Norman Fong speaks during a meeting of the Chinatown Community Development Center staff organizers before he retires from his role as executive director after nearly a decade. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Rev. Norman Fong retires after a life of activism seen ‘through the lens of faith’

Chinatown CDC leader’s career joined need for justice with an eye for balance

San Francisco in the mid-1960s was pregnant with possibility.

The civil rights movement may have been in full swing, but the black student uprising at San Francisco State University had yet to rollick the campus. The Summer of Love was also on the horizon, soon to set the Haight Ashbury ablaze with rebellion.

For a young Rev. Norman Fong, however, a life striving for social justice was many more years away. First, he had to get through junior high school.

The Chinatown native was eager to start at what is now called Francisco Middle School, on Powell Street, behind Joe DiMaggio Playground. But to get there Fong had to cross through North Beach, Italian territory. That’s where the affable young man, who even today is described as joyous and upbeat, first encountered blistering hate.

A group of Italian boys cornered Fong at Salesians Boy’s Club, which to this day is located at Saint Peter and Paul’s Church at 680 Filbert St.

The boys tied Fong to the church fence. They taunted him.

“Chinaman!” they shouted, as he struggled.

They threw water balloons at him. Fong called it “torture.”

“I felt angry like never before,” Fong said.

His mother tempered that simmering anger. She reminded him their landlord was also Italian, “and he only charges us 90 bucks” for rent, he recalled years later. Fong’s feelings about his world suddenly became more complicated.

“She said life was about balance and that’s the key. That was my lesson,” he told me.

Years later, he’d take that fiery need for justice, tempered with an eye for balance, and lead Chinatown’s largest nonprofit organization in its efforts to shield its people from gentrifying forces.

Now, after decades of activism, he’s finally going to rest.

The Chinatown Community Development Center announced Fong’s retirement as the organization’s executive director in early February. He officially steps down April 9.

He’s left quite a legacy.

Fong became the Chinatown CDC’s leader in 2011, but he’s been at the organization for 30 years. The organization credits the good reverend with growing the development center’s portfolio to nearly 3,500 affordable housing units and doubling its staff size.

His activism reaches beyond the development center, however. As conflict between the African American and Chinese communities rose over the past decade, he helped convene meetings of ethnic groups of all stripes to ease those tensions. And as fears of coronavirus have ripped through Chinatown over the last month, he’s led marches — banner in hand — to remind the community that illnesses aren’t a racial issue.

He even settled his score with his rowdy Italian neighbors decades later by starting a “noodle-fest” with Supervisor Aaron Peskin and the Italian American Club. Instead of solving fights with fists, Chinatown and North Beach fought “chow-mein versus spaghetti,” Fong said.

I sat with Fong in late February at Capital Restaurant on Clay Street, his usual Chinatown hangout. Through his many speeches in Chinatown, his column in Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily, and his many honorariums from city leaders, people have heard much of Fong’s history.

But I wanted to know what came before the Chinatown Community Development Center — what experiences forged his leadership style? Fong, somewhat reluctant, but still somehow always enthusiastic, obliged.

After his tussle with the Italian boys, Fong said he joined a martial arts club in Chinatown to defend himself.

He couldn’t afford the lessons, though, and instead learned from other martial arts students after their classes. They became known as the “880s,” which Fong also called the 880s Boys. Fong, who is a straight-shooter, said he didn’t recall any unsavory activities from the 880s, and his memory is backed up by research.

The textbook Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia notes that the 880s rose up at the same time as other youth gangs, including the Raiders, the Bugs, and the Wah Chings. “By later standards, their delinquency seems almost quaint,” the book’s authors wrote, largely confined to neighborhood scuffles and tagging walls.

But as San Francisco history has shown, for decades city government ignored the Chinese community. That includes the police, and so the 880s and others loosely defended Chinatown youth.

“Our slogan was when trouble came to us, we will stand up,” Fong said.

Eventually, Fong got in, as he put it, “some trouble.” He needed to find a path.

He found that path at Cameron House’s youth program in Chinatown, which was run by the Presbyterian Church. Fong, a Galileo High School graduate, became a youth leader and was bit with the bug of activism.

“That’s why I’m a pastor,” Fong told me. “My church let us see activism through the lens of faith.”

Activism also opened the road to Fong’s musical interests. As Asian American and Ethnic Studies classes opened on college campuses all over, Fong’s Motown cover-band, “Jest Jammin,” found places to play across the country.

“We formed our own band because we didn’t feel welcome in any nightclub in the 60s,” Fong said. “Civil Rights just passed. And where do you play?”

Fong’s childhood, his family, friends, and activism, his highest highs and deepest lows — almost all of it took place in Chinatown. “It’s right here,” Fong told me.

But not all of it.

There’s a part of Fong’s past he talks about far less often.

Fong discovered he needed to have a master’s degree before he could even attend a seminary for the Presbyterian ministry. To do just that, Fong found a program that would sponsor him into one of the wildest places a San Franciscan and Chinatown native could imagine: Princeton.

In 1974 Fong joined the Princeton Theological Seminary. But much like his tussles with North Beach Italians, he encountered resistance. Asian Americans weren’t considered “minorities” at the time, so Fong didn’t qualify for a whole range of grants offered to other ethnic groups.

“I had to work three jobs,” he said. One in a kitchen, one in a detention hall, and another in a church.

Sleep, he said, “was a luxury.”

Princeton further radicalized Fong. Not because of their teachings; quite the opposite, it was because of what their teachings left out. They wouldn’t give him class credit for learning a Chinese language, and in Fong’s own words, they were not preparing him to be “an urban pastor for Chinatown.”

So Fong, the radical from San Francisco, joined an activist group on campus.

“Jesus was an activist,” Fong noted.

His efforts were noted in the New York Times, which gained the attention of the United Methodist Church, who recruited him to a Human Rights Mission internship. Fong took his Chinatown activism worldwide, traveling to the Philippines and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, Fong lived in “a closet” smaller than a Chinatown Single Room Occupancy Hotel. His task? Investigating multinational corporations and their negative impact on human rights. He personally worked in a subcontractor to Mattel Toys, in a plastic factory.

He was paid ten cents an hour at the subcontractor as he helped expose illegal child labor.

Fong then traveled to the Philippines, spending time in the Cordillera mountains with indigenous peoples. He joined organizers fighting a hydroelectric dam that threatened to kill ancestral rice farms. And he worked with progressive organizers working to help people live affordably in Manila.

“I was exposed to movements globally,” he said.

He brought that ethos back to San Francisco.

Back in Chinatown, Fong took that radical ethos and worked with a young Ed Lee to start a support center for garment workers under legal threat. That included an English class for many Chinatown workers, so they could ensure they weren’t taken advantage of when signing work contracts in English.

Later, he joined Cameron House — the same program that gave him his first leg up as a kid — and gave back to the community there for 11 years.

“I don’t talk about all these experiences usually. I just like being a down-home Chinatown kid,” he said. “You don’t have to have all those experiences to serve your community.”

That ethos was in clear view on Feb. 11, at 41 Ross St. In that Chinatown alley, Chinatown Community Development Center staff gathered in a small art gallery space to thank Fong for his decades of work.

Coincidentally, Norman’s mother used to live in an apartment next door. Decades later, it would be where Fong said goodbye to the foot soldiers of a social justice movement in Chinatown.

Roughly 30 staff sat in a circle, each telling him why his leadership was special to them. He thanked every staffer, sometimes with a joke, other times jumping up to give someone a high five or a fist bump. They recalled moments large and small, and many were brought to tears.

Norman thanked them all.

“So many can be cold-blooded,” he said. But this job, fighting for Chinatown, “is heart and soul.”

But “we need new blood,” he told them.

From Chinatown to the world and back again, he left that fight to them.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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Norman Fong, right, pictured with Malcolm Yeung, shares memories with staffers at a meeting of the Chinatown Community Development Center in February.

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