In SF Chinatown, Lunar New Year is all about giving back

Organizers donated 345 meals to families living in SF Chinatown's SROs

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From left to right, Doug Mei, Karen Chan and Ding Bong Lee with a plate of pon choy. Photo courtesy Myron Lee.

By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer

One of Doug Mei’s earliest childhood memories is living in a cramped, single 100-square foot room with his parents and sister in San Francisco Chinatown. 

Known as an SRO, or single room occupancy apartment, he and his family shared three bathrooms and one kitchen with some 200 people. 

“Not many people know about what it’s like living in an SRO unless they have lived there themselves,” said Mei, who moved to the United States when he was 5 and is now a firefighter paramedic in San Francisco. 

Now, inspired by that childhood memory, Mei is part of an effort to donate 345 meals of “Poon Choy” to families living in SROs for Lunar New Year. Mei, community advocate Myron Lee and BeChinatown, a community coalition, launched a GoFundMe campaign in mid-January to raise funds to purchase the meals from nine local restaurants. They raised more than $16,000, surpassing their initial $10,000 goal. 

Poon choy is a traditional Chinese New Year meal of Cantonese origin, made up of layers of different ingredients. Many families living in SROs have historically come from the Toishan region of China, so the meal will bring a sense of community spirit and cultural significance during the New Year. 

The meals are also a way to support local restaurants, which have received little to no grants or loans and are struggling to survive during the pandemic.

“The money will go a long way in bringing joy to these families as a way to ring in the Chinese New Year,” Lee said. “But also just as important are the restaurants in Chinatown, which are owned by members of our community and are struggling financially due to the pandemic. Our meal donation may not be huge, but it will at least keep these businesses afloat.”

An estimated 400 families with children 16 and under live in SROs in San Francisco Chinatown, Lee said. Their plight was underscored last fall in USA Today, which found that of all ethnicities, Asian Americans made up the most deaths from Covid-19 in San Francisco. 

Shortly afterward, Mei, Lee and BeChinatown organized a holiday toy drive and raised funds to give iPads and Amazon tablets to children living in SROs. They saw it as a way to not only help kids with learning, but also help bridge the digital divide and give their families access to online services and resources. 

“The parents of kids living in SROs work hard and it’s usually a 7-days-a-week job in order to save money, keep a roof over their heads, food on the table and contribute to their children’s college fund,” Mei said. “Buying computers, iPads and tablets is a luxury for these families.”

With the additional money raised from the GoFundMe, BeChinatown is also installing 16 LED “lucky knots” along Washington Street. The red lucky knots traditionally symbolize good luck, prosperity and unity, and will help ring in the Year of the Ox. The coalition also hopes the lucky knots will beautify Chinatown and draw people back to the neighborhood, which has been quiet even before the shelter-in-place orders. BeChinatown also distributed 100 $25 gift certificates to low income families to use at Chinatown businesses, as well as 40 $125 gift certificates for women currently residing in women’s shelters in Chinatown. The GoFundMe campaign will be up through Feb. 28; proceeds will be used for a future Chinatown benefit.

Photos courtesy of Myron Lee. Top photo, from left to right: Doug Mei, Karen Chan and Ding Bong Lee.

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