A look back at 2020: Through the lens of San Francisco’s Chinese community

On February 8th, under concerns of the pandemic, San Francisco Chinatown hosted the Year of the Rat lunar new year parade, drawing large crowds. (Photo: Han Li)

2020 is finally over. Looking back at this past year, San Francisco’s Chinese community captured major news headlines — good and bad — and kept reporters covering those stories busier than ever.

We reviewed the year month by month and here are some highlights of an unforgettable year.

  • January: City Hall corruption scandal ensnares Chinese community business leaders.

At the end of January, as Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations began, the FBI arrested Public Works Department Head Mohammed Nuru, launching a still-ongoing City Hall corruption scandal. Soon, Chinatown business leaders Walter Wong and Florence Kong were also named and charged. Building Inspection Department Head Tom Hui resigned.

Mohammed Nuru was active in San Francisco's Chinese community events. (Photo: Han Li)
  • February: Before the pandemic hit, Chinatown hosted the annual parade.

Early February, a novel virus in China drew global attention. Though concerned, the Chinatown community kept with tradition and celebrate the Lunar New Year with the annual parade. The crowd was still substantial but smaller than past years.

On Valentine’s day, Mayor London Breed disclosed a past romantic relationship with Mohammed Nuru.

  • March: First confirmed cases and the Grand Princess cruise ship.

On March 5, San Francisco had its first two confirmed cases of COVID-19. Fears of the virus caused panic buying, leaving shelves empty of toilet paper and disinfecting products. The Grand Princess cruise ship found itself with guests sick with the suspected virus, allegedly contracted aboard. Days later, it entered the Port of Oakland where guests were allowed to disembark but were placed under quarantine.

On March 16, the City announced an unprecedented shelter-in-place order, signaling the official declaration of a pandemic and the start of a chaotic year.

  • April: Outbreaks in homeless shelters

San Francisco’s homeless shelters were deemed high-risk settings for spreading the virus, along with other congregate settings such as jails. Nightmare outbreaks did occur. In response, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an Emergency Ordinance to shelter 7,000 homeless in hotel rooms. The new law met resistance from Mayor Breed because of the costs and uncertainty over the administration of the program.

April also saw the rise of hate incidents, violence, and racism against Asian Americans.

  • May: Unusually high Asian fatality rate.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The usually celebratory month of culture and history was marred by the unusually high COVID-19 fatality rate among Asians in San Francisco. More than half of the deaths were among this demographic. After World Journal’s reporting that highlighted the apparent anomaly, several members of the Board of Supervisors joined to pressure the Department of Public Health (DPH) for explanations. DPH provided some reasons such as age, co-morbidity conditions, and housing in long-term care facilities.

Still, COVID-19 cases remained relatively contained in San Francisco and allowed San Francisco to start reopening its economy.

Data showed that over half of the COVID-19 deaths were Asian. (DataSF)
  • June: A renewed civil rights movement. Chinatown struggles after vandalism and looting.

The death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, sparked national outrage over the death of yet another unarmed Black man at the hands of police, leading the Black Lives Matter movement. Downtown San Francisco and Chinatown businesses were vandalized and looted, leaving the Chinese community shocked and traumatized. Chinatown businesses, already hurt from mischaracterization about a “Chinese virus,” struggled even more as they boarded up windows. Mayor Breed ordered a curfew to address public safety, banning most nightlife.

Also in June, Assemblyman Phil Ting admitted extramarital affairs and apologized.

San Francisco protest on the Great Highway. (Photo: Han Li)
  • July: Asian Muni driver attacked

An Asian Muni driver was attacked while on duty, amidst a rising trend of violent incidents against Asians nationally and growing concerns over anti-Asian hate crimes.

On July 4th, a six-year-old boy died of gun violence in the Bayview while watching fireworks with his family, eliciting outrage throughout the City and prompting the Mayor, members of the Board of Supervisors, and Police Chief to address the incident.

City officials, community members condemn the violence against the Asian muni driver. (Photo: Han Li)
  • August: Kamala Harris becomes a running mate. Wildfire damages Yin Ranch.

Kamala Harris, a Bay Area native of South Asian descent, becomes Joe Biden’s Democratic running mate, marking the first time in history that a woman of color could become Vice President and igniting excitement among the Bay Area political circle.

Wildfires ravaged Northern California and partially damaged the Yin Ranch, an iconic Asian American landmark in Vacaville (Solano County) built by Chinese American leader and entrepreneur C.C. Yin and often used for community events and political fundraisers.

Also in August, the Chinatown community advocated for the single-room-occupancy(SRO) tenants for more resources and support from the City. SRO buildings are considered high-risk housing status during the pandemic because the tenants share bathrooms and kitchens.

C.C. Yin standing at the site of the ruins. (Photo: Han Li)
  • September: Apocalyptic skies. Lawsuit challenging WeChat ban.

On an early September day, the dust and smoke from wildfires created an orange-hued sky in the Bay Area, keeping the skies darkened for more than a day. Perplexed residents wondered what was happening. Persistent wildfires and extreme weather conditions have triggered greater urgency in addressing climate change.

WeChat users and Bay Area Chinese American lawyers filed a federal suit in San Francisco, initiating the challenge to President Trump’s proposal to ban WeChat in the United States. The judge granted the injunction, allowing WeChat to “survive.”

  • October: Indoor dining permitted. Lowell High School admissions policy change.

As the number of pandemic cases improved, San Francisco began allowing indoor dining to resume with the prescribed protocol. Not one to follow the CDC protocol, Trump contracted COVID-19.

Mere weeks before the start of high school applications and without widespread notice, the San Francisco Board of Education created heated debate by announcing a proposed change to academic-based admission to San Francisco’s acclaimed Lowell High School, a public school where more than one-half of the students are Asian. The purported one-time change from an academic-based admission to a lottery for the 2021–22 academic year passed unanimously.

Parents protested outside the school district office over the Lowell reform. (Photo: Han Li)
  • November: Biden win declared — finally. Connie Chan elected Supervisor. No to affirmative action.

After waiting on edge for days, on Saturday morning, Biden is declared the winner of the presidential election. San Franciscans spontaneously flooded the streets in exuberant celebration.

In the local election, Hong Kong immigrant Connie Chan won the hard-fought battle for District 1 Supervisor race by a razor-thin lead of 0.36 percent or 125 votes.

The controversial Proposition 16 to restore “Affirmative Action” was roundly defeated.

Pandemic numbers start to climb and Governor Gavin Newsom faced criticism over attending a birthday for his political consultant at Napa’s famed French Laundry.

Connie Chan, left, and David Lee, right, both candidates at the D1 supervisor race, formed a last-minute alliance to consolidated Chinese American votes. (Photo: Han Li)
  • December: Worsening pandemic and the arrival of vaccines.

After defying admonitions against travel for Thanksgiving and a gathering beyond immediate household members, California saw its COVID-19 cases soar and its ICU bed availability drop to levels worse than the initial pandemic in March. Vaccinations from two companies received emergency approval by the FDA. A Taiwanese immigrant nurse at San Francisco administered the first vaccine injections to front-line medical workers. As the pandemic worsened, the City banned outdoor dining and issued a stay-at-home order.

Two other notable headlines captured the Chinese community: Mayor Breed faced criticism as it was revealed that she attended a birthday party for a prominent Chinese American San Franciscan at French Laundry and stories of alleged Chinese spy Christine Fang Fang infiltrating Bay Area political and national circles in the early 2010s resurfaced.

On December 31, the City extended its stay-at-home order indefinitely.

As the pandemic worsens, Chinatown’s COVID-19 testing program continues in 2021. (Photo: Han Li)

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The Chinese language version of the story appeared on the World Journal on Jan 1, 2021.

Bilingual journalist. San Francisco-based.