Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

Massive Asian American cultural center planned near Portsmouth Square, Chinatown’s ‘Living Room’

Community advocates and political leaders gather beside a newly painted mural at the future site of Edge on the Square.

Widely considered Chinatown’s “living room,” Portsmouth Square is the focal point of the historic neighborhood. Around the block from its statues and plaques, a coalition of community stakeholders plans to make use of state funding for California’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community by establishing a new art and culture-focused center.

“Edge on the Square,” prominently located on the tourist-heavy corner of Grant Avenue and Clay Street, will eventually house multiple major Asian American community-based organizations that provide space for events and programs to revive the neighborhood. This Saturday, the site will play a major role in Neon Was Never Brighter, Chinatown’s first-ever contemporary art festival.

On Thursday afternoon, city leaders and Chinatown activists gathered to celebrate Edge on the Square’s birth, unveiling a mural on the building’s outside wall.

“What an incredible day to celebrate a brand new emergence of an important organization for the future of Chinatown,” said Stephen Gong, the board president of the newly-formed Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative (CMAC), the entity that will operate Edge on the Square.

CMAC announced the purchase of the Grant Avenue building last July, using funds from the state’s historic $166 million budget outlay to the AAPI community, of which $26.5 million will be used for the Edge on the Square project. The building will go under major renovation before fully operational.

Phil Ting, the budget chair of the state Assembly, spearheaded the funding allocation and saw the importance of saving Chinatown from disappearance.

“We had to make sure that this was going to be preserved as our community for our history,” Ting said. “Coming from San Francisco, I’ll tell you, [Chinatown] is still the heartbeat of Asian America.”

City leaders join the Chinatown activists to celebrate the birth of "Edge on the Square." | Han Li

The effort to build this project has been a five-year-long game starting in 2017, under Mayor Ed Lee’s administration. Evaluating sites throughout Chinatown, the community nonprofit coalition initially eyed 838 Grant Ave., the towering former site of the iconic Empress of China restaurant and now home to Empress by Boom. But they failed to reach an agreement with the building owner. Last year, Chinese American businessman and philanthropist Arthur Chan agreed to sell the property at 800 Grant Ave. to CMAC, signaling major progress for the community’s vision plan.

The city also contributed $1.35 million to support Edge on the Square. Mayor London Breed, who attended Thursday’s celebration, recognized the community’s effort of bringing the center to reality.

“We work together to ensure that this building was made available as a space to bring numerous organizations together,” Breed said, “to talk about the history, the culture of not just Chinatown in San Francisco, but the Chinese community and the significance of that.”

Mabel Teng, a former city supervisor and a Chinese immigrant, is the main organizer of the project. She has big hopes for the hub to not only become a new destination for Chinatown but also promote inclusivity among different communities.

“We are a strong voice for immigrants, a strong voice for new narrative,” Teng said. “And we want to spark conversation in this very safe place on matters that are important to us.”