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Officials seek to rename Julius Kahn Playground over history of anti-Asian racism

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A coalition of city officials and advocates are calling for the renaming of Julius Kahn Playground due to the anti-Asian policies and rhetoric of the U.S. congressman after which it is named. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The name “Julius Kahn Playground” may soon be tossed in the dustbin of history.

A coalition of community groups, a Recreation and Parks Department commissioner and city supervisors are calling for the 92-year-old Presidio playground to be renamed, due to its namesake’s support for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

“The fact is, history matters,” said Hoyt Zia, president of the Chinese Historical Society of America’s Board of Directors, at a press conference Monday afternoon.

“The names of places should reflect The City as it is now,” he said, adding that Kahn would “fit right in with this [presidential] administration. He was anti-immigrant.”

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The coalition of officials and advocates are calling for a community-led process to identify a new name for the playground, which joins other notable San Francisco locations, from the Embarcadero’s Justin Herman Plaza to the University of San Francisco’s Phelan building, to draw criticism for the racism of their namesakes.

Last Tuesday, Supervisor Norman Yee quietly introduced a resolution “urging” the Recreation and Park Commission to remove Kahn’s name from the playground, which rests at the southern edge of the Presidio on West Pacific Avenue and Spruce Street. Supervisors Sandra Fewer and Aaron Peskin both voiced support of the resolution on Monday. The measure is non-binding.

Congressman Kahn represented San Francisco in the House of Representatives from 1899 to 1903, then again from 1905 to 1924. The Chinese Exclusion Act was first signed into law in 1882, but as it was set to sunset Kahn introduced a bill to make it permanent. That act barred Chinese immigration to the United States, and required people of Chinese descent living in the United States to obtain certifications to re-enter the United States if they left.

Besides his bill, Kahn was infamous for his rhetoric on the Chinese community.

“It is my deliberate opinion that the Chinese are morally the most debased people on the face of the earth,” Kahn said in remarks to congress, in passages collected by the advocates seeking to change the name of the park. Kahn also told Congress, “Forms of vice which in other countries are barely named are in China so common they excite no comment among the natives … depths of depravity so shocking and horrible that their character cannot even be hinted.”

Advocates also said Kahn was openly racist toward other Asian ethnic groups, including Japanese people.

San Francisco named the park after Kahn in 1926. Rec and Park Director Phil Ginsburg attended Monday’s press event said that Kahn “was on the wrong side of history.”

Addressing criticisms that usually follow renaming a public space — including calls to honor history — Chinese for Affirmative Action co-director Cynthia Choi told reporters that Kahn can be remembered in history, books, and in classrooms, but “shouldn’t be put on a pedestal.” She said she would not want to explain to her own child, when asked, why a park they played in would be named for someone who actively hated and discriminated against their people.

Ultimately, any name change to the park would come after a vote of the Rec and Park commission. Though there is no guarantee of such a vote, the effort has wide backing from groups across the Chinese and Japanese communities, as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council (Kahn was a Jewish immigrant from Germany). Importantly, Rec and Park Commission Vice President Allan Low is playing a key role in the push to rename the park, including reaching out to neighbors, advocacy groups, and more.

Low said his own grandfather was a “paper son” at the age of 18, using the term for immigrants who, in fear of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other bigotry, falsely claimed relatives in the United States to gain entry. Low said his grandfather lived in fear of discovery for decades. Later, Low’s father became a municipal court judge, and helped Low’s grandfather become a citizen in his mid-60’s.

“He lived in the shadows,” Low said, of his grandfather.

Now, the sons and daughters of those who fled laws drafted by Kahn and his ilk have prominence and power — and are exercising it.

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