Christmas Lights in the Sunset

11/19/04 - posted by mrs. choy - mrsekchoy<at>

Growing up in the 50's in Chinatown, we were one of the few families that owned a car. My father and mother would bundle us up on cold December evenings so we can drive to the rich neighborhoods to see the Christmas lights dressing up the homes. We would ooh and ahhh as we saw the front yards decked out with lights, wreaths and ribbons on the doors, and Santas and snowmen smiling. Drapes were pulled back and we could glimpse the beautifully decorated trees, some were the aluminum ones with changing light wheels, others were flocked with fluffy fake white snow.

This was a step into a wonderland that was as far away as the movies. We had a tree in our home in Chinatown, on the 6th floor of the Ping Yuen housing projects, but nothing like the color bedecked trees, and the outside trees found among the homes of the Sunset. We didn't have a chimney to hang our stockings, and my mother ingeniously told us to hang them near the windows so Santa can see them.

I later attended Lowell High School, riding public transportaion everyday for 1 1/2 hours and transferring buses 3 times. We moved to a home in the Visitacion Valley and I believe that we lived at a point that was the farthest from the Sunset, southeast corner of San Francisco. Wearing dresses, we froze on the way to the fogged in campus of Lowell and drenched during the rain. You see, we were told that the rich people who lived near Lowell had enough clout to not prohibit public transportation lines to go down their pristine snotty streets. As a result, all us Lowell,not rich enough to have cars types, had to ride the bus to the edge of this prestigious perimeter and then huff it for about 3/4 of a mile, across Eucalyptus groves, cutting across the post office parking lots, and trying to get to school before the bells rang and Mr. Lee, Biology teacher would glare his looks of death at you for even being in the hallways.

Another reference to the Sunset and St. Francis Woods was my mean bitter white racist 5th grade teacher, Miss Schmidt of Jean Parker Elementary School on Broadway in Chinatown. She told all of Chinese students that our neighborhood was dirty and littered with filth and trash. Why can't you keep your streets clean and pristine like those in St. Francis Woods? We had no idea what she was ranting about, but nodded obediently and submissively like all post war Chinese American students in the 50's. The teachers had it so good, teaching these model students who were all on their best behavior all the time. Little did the teachers know that we were living under the threat of deportation, should we get in trouble. Yes, that's what my mother told my older sister and I. We were here illegally under paper names and if we ever step out of line, was too loud, bring attention to ourselves, get bad grades, get in trouble at school or with the law, or even be too loud in our housing project apartment, we would be driven back to China. "And then, you will know about suffering", she threatened on a regular basis.

So the Sunset was a dream, an ideal, maybe a secret goal for me, but at the same time, I hated what I knew was not within my childhood dream.

The Western Neighborhoods Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.