“I remember the Asians sat on one side of the room and the African-Americans sat on the other side,” said the local YMCA’s executive director, Gina Fromer.
But from those vantage points, some black attendees saw for the first time a colorful Chinese lion dance, and the Asian patrons felt the rhythm of an African drum dance.
“The second year, there was a little more mingling. We saw a lot of people that normally don’t gather getting together,” Fromer said. “And last year was totally mixed. Families were breaking bread together and the kids were playing together and breaking down barriers all over the place.”
The annual event celebrating both cultures was created in February 2011 specifically to alleviate tensions between the black and Asian communities. In 2010, 83-year-old Huan Zhou Chen died after being beaten by several black teenagers in the Bayview, and a 57-year-old woman was thrown off a Muni platform, also in the Bayview, by black teenagers. And a string of robberies by black people targeted Asians.
At the fourth celebration taking place at the YMCA at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Fromer and partner organizer Eddy Zheng, project director of the Community Youth Center, expect more than the 160 people who showed up last year.
Tensions between the races today are “nowhere near the same level as it was back in 2010,” said Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose District 10 includes the Bayview. She credited that to community-building events like Saturday’s celebration and the added presence of police and ambassador escorts in the Bayview who walk people from Muni stops to their homes.
Even so, Asian and black leaders plan to continue the February celebration because, they say, educating the races on shared struggles such as discrimination, along with the mingling that takes place during the toy and food-bag giveaways, builds stronger community ties.
“Instead of a reactionary way, this is a proactive way to get people to understand each other,” said Zheng, who in 2011 spearheaded the opening of a Community Youth Center office in the Bayview.
Homicides in the Bayview are half of what they used to be and violent crime is down, Police Chief Greg Suhr said, and both black and Asian leaders have been trying to get people to understand that the 2010 incidents were “one-offs.”
“It was not demonstrative of how everybody gets along in the Bayview,” said Suhr, who was Bayview Police Station captain at the time. “These were isolated incidents where larger people were taking advantage of smaller, elderly people.”
But Russell Jeung, an Asian-American studies professor at San Francisco State University, said the absence of glaring violence like the Muni and homicide incidents does not mean people are getting along. Racial tensions are “still pretty salient,” he said.
“Especially for Asians, I think there’s a sense of being targeted,” Jeung said. “There’s a high rate of being bullied and harassed on the streets. It’s been pretty consistent.”
Surveys of attendees at the past two YMCA events by Jeung and his students found that neighborhood safety as the most important issue jumped from 47 percent in 2012 to 67 percent last year.
Part of the tension could be attributed to changing demographics. In District 10, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian population grew from 32 percent to 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the black population decreased to 21 percent.
Moving forward, the Rev. Norman Fong, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, said black and Asian residents can form a “new synergy” by sharing their experiences in the U.S. — from the civil-rights movement to abolishing the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“It’s a work in progress; we just need to keep the momentum going,” Suhr said.
Lunar New Year events
Black History Month kickoff celebration with Supervisors Malia Cohen and London Breed as well as Mayor Ed Lee. Noon, City Hall rotunda, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, S.F.
Exhibit opening for Virginia Jourdan, with lecture and reception. 6 p.m., San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, 762 Fulton St., S.F.
Miss Chinatown U.S.A Pageant, 7:30 p.m., Palace of Fine Arts Theater, 3301 Lyon St., S.F.
Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Chinatown YMCA 10K/5K walk. 8 a.m., starting at Sacramento and Grant streets, S.F.