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Erika Lam’s business and family are Chinese in origin, San Franciscan to the core

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Erika Lam, whose interior decorating and home staging business Awaken Designs just celebrated its 10th anniversary, at a client’s home. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“I used to think, I’m going to buy a house in Sea Cliff one of these days,” said Erika Lam, a San Francisco-born feng shui designer, dedicated to maintaining her small business and raising the fourth generation of her family here, despite the obvious challenges for people of modest and middle means.

“It’s ironic I’ve been into hundreds of homes and provide a service to homeowners and home buyers and yet, I don’t fall into that pool,” she said. And yet, Lam is still grateful to be a San Franciscan, renting a unit in the Inner Richmond District with her spouse, two teenagers and a baby, and to be working at a profession she loves.

As a feng shui expert, she chooses the design elements, colors and furniture that make homes flow better and feel good.

She stages million dollar homes that are being put on the market, and the work can be intense. “There are short time frames and it can be a high stress environment,” she explained. She strives to deliver a vibe that is “calm, welcoming, generous and kind.”

A family history in the Bay Area

Lam’s grandmother and her small child were detained at Angel Island and held upon arrival along with others who arrived via the Pacific; a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act to prevent immigration, prisoners were subjected to humiliating inspections and medical practices.

“She didn’t have to stay as long as some of the other women. She was coming to meet my grandfather. My dad was in her womb and she had a toddler, my uncle, with her,” explained Lam.

“My dad was born here after my grandmother was released. She had six more kids and they lived in one-bedroom on Waverly Place in Chinatown,” she said, referring to the neighborhood’s historic alley. By the 1950s, the family would be among the first generation of Chinese immigrants to settle in the Richmond.

“They’re from Toishan, a district in Canton and there are a lot of Toishanese here,” said Lam.

“They really made it through some serious obstacles. They worked hard, for us to be here,” she said. “Is there really anything for me to complain about?”

Lam’s mother was from Oakland, her grandmother from the Central Valley, “And my grandfather came over on a boat with siblings. My grandfather had his name spelled wrong when they were processing him coming into the country so everyone in my mother’s family is Hee, but her last name is Kee because they misspelled it,” she said.

Over 40 years ago, her parents, on their mail carrier’s and dental hygienist’s salaries, managed to move their family of five out of the building her grandparents owned in the Inner Richmond and into their own house on 27th Avenue.

“It’s in our DNA, work, work, work, it’s in our family’s culture,” said Lam.

“I went to Frank McCoppin, Alamo, and Presidio Middle School,” said Lam who attended high school outside the neighborhood at Lowell.

“My husband is from Hawaii so we both come from beautiful places,” she said, digging into the dilemma of whether to stay or go. “We’ve thought of going back there but the Richmond is a perfect place. It doesn’t have as much sunshine as I might want but it has the park, the ocean and it has people who aren’t from here.”

Lam loves Clement Street. “You can hear Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Russian, there is something so soothing about that to me,” she said.

The Richmond indeed remains one of The City’s most diversely populated neighborhoods, where in addition to the aforementioned languages, you might also hear Spanish or meet recent arrivals, whether from Eritrea or other parts of town. At MUNI stops I’ve observed rabbis, Chinese elders, Russian youth and clerics, African American students and professionals, and mothers in hijab pushing strollers. Tech workers, hipsters and millennials are also represented.

“When I go to a place that’s too homogenous and see the same color of people, speaking the same language, I feel a little nervous, I don’t feel safe,” said Lam. “I guess it’s because I’ve grown up here, where there are so many choices and you can be whoever you want to be.”

Lam’s found her own niche away from work and family with the Aloha Uke Squad, an amateur group of ukulele enthusiasts who perform at community events. “We’re like-minded, open-minded people who share aloha spirit,” said Lam. “We’re old and young, white and Asian, different colors and backgrounds; some work 9-5, some just love music and love giving,” she said.

Her environmental science degree from UC Davis, studies in Costa Rica, and time teaching yoga, doing massage therapy and tutoring kids were valuable stops on her road to feng shui, a practice that’s been used in China for at least 6000 years.

“Basically, I’m interested in energy,” she said. The home staging aspect of her craft emerged by accident when a friend in real estate requested her services.

“He said, maybe you could try that feng shui on the house I’m selling,” said Lam. This month, her Awake Designs celebrated its 10th year in business; employing six people, she also hires out for transport and heavy lifting.

“It’s a milestone, being a small business owner in San Francisco for 10 years, a woman-owned and driven business,” she said. “We marked the anniversary at Hardwood Bar & Smokery, owned by my two kindergarten friends,” said Lam, who also consulted with the restaurant’s design.

“The fact that I live directly across from the elementary school where I shared many handball moments with these two dear pals is also part of what makes The City special to me and why I stay,” she noted. “There’s a connectedness and small town-feel still alive here, in the people I live, play and work with.”

She also retains a special appreciation for that which is distinctly still San Francisco.

“You can drive, walk, take public transit or ride a bike,” she said. “You can have pink hair and show up in fuzzy bunny slippers. It’s definitely shifting, but I feel safer in a place where everyone is included — there’s still freedom in San Francisco. It’s ok to be who you are.”

Erika Lam’s interior decorating and home staging business Awaken Designs just celebrated its 10th anniversary. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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