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Young Chinese American rethinks the significance of Portsmouth Square

Photo by GooWakJai, 2010

San Francisco’s Chinatown has interested many tourists over the years. Every day people visit to learn about Chinese American History. 

Kim Lamack explains the importance of Chinatown to her and her job:

"I am a camp counselor. On cultural day, we usually take them to different historical places in San Francisco. And then, we decided to take them to Chinatown. Just all the story behind Chinatown, about how it starts it and how it became a tourist place from being this refuge place for people from different countries. So, I want my kids to learn that."

That's not how I used to think about the square. The first time I came here, I thought it was so lousy. People gambled and screamed a lot. But after talking to people, I started to see things differently. For example, a lot of people sit together to gamble and entertain each other. This park is popular. A lot of people come here. The kids and seniors always come here because they have nowhere to go. They think it is so boring to just stay at home. So, they spend time at the park. They sit, gamble, and play cards. They use a quarter or a buck for gambling.

There are also seniors who like to listen to Chinese music and walk around the park. One senior whose name was Fai says, "I come everyday and I live in Chinatown. I just hang round here and walk in this park. There are plenty of Chinese people come here everyday. So, we do not have the problems of communication. I like to listen to this music because I learned about singing when I was 15 years old. I think this park is peace and quiet."

The park brings back a lot of memories to the people who grew up in Chinatown, like my family friend, Jeff Lee. 

"In my childhood, all of my friends all grew up in Chinatown, so the place we would always hang out or congregate would be at the plaza because the plaza was symbolic for young and old, from new generation to old generation,” Lee explains.

The plaza also has five statues. Each of them represents a different event in history. They're part of the park but they're also important to people in Chinatown today. Lee explains, "the most important part of the plaza is that the statue of the Chinese liberty is erected there for the Chinese to recognize their worthiness being new immigrants and continue the migration of immigrants coming to San Francisco that is like the heartbeat. It has highest value throughout the entire Chinatown. It is the most important great feeling and spirit to carry on prosperity to the future for all Chinese and Chinese Americans aboard."

For many people, the park is the "Heart of Chinatown."

"They meet old and new immigrants, and that is how people come together and realize that this is a good meeting ground to meet new friends and family. It makes a stronger community," agrees Lee.

As for me, well, recording ultimately gave me a different impression of the square. It’s not a lousy place only. It also represents the connection between groups of people. And it reminds me why my family came to San Francisco.

Marco Choi is a rising senior at San Francisco’s Burton High School, where KALW is based. He was a student reporting intern with us this summer.