video games, but she made sure that the read-aloud and justice-in-action projects to stop Asian hate were a part of the curriculum.”
In reflecting on her values, she shared that as a child, she had believed that being "good" was about acting politely and following directions. However, through her courses in Ethnic Studies, she realized that being "good" sometimes reinforced a status quo that was not equitable or just. “A mantra I now try to live by is John Lewis's quote: 'Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.'"
Tiffany Long 龍泳璁: Passionate educator heralding inclusiveness
Alok Vaid-Menon: Internationally acclaimed writer, comedian, poet, and public speaker
ALOK (they/them) is an internationally acclaimed writer, comedian, poet, and public speaker whose work explores themes of trauma, belonging, and the human condition.
When asked, Alok said their aim is to “create a world beyond the gender binary where people are valued for who they are, not who they should be.” As an artist, they state they have a platform “to show that a world beyond gender norms is beautiful. I remember all the joy I felt before I was shamed into gender norms. I'm trying to return back to that freedom in my life.”
Aloks says “I am both masculine and feminine and none of the above,” challenges the public to accept them and others like them. The road has never been, and still is, not easy. Calling out for honesty and authenticity, Alok insists on living a life without compromise.
They headlined the New York Comedy Festival in 2021 to a sold out crowd and will be headlining the Just for Laughs Festival in Vancouver. They are the author of Beyond the Gender Binary (2020) which has been described as a “clarion call for a new approach to gender in the 21st century” and the poetry books Femme in Public (2017) and Your Wound / My Garden (2021). On screen, they have appeared in HBO’s late-night sketch series Random Acts of Flyness and the documentary The Trans List as well as the Netflix docu-series Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness. They also have revered interviews on podcasts like Glennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things and The Man Enough Podcast. Accolades include NBC’s Pride 50 list of influential change-makers in the LGBTQ community, HuffPo’s Culture Shifters, and Business Insider’s Doers.
On September 11, 2001, American Airlines flight attendant Betty Ann Ong demonstrated heroic efforts as the first to alert the country of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hijackers had commandeered American Airlines Flight 11, veering the plane towards New York’s World Trade Center as it left Boston.
Unbeknownst to the perpetrators, Betty managed to contact the airline reservation center in Raleigh, North Carolina. Using the craft’s air phone, she systematically described the chaos in the cabin over the next 23 minutes. During a hearing of the 2004 9/11 Commission, the panel chairman declared that Betty’s “duty, courage, selflessness, and love” may have saved an untold number of lives.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi lauded her actions as well. "It is with pride and sadness that I join in paying tribute to Betty's courage and her heroism,” she said before Congress. Pelosi’s remarks stressed that during the call, her calmness and professionalism in detailing the events and attackers enabled the FBI to accurately identify the terrorists.
Betty’s courage and integrity were evident in her actions throughout her life. In her 20s while she was working at her parents’ beef jerky factory, Chinatown gang members pointed a gun at her head, demanding money. Betty calmly and firmly ordered them to leave. She continued to remain collected even after they fled, according to her sister, Cathie.
The beloved flight attendant who left behind parents, brother Harry, and two sisters Cathie and Gloria, also left behind a broken Chinatown community. Ten days after 9/11, more than 200 Chinatown residents, friends, and family members gathered at a local park to remember the brave woman who grew up in Chinatown and played in its rec center. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declared September 21, 2001, as Betty Ann Ong Day.
In 2012, the Chinatown rec facility was renamed in her honor as the Betty Ann Ong Recreation Center. Her legacy lives on through the Betty Ann Ong Foundation which supports the physical, social, and mental well-being of children and adults. This is accomplished through summer camps for youth and children and social programs for the elderly. To his flight attendant sister, her brother Harry quotes Isaiah 40:31, “Soar high on wings like eagles,” and adds, "You filled all of our hearts with love and laughter. We will forever miss you.”
Betty Ann Ong: First to alert America of 9/11
Judy Yung: Pioneering Asian American scholar and writer (1946-2020)
As one of six children of Chinese immigrants, Judy Yung grew up in the dense tenements of San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1940s. She observed the struggles of Chinese arrivals up close. Instead of leaving the neighborhood when she became an adult, Yung remained to become a librarian for the Chinatown branch library and also the Asian branch of the Oakland Public Library. In that role, she saw how very little was written about her people and the community she served. Not only was it frustrating for Judy, she believed that omitting an entire ethnic group in the story of America’s development was a travesty. She dedicated her life to writing accurate and informative books on Chinese American history, and in particular, Chinese women in America.
Thanks to this revered scholar and pioneer, Judy’s many groundbreaking and award-winning history texts chronicle the first Chinese who immigrated to America in the mid-1800s. Uncovering the truth became a personal matter when she wrote Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island. Her father was one of the thousands of detainees at the Angel Island immigration station where the U.S. government held and isolated Chinese immigrants due to racism and xenophobia. During her research for the book, Judy was so inquisitive she and her coauthor Him Mark Lai would charter a boat to go to Angel Island to hunt for significant details.
The historian was the first to shine the spotlight on Chinese American women. She wanted to understand how their immigration experiences differed from male counterparts. Her 1995 Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco took ten years to complete. She also wrote a sequel, Unbound Voices: a Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. For this project, she chronicled the lives of 40 Chinese American women from the late 1800s through World War II. “People contribute to diversity in different ways,” Yung observed. “For me, my contribution is to do research and add the voices of Chinese American women to the tableau of history.” Both publications documented the realities and activism of Chinese American women in the 19th and 20th centuries. These were landmark works which are essential reference materials that peers and researchers still refer to and cite.
History fascinated her as much as contemporary issues. For four years she spent working as the associate editor of the popular East-West newspaper. The bilingual publication, based in Chinatown, ran until 1989. Articles covered issues that impacted Chinese living in Chinatown and in the U.S.
Not only did she write, she taught. Well into her 40s, Judy went back to school to attend UC Berkeley to secure her doctorate in ethnic studies. With Ph.D. in hand, she become a professor of American Studies at UC Santa Cruz where she taught ethnic studies, Asian American studies, and oral history. Her influence as a professor was profound. “Judy Yung was a pioneering scholar in Chinese American and women's history,” said UC Santa Cruz associate professor of history Alice Yang in an earlier interview. “She played a critical role in teaching and mentoring many undergraduate and graduate students in Asian American studies.”
Recalls friend and UC Santa Cruz professor Bettina Aptheker, “She was a brilliant teacher, inspiring her students, and mentoring scores of them. And her published works provided us with some of the most important historical material on Chinese and Chinese American women’s history.”
Wong Kim Ark: Chinese American who won Supreme Court citizenship battle (1873)
Imagine what it would be like to leave the United States to visit family in another country and be barred from coming back even though you are a U.S. citizen. It sounds ridiculous, but it happened.
Born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants, 17-year-old Wong Kim Ark sailed on a steamer ship to visit his parents in China in 1890. Anti-Chinese sentiments were rising to levels of violence, and his parents found it best to return to the safety of their homeland. However, Wong Kim Ark knew nothing of China and decided to stay where he was more comfortable in San Francisco. On the 1890 journey, the young man returned from China to the U.S. without incident.
However, five years later on a similar voyage, it was a different matter. San Francisco immigration officials forbade him to step back on American soil, claiming he was not a U.S. citizen. He had his legal documents in hand, and yet he was detained for months on the water, having to move from ship to ship. At this time, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law blocking Chinese laborers from entering the country, fueled Chinese racism. During a time when the Chinese never spoke up, the 21-year-old cook challenged the decision. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association hired a lawyer on his behalf.
The case eventually wound up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 28, 1898, in U.S. vs. Wong Kim Ark, court justices voted in his favor, interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that, regardless of race and ethnicity, children born in the U.S. have the birthright of citizenship even if the parents are not American citizens. Today, millions born on U.S. soil are entitled to citizenship thanks to the courage of Wong Kim Ark. Even though opponents have tried to abolish the birthright to citizenship, this landmark case helps to define who is an American citizen.
Asian American Community Heroes Profiles, written by Kathy Chin Leong