Following in the footsteps of many generations of immigrants, Chloe Chen, her parents and younger brother moved from Xinhui in the south China city of Jiangmen to San Francisco seeking a higher standard of life. They settled in a three-bedroom house in the Sunset on the advice of a relative who owned a home in the neighborhood.
Making a living in The City, however, was more difficult than they expected.
It took Chen's father, who fixed excavators in China, nearly two years to get a part-time job repairing cars in San Bruno because he didn't speak English. Chen's mother, who knew a little English, had a slightly easier time finding work — as a seamstress. Now, three years since immigrating, all their income still goes to rent, food and basic necessities.
“We don't have any money left at the end of the month,” said Chen, 18, a senior at George Washington High School. “We don't think we can stay here for a long time since my parents' jobs are not stable and they might get laid off tomorrow.”
The perception, Chen said, is that Asians living in the west side of San Francisco are wealthy and own homes. But the reality for Chen's family is they will likely need to move to another city in order to save money.
And they are far from the only Asian family in that part of The City living in poverty.
Although higher incomes were reported overall in the Sunset, Richmond, Lakeshore and Parkside areas than in other areas with Asian and Pacific Islander residents, almost 30 percent of San Francisco's poor Asians live there, according to a report released today by the Asian Pacific Islander Council.
The report, Asian and Pacific Islander Health and Wellbeing: A San Francisco Neighborhood Analysis, is the first granular look at poverty and health issues across Asian ethnicities citywide, according to the council, a coalition of 29 organizations that formed in 2012 in response to deep budget and social-services cuts at the local level.
For years, individual organizations and policy advocates made their case for support from local government through stories such as Chen's, but that hasn't always been enough to leverage funds, said Malcolm Yeung, steering committee member of the council and deputy director at the Chinatown Community Development Center.
“It's the pervasiveness of the 'model minority,'” Yeung said, “And I think when we start talking about it, we're able to talk about it as anecdotes, but what we're missing in the narrative is hard facts to back it up.”
The report, conducted by Davis Y. Ja and Associates starting last October, drew from existing data including the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey from 2010 to 2012. While some findings confirmed familiar tales of poverty like overcrowding at Chinatown single-room-occupancy hotels, others surprised even members of the council who work with the Asian communities every day.
Asian and Pacific Islander people were affected by poverty at lower rates than other racial groups — 14 percent compared to 30 percent and 17 percent among blacks and Latinos, respectively — but by population numbers they were the largest minority group affected. A 44 percent increase in Asians and Pacific Islanders living below the poverty threshold, from 25,413 in 2006-2008 to 38,497 people in 2010-2012, was “another piece of the puzzle that nobody expected,” Yeung said.
Also shocking to the council was unemployment data. The report noted 7.3 percent of Asians were unemployed, more than the overall rate in the city of 5.4 percent, and the rate was nearly three times that for Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians at 14.2 percent.
Hunters Point resident Fiapapalagi Montufau, who belongs to San Francisco's little-known Samoan community, recently became a certified nursing assistant but has only been able to find on-call work. About 90 percent of The City's Samoan families, including her own, live in low-income housing.
“The juvenile justice system, gang affiliation, violence — we see it all the time,” said Montufau, 35. “And then the other thing is obesity and health issues. Samoans and Pacific Islanders are large people.”
San Francisco's Samoan population, between 5,000 and 7,000, is often overlooked because they don't “yell and scream and protest,” explained Patsy Tito, executive director of the Samoan Community Development Center on Sunnydale Avenue.
“A lot of our folks tend to go more toward the blue-collar jobs rather than the white collar because of a lack of education or skills,” she said.
Other neighborhoods in the south — Visitacion Valley, Bayview-Hunters Point, the Excelsior, Oceanview, Crocker-Amazon, Portola and Silver Terrace — had 74 percent of their Asian population report being foreign-born. Despite overall lower rates of violent crime in those neighborhoods than in the past, 77 percent of residents said they still did not feel safe.
The north — which the report defined as Chinatown, downtown, Civic Center, Nob Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, the Tenderloin and South of Market — had the highest rate of Asian unemployment at more than twice the citywide rate, and with 24 percent below the poverty line. And the Tenderloin and Civic Center neighborhoods had the highest rates of violent crime.
For Lourdes Hitones, 80, who immigrated to San Francisco from the Philippines in 1988, living at a low-income apartment at Tenderloin Family Housing on Turk Street has meant getting used to coming home before dark.
“Every time we go out, we don't stay long outside,” she said. “We're afraid that something might happen.”
The north side of The City had the most overcrowding in households, with 24 percent of rooms in Chinatown considered overcrowded. The SRO hotels in which families pack into spaces as small as 8-by-10 feet with their belongings is not a living condition of the past.
At a four-story SRO building on Jackson Street, Cui Ping Zhang, her husband, and 14- and 2-year-old daughters share two bunk beds, the top half of one which is stacked to the ceiling with clothes and diapers. The room has one window and the family keeps its only door open to allow for ventilation. For privacy, a sheet hangs over the doorway alongside banners inscribed with “May money and fortune be plentiful” and “Bringing in wealth and prosperity” in Chinese characters.
“It's hard to breathe,” said 14-year-old Sophia Yu from the top bunk.
Her mother, Zhang, 42, said she never imagined they would live like that when they moved to Chinatown.
“In China, our place was not as packed,” she said in Cantonese. “We didn't know it would be like this until we came here.”
Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, whose district includes Chinatown, said the report is the first time more than two dozen Asian community groups have come together to highlight disparities in areas including workforce development.
“Every year, I have conversations with each of those groups, but separately,” Chiu said. “It is unprecedented for them to come together to ask my colleagues and I this year to focus on the workforce,” among other issues.
Support from local government has been restored to levels before the recession, but costs for resources have risen with inflation, said Amor Santiago, co-chair of the council and executive director of APA Family Support Services, based in Chinatown.
“What we're hoping for in this next budget cycle,” he said, “Is that the mayor and supervisors will help us with at least some resources to meet the need.”
The council's goal is to release updates annually or every other year to make the case to city, state and federal agencies that much of the Asian community in San Francisco doesn't fit the “model minority” stereotype.
“The perception is that Asians by and large don't have socio-economic issues going on in our community,” Yeung said. “This report really starts to shine a light on how that assumption is false.”
Chinese Hospital caters to specific community needs
In Chinatown, more than in any other neighborhood in The City, the streets are packed with elderly Asians, rarely obese, going about their business up and down steep hills, and so often they are typically lauded as healthy.
“At Portsmouth Square, there's tai chi going on, and so there's a perception of health,” Chinese Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Peggy Cmiel said. “The underlying issues don't really show.”
But a report on Asian and Pacific Islander health and well-being released today details a different picture. Health concerns specific to the community include high rates of diabetes, tuberculosis, liver cancer, smoking and mental health issues.
At the Chinese Hospital on Jackson Street, founded more than a century ago by 15 family associations and the only health care facility in the country dedicated to serving the Chinese, according to staff, anyone who gets admitted with a cough with a slight possibility of tuberculosis is immediately isolated.
“Living in SROs and tight quarters, the chances of it being communicated, spread to others is high,” Cmiel said.
A 65-year-old living with diabetes, Catherine Lee from Hong Kong, said about 70 percent of Asians she surveyed for Self-Help for the Elderly at the Manilatown Senior Center said they had diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.
“People say I don't look like I have [diabetes],” she said in Cantonese. “But it's very common.”
The finding from the report that most surprised Cmiel and other staff at the Chinese Hospital was that the HIV/AIDS cases almost doubled among Asian and Pacific Islanders between 2000 to 2010.
“I've been here for eight years and have never seen one case,” said Gigi Lim, a nursing supervisor at the hospital.
The report also found Asian and Pacific Islanders had lower rates of using health care resources like cancer screenings, mental health services and HIV testing. The vast majority of health and wellness organizations in San Francisco do not have cross-cultural services and programs, a concern given the continued increase in immigrants from Asia.
It underscores the importance of facilities like the Chinese Hospital, where about 90 percent of staff speak Cantonese and even most of the food is Asian.
“We probably have the largest wok in the kitchen of any hospital, and jook,” said Lim, using the Cantonese word for porridge. “Other hospitals don't even know what we're talking about.”
Asian poverty throughout city
Comparing Asian and Pacific Islander populations with the entire population of San Francisco (broken down by region of The City):
– North 37.1% South 16.9% West 29.4%
– 34,750 Asians living below poverty level in San Francisco
– 110,889 San Franciscans overall living below poverty level
– North 11.7% South 10.4% West 7.2% City overall 5.4%
– North 10.4% South 10% West 4.3%
– City overall 5.1%
Exposure to violent crime
– North 2.8 times citywide average South 1.04 times citywide average
– West 0.3 times citywide average
– North: Chinatown, downtown, Civic Center, Nob Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, Tenderloin, South of Market
– South: Visitacion Valley, Bayview-Hunters Point, Excelsior, Oceanview, Crocker-Amazon, Portola, Silver Terrace
– West: Richmond, Sunset, Lakeshore, Parkside
Source: Asian and Pacific Islander Health and Wellbeing: A San Francisco Neighborhood Analysis