Visitors to San Francisco who come to Chinatown see a colorful, picture-postcard view of this densely populated area. San Francisco’s Chinatown has one of the largest population of Chinese people outside of Asia. Chinatown is familiar as a center of restaurants, shops and other businesses owned and operated by Chinese Americans, but in addition to being a major tourist attraction, it is the epicenter for Chinese Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area and the West Coast.
On October 20th, StoryCorps paid a visit to On Lok Powell Street Center to record the stories of this amazing community. Since 1971, On Lok has been providing services for San Francisco seniors in centers throughout the city. The Powell Street Center offers a comprehensive package of services: clinics, doctors, nurses, physical and occupational therapies as well as recreational activities. On Lok’s focus is on supportive and preventative measures to keep it’s members within their communities and families for as long as possible. Beyond that, On Lok provides a place for seniors to meet and participate in group outings, companionship, and ethnic and cultural activities. For 38 years On Lok has helped people maintain their independence and dignity. StoryCorps came to honor and celebrate a few of these elders by recording their words in conversation with sons, daughters and social workers in the language that is native to them, Cantonese.
Since I do not speak Cantonese, I was unable to understand exactly what was said during the recordings, but afterwards I asked the interviewers about the content of their conversations. Storytellers were asked about their years growing up and the memories of their parents and grandparents. Some told the saga of their immigration to the United States. At one point, Ting Foon Lee, while recalling a memory, began what sounded to me like the recitation of a poem. When I asked her daughter, Yvonne Lee, about this she said her mother loves poetry and had committed many poems to memory as a student and recited one for her daughter during their recording. As well as receiving the respectful care provided at the Powell Street Center, six Chinese-American elders were honored by their conversation partners and San Francisco StoryCorps facilitators.