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San Francisco Got Rid of Its Racist Statues. Asian Americans in the City Say That’s Just a First Step

Written by Han LiArt by Lu ChenContributors Liz LindqwisterPublished Oct. 04, 2022 • 5:00am
An illustration of four statues in San Francisco commemorating history of Asia and historic figures of Asian descent, include (clockwise from upper left) sculpture of Mohandas Gandhi at Ferry Building, replica statue of the Goddess of Democracy in Portsmouth Square, Sun Yat-Sen statue and “Comfort Women’s” Column of Strength Remembers in St Mary’s Square. The city will develop a guideline for future public memorials and monuments. Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

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When San Francisco removed the Christopher Columbus statue from Telegraph Hill two years ago, legendary martial artist and movie star Bruce Lee was floated as someone who truly deserves to be memorialized.

Former Supervisor and current Assemblymember Matt Haney was one of many to jump on social media and champion the proposal.

Lee, who was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remains a cultural icon and community hero even decades after his mysterious death. However, his birthplace doesn’t have a public statue dedicated to him.

Despite taking down multiple statues in recent years, San Francisco is still struggling to balance its public art presentations. The city is hoping to find a more balanced view on history while also being more inclusive with new statues in the future.

After years of preparation, the city formed the Monuments and Memorials Advisory Committee (MMAC) to help determine how the city will manage public art collections. The committee recently launched a survey to seek public input about the future of the city’s monuments. 

Chuck Collins, a city arts commissioner who also serves on the MMAC, said the survey is designed to create a frank and open conversation about art and race.

“How do we shape this civic art collection to be more representative of our values, our history, our culture, and who we are?” he asked.

Collins said that many of the city’s public statues are part of the “Eurocentric American narrative” and not inclusive of San Francisco’s diverse history.

Lydia So, a Chinese immigrant who serves on the monument committee as well as the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, told The Standard that the city has a dearth of statues dedicated to one of its largest communities.

The statue ‘Comfort Women Column of Strength’ by artist Steven Whyte is displayed at St. Mary’s Square in Francisco on Nov. 1, 2017. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“Many Asian American San Franciscan stories, positively or negatively, have not been made through the lens of monuments and memorials,” she said.

Among the 98 city-owned monuments and memorials, only a handful depict individuals of Asian descent, such as the Sun Yat-sen and comfort women statues in Chinatown, and the Gandhi statue at Ferry Plaza. Many of the Asian representations are referencing historic events or figures in Asia outside of the United States, So said. And they usually were donated to the city by private groups.

So thinks the new survey can give marginalized communities a long overdue voice. Questions are asked in multiple languages, and they are designed to be straightforward. But the big question is anything but simple: Which stories should be told first through new monuments and memorials?

For Collins, a proper representation of history in the arts can be complicated, as monuments are designed to celebrate and acknowledge great moments, victories, and values, while memorials are meant to pause and consider.

“What is representation?” Collins asked. “How do we both celebrate and also acknowledge?”

Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China, is depicted in this sculpture by Benny Bufano in St. Mary’s Square in San Francisco’s Chinatown. | Another Believer/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Claudine Cheng, a film commissioner and committee member, told The Standard that it’s a timely move for the city to develop guidelines for future memorials and monuments of the AAPI community. She emphasized that some priorities may change in the coming years, but certain values are timeless.

“While standards and sensitivities may evolve over time,” Cheng said, “certain principles and core values pertaining to equity, accurate representation of history and humanity should be preserved and respected.”

In efforts to boost Asian American visibility, different groups are putting their thoughts into action.

See Also

In May, the Golden State Warriors unveiled a new statue at Chase Center for late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who was the city’s first Asian American mayor. While privately owned, the statue was located in a prominent, accessible location in the Thrive City entertainment district.

A sculpture of Edwin M. Lee, San Francisco’s 43rd mayor and the first Asian American to hold the office, has him holding a basketball with his eyes fixed on the large screen at the Thrive City plaza outside of Chase Center on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Mission Bay neighborhood. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Meanwhile, local attorney Christine Linnenbach is pushing for a statue to honor Betty Ong, a city native and flight attendant on a hijacked plane during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ong was the first person to alert authorities about what was happening that day.

“We need to recognize that she’s an American hero,” Linnenbach said. “Chinese women have been overlooked for 100 years.”

Linnenbach said she has contacted city officials and American Airlines to plan for a permanent monument to Ong at the San Francisco Airport.

As for the Bruce Lee statue, rumors have been circulating for years.

Jian Zhang, the CEO of Chinese Hospital, where Bruce Lee was born, confirmed to The Standard that years ago there was a proposal to build a statue in front of the hospital, as Mayor Lee was a loyal fan of the movie star.

However, the idea faded after Mayor Lee passed away.

“I would like to see a Bruce Lee statue,” Zhang said. “It will bring positive inspiration to the younger generation, right?”

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Han Li can be reached at [email protected]


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