Gordon Chin, the founding executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), has devoted his career to preserving communities. Now, he's sharing his insights and knowledge in a new book, Building Leadership Chinatown Style: A Half-Century of Leadership in San Francisco Chinatown.
Tonight from 5-7pm, the Chinese Culture Center (on the third floor of the Hilton San Francisco Financial District) will host a book launch party for Chin. Admission is free, but guests are asked to RSVP via Eventbrite. Chin will also appear at more book events over the next few months, including dates at SPUR, the Chinese Historical Society of America, and local bookstores. Forays to New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Seattle are also planned.
We met with Chin on Wednesday to talk about what he's been doing (besides writing) since his retirement from the CCDC in October 2011, and to gain a few insights from his 50-year career.
Though he's officially retired, Chin said he's still been actively volunteering and consulting with various organizations, from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to the Asian Pacific Islander Council, a citywide coalition of more than 30 community-serving groups. "I’m also just chilling out," Chin said. "I didn’t get started on the book until about a year after I retired."
When asked why he decided to write a book, Chin said, "Beyond the fact that [current CCDC executive director] Norman Fong has been bugging me every day for 10 years to write the book? I wanted to share some of my experiences over the last 45 years in Chinatown. I knew it wouldn’t be just a personal memoir." Instead, it shares observations about Chinatown and leadership.
It also includes bite-size profiles of 24 community leaders who "affected how I thought and influenced me," Chin said. "All too often in our community, the mainstream media just focuses on a few people: myself, Ed Lee, Rose Pak, David Chiu." He wanted to acknowledge the influence of the many grassroots leaders who mentored both him and Ed Lee. The community leaders profiled range from Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, to attorney Sue Hestor, who has fought to stop high-rise development and preserve affordable housing.
Affordable housing and preserving neighborhoods are two topics discussed in the book that remain hot-button issues today. “Things are happening every single day: controversies; evictions," Chin said. "I was tempted to update the book every single day."
But he says he's not discouraged by the current housing crisis. "One cannot be personally discouraged at the immensity of the challenge. One needs to look at historical precedence. There have been housing crises before." He outlined three previous periods of housing instability: the redevelopment and razing of the Western Addition, Fillmore and SoMa, beginning in the 1950s; the loss of SROs in the late 1970s–80s; and the rise of Ellis Act evictions after the law was enacted in 1985.
Chin said the Ellis Act should be changed, and the city should do more to preserve housing stock being taken off of the market for things like Airbnb. “This current housing crisis is much broader, much more multidimensional than any other housing crisis we’ve suffered in the past 40 years,” he said.
The book also traces the genesis of modern Asian activism, from the student protests of the late 1960s to the plethora of community groups that budded in the 1970s. "That was a very rich period, when so many nonprofits were formed," Chin said. "Many of [them] are still around and successful today.” Most people back then were volunteers, he noted; few nonprofits had full-time employees.
Chin said his book is important not just for Chinatown and San Francisco, but for similar ethnic communities nationwide. "A lot of Chinatowns are located right next to downtown. That’s where the immigration came: near the waterfront; near the railroad yards," he said. "That’s why so many Chinatowns are next to Little Italys. The immigration pattern was similar. But Chinatowns and Little Italys [now] sit on very valuable real estate," as do Germantowns, Polish communities and more. “It’s important to be part of the broader narrative of neighborhood movements all over the country."