Displaced Chinatown residents seek new homes as neighborhood celebrates Lunar New Year

Chinese New Year is in full swing, and on Jan. 28, families across the The City enjoyed a traditional dish: Fat choi (the “hairy vegetable”), which is eaten partly because its name sounds like the Cantonese words “fat choy,” meaning to get rich or prosperous.

Only six days after the traditional meal, a two-alarm blaze ripped through a two-story building on Stockton Street in Chinatown, displacing 19 Chinese seniors.
For those seniors and the seven businesses displaced by the fire, seeking prosperity isn’t just a ritual this new year, it’s a necessity.

“When we spoke to them, the theme was, ‘What’s the next step for us?’ and ‘Will we find shelter we can afford?’” said Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of programs at the Chinatown Community Development Center.

Yeung said that just last weekend, “Everyone in Chinatown was celebrating with their families, buying special food, putting up decorations.”

Now, these seniors are seeking temporary homes in the aftermath of the blaze.

The CCDC, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and a bevy of other agencies organized to find emergency shelter for the 19 displaced residents, two of whom are staying in a hotel. The other 17 people are in emergency accommodations at the Salvation Army’s Chinatown Corps Community Center on Powell and Broadway streets.

That’s only temporary, however. To find semi-permanent shelter while the seniors’ Stockton street home is rebuilt, those same agencies, nonprofits, politicians and others are joining together to raise money.

A two-alarm fire ripped through a two-story building on Stockton Street in Chinatown on Friday, displacing 19 Chinese seniors. (Courtesy Gregg Welk/KPIX)

On Friday, Mayor Ed Lee directed the Office of Economic and Workforce Development to allocate money from the Small Business Disaster Relief Fund, allowing up to $10,000 for each of the businesses harmed by the blaze.

“It’s important that San Francisco small businesses know that the City is here to help when they face unforeseen events,” Mayor Lee said in a statement. “The small businesses impacted by the fire in Chinatown will get the resources and assistance they need to recover quickly and resume operations.”

On Sunday, Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the San Francisco Examiner he would announce a GoFundMe campaign on Monday to hopefully raise tens of thousands for the displaced seniors.

“It’s moments like these that really show San Francisco takes care of its own,” Peskin said, whose district includes Chinatown.

Peskin was at the Chinatown Corps Community Center through the weekend, seeing to the needs of the displaced single-room-occupancy hotel tenants. He also arranged for nonprofit Lava Mae to bring its shower bus by for the seniors.

John McKnight, director of emergency and disaster services for The Salvation Army Golden State Division, said emergency personnel dove into the ashes after the fire was extinguished to find bottles of pills for the seniors’ immediate health needs.

The seniors declined interview requests, but the Examiner was given a glimpse at the efforts to help them in their time of need.

On the second floor of the Chinatown Corps Community Center, a basketball court was converted into a living space. Food and other supplies were piled on the bleachers, and a few seniors sat at tables in the center of the room, watching soap opera stars sing on a small TV.

A dozen or so Red Cross staff and volunteers criss-crossed the room, speaking to some of the displaced seniors about their needs. In one corner, Tan Chow, a CCDC organizer, sat with other seniors and coordinated with the emergency agencies.

McKnight said the Chinatown Corps Community Center has never been used for an emergency shelter. But when the call came, the staff of the center organized quickly.

Yeung said though the fire was tragic, there may be a silver lining to its timing near the new year. Hopefully, “people will feel that community spark” to donate to the seniors, he said.

And perhaps in addition to giving red envelopes filled with money to relatives, funding will go to those who lost their homes, too.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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