Chinatown opera musicians seek solution to repeated citations 

click to enlarge Performers are shown in Portsmouth Square. - SF EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • SF Examiner file photo
  • Performers are shown in Portsmouth Square.
The ongoing drama of Chinese opera singers and musicians performing without permits at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown might have a happy ending one day, if the group’s self-proclaimed guardian can drum up enough support for a new arrangement.

For years on weekend afternoons, monolingual Chinese mostly in their 60s to 80s have performed at the square using microphones and amplifiers without the $323 daily permit required by the Recreation and Park Department for amplified sound. Complaints from neighbors about the noise have been coming for years, but have recently worsened. While department patrol officers typically warn and sometimes cite those who violate San Francisco’s park code, on many occasions they have let the Chinese performers slide.

“In the case of Portsmouth Square, out of respect for the performing arts and culture, we have been working with the musicians group for the past three years,” Rec and Park spokeswoman Connie Chan said. “In fact, we also offered them to play in our park with no need for permits or any fees as long as there is no amplified sound, but they insisted on amplified sound.”

The department has issued three amplified-sound citations to the group since Jan. 1 — an injustice in the eyes of Chinatown resident Wilma Pang. Five years ago, she began speaking up for the musicians in English, and said she has paid for about four citations and permits out of her own pocket.

Pang, 74, is seeking funding from city departments, community organizations and philanthropists to create a summer singing, music and folk dancing program to pass over to a nonprofit. Money to pay for park permits is included in Pang’s proposed $25,000 budget. “The monolingual musicians really depend on me. It’s sort of a burden and what I’d really like to do is spend my time and educate them and entertain other seniors since I am a musician and singer,” Pang said, adding of her proposal, “I’m just trying to fish around and see who will take the bait.”

Thus far, Pang’s proposal has received no bites, although she’s only approached a handful of groups.

For example, Pang’s pitch to Recology was denied because the agency’s outreach budget only allows for new sponsorships of programs that increase recycling and composting, and because she recently declared she will run for supervisor of District 3, which includes Chinatown. Bosco Chiu, who founded the Young And The Elderly Charitable Foundation, also declined. A Better Chinatown Tomorrow, Pang’s own nonprofit that celebrated its 12th anniversary recently, cannot raise funds because it is not classified as a 501(c)3 charitable organization.

The Recreation and Park Department does offer lower rates for events for nonprofits when applicable, according to Connie Chan, the department's deputy director of public affairs. One reason The City requires permits is to avoid musicians performing when another group has paid to hold an event at the square.

Many of the performers consider the citations a nuisance. Early this year, when Pang was away on vacation, a police officer attempted to issue a citation to Chinese opera singer Angela Hom for failure to obtain an amplified-sound permit, but she gave a fake name and address. “People should be free to play music,” Hom said, justifying it as free entertainment. “It shows tourists that Chinatown is lively and more people will come.”

Upon returning, Pang went to the square Jan. 25 and was served a citation herself.

“I said, ‘Don’t go out,’ but the seniors said, ‘We will go out anyway, with or without permission,’” Pang said. “That’s why I bear the brunt of the citations.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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