A visual tribute to the AAPI educators, artists and activists who changed The City

New Chinatown mural celebrates 12 Asian American Pacific Islander heroes

As sunrays beamed down on the intersection of Jackson Street and Grant Avenue, dozens gathered Wednesday morning for the unveiling of the “AAPI Community Heroes Mural.” Created in collaboration with the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and the Wells Fargo Community Mural Program, the public artwork is dedicated to Asian American Pacific Islander artists, educators and activists who have transformed San Francisco and the world.

“We’re so proud ahead of Asian American Islander Pacific heritage month to be able to unveil this mural that shares our community stories and uplifts our Asian American heroes,” said Jenny Leung, executive director of the Chinese Cultural Center.

Concepts for the mural began during the pandemic, when incidents of anti-Asian American violence rapidly increased. To counteract misinformation, xenophobia and racial targeting, organizers sought to celebrate AAPI leaders largely unsung in U.S. history and curricula.

Five thousands students in the Bay Area were asked to nominate candidates for the mural. Ultimately, 12 received unanimous support.

“It’s been a long process, but it’s been very intentional,” said Wendy Liu, the Chinese Cultural Center’s engagement associate.

The mural depicts the following people:

Jeanette Lazam was an organizer representing the 150 elderly Filipino and Chinese tenants of the International Hotel, which was slated for demolition in 1977 and was one of the last remnants of Manilatown. The building was rebuilt in 2005, with Lazam returning as a tenant after 44 years in 2021.

Wong Kim Ark, a San Franciscan born in 1873 to Chinese immigrants, was denied reentry into the country after visiting China in 1890, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Ark took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled in his favor and decided that regardless of race and ethnicity, children born in the United States have the birthright of citizenship even if the parents are not U.S. citizens. The date of his death is unknown.

Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) created art out of found materials, developing looped-wired sculptures that are now displayed in art institutions nationwide.

Caroline Cabading, board president and executive director of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, helped open the International Hotel Manilatown Center on the first floor of the I-Hotel. The venue honors the legacy of historic Manilatown and the International Hotel eviction.

Cynthia Choi, a Korean American activist and community leader, co-founded STOP AAPI Hate, a website that tracks, documents and responds to civil rights violations and discrimination aimed at Asians.

Layton Doung (1955-2014) was a fourth-generation Chinese American who introduced Yangge dance to students at the West Portal Elementary School Chinese Immersion Program. The dance form includes elements of stilt walking, drumming, ribbon and fan dancing.

Reverend Norman Fong, former executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, developed methods of managing single-room occupancies that have served as models for other cities.

Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014) was detained in a Japanese internment camp as a young girl, an experience that led her to champion civil rights for all races.

Tiffany Long, an American-born daughter of parents from Hong Kong and educator at the Chinese American International School, who was active in her school’s Stop AAPI Hate march.

Betty Ann Ong (1956-2001) was the first to alert the country of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When hijackers commandeered American Airlines Flight 11, flight attendant Ong used the aircraft’s phone and described the chaos in the cabin for roughly 20 minutes.

Alok Vaid-Menon, a child of Malaysian and Indian immigrants, is a transgender and nonbinary performer, author and poet who promotes transgender rights, mental health and belonging.

Judy Yung (1946-2020) wrote books on Chinese American history and Chinese women in America. Yung’s texts chronicle the first Chinese who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s.

At the unveiling, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin pointed out to the crowd that they stood on the border of Chinatown and historic Manilatown.

A block away, the rebuilt International Hotel Senior Housing building loomed in the distance.

Lazam recounted the morning she and so many others were evicted in 1977. “The sun wasn’t shining for us at the International Hotel. It was gray, it was misty and it was very cold.”

Peskin said, “Knowing that those heroes are being recognized today on this sacred ground is profoundly important.” He called the tenants’ resistance “a changing point in San Francisco pro-tenant movements. It is when the AAPI community came of age in political activism in San Francisco.”

Harry Ong, the brother of Betty Ong, spoke on behalf of their family. Previously Betty Ong was honored through the renaming of the Chinatown recreation center and a mural on Romolo Place, where she used to skate as a child. “My family and I are deeply honored to have Betty named to this very select group of honorees,” he said.

As the mural’s white plastic covering was torn, members of Lion Dance Me dazzled the audience with a performance, complete with crashing cymbals and beating drums that echoed throughout the neighborhood.

Standing in front of the finished mural, AAPI Youth Rising founder and middle schooler Mina Fedor said, “We are always looking for faces that look like ours, stories that echo ours, to validate us, to inspire us and to make us feel like we are a greater part of the American story.”

She added, “This mural challenges us to tell these stories, not just those of the hardships Asians have endured, but also to celebrate the contributions of Asians in America.”

jsalazar@sfexaminer.com

Dragon dance performers entertain at the mural celebration at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China at 1001 Grant Ave. on Wednesday. (Wells Fargo Community Mural Program)

Dragon dance performers entertain at the mural celebration at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China at 1001 Grant Ave. on Wednesday. (Wells Fargo Community Mural Program)

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