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Park’s renaming turns site of an Asian American woman’s brutal attack into a symbol of unity

Yik Oi Huang, a victim of a fatal assault in 2019, will be remembered in San Francisco as the Visitacion Valley Playground is renamed "Yik Oi Huang Peace and Friendship Park."
Yik Oi Huang, a victim of a fatal assault in 2019, will be remembered in San Francisco as the Visitacion Valley Playground is renamed “Yik Oi Huang Peace and Friendship Park.” | Photo Courtesy of Sasanna Yee | Source: Courtesy Sasanna Yee

With a new name, a place of tragedy will become a symbol of unity.

That’s the hope behind rechristening Visitacion Valley Playground as Yik Oi Huang Peace and Friendship Park—a tribute to the eponymous “Grandma Huang,” who was brutally beaten during her morning exercise in the public green. She died in 2020 after a year in the hospital. She was 89.

“The new name is not only a reminder of what happened,” Huang’s granddaughter Sasanna Yee said, “but also to bring the feeling of joy and community bonding … [of] solidarity, healing and transformative change.”

Yee channeled her grief into activism in the wake of her grandmother’s death, rallying a heartbroken community behind a petition that culminated Thursday with a unanimous vote by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission to name the playground in Huang’s honor.

Visitacion Valley Playground in San Francisco on Thursday, May 19, 2022. The playground is being re-named "Yik Oi Huang Peace and Friendship Park". | Courtesy Jim Watkins

Yik Oi Huang, born in 1930, moved from China to the U.S. in 1986. She spent her first years in San Francisco living frugally in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Chinatown, according to Yee. 

Eventually, Huang and her family pooled enough money to buy a house across the avenue from Visitacion Valley Playground. 

Huang—who worked as a seamstress and nanny—quickly became a neighborhood fixture. For 17 years, she served as an ambassador for the Visitacion Valley Friendship Club, helping elderly Chinese immigrants much like herself access senior services. 

As an active volunteer in the southeastern San Francisco neighborhood, Huang helped educate her peers about their voting rights and how to prepare for emergencies, Yee said. She became known as a champion of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. She mentored many foreign-born residents who—like herself—set their roots in San Francisco.

The park’s renaming memorializes that part of Huang’s legacy, too.

“She’s an immigrant, and immigrants are not usually highlighted or celebrated at this level,” Yee said. “There’s so much to this recognition to validate the immigrant stories.”

An art collage photo shows Yik Oi Huang's love for cooking, gardening, and sharing. | Rosanna Chang

Yee credits Ronald Colthirst, a Visitacion Valley Community Center staffer, for coming up with the idea to rename the park. From that spark, Yee said, the effort grew to include a host of residents and small business owners. 

Though it was ultimately up to the parks commission to vote on the new name, Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton—who represents Visitacion Valley—joined the call for commemoration.

For Vanita Louie, the only Asian American on the parks commission, the new name also represents healing at a time when the AAPI community is still reeling from an uptick in hateful attacks. 

“It will mark a place in history,” she said, “when our community is going through deep pain.”

In his letter advocating for the name change, Walton said he wants the park’s renaming to represent multiracial and multicultural solidarity.

And after a few years of isolation induced by the pandemic, he said it also marks the return of programming and staffing to the Visitacion Valley park.

The man accused of attacking Huang—21-year-old Keonte Gathron—has been jailed since 2019. He’s charged with murder and other felonies while awaiting trial, which is set for later this month.