Preserving community's cultural identity
February 8, 2018

A battle is occurring in San Francisco, Henry Zehner’s hometown. What is up for grabs, in many ways, is the heart-and-soul of the city.

The gentrification of the Chinatown district is threatening the community’s cultural identity. A focal point for Asian immigrants since 1848, Chinatown’s shops, eateries, marketplace, and low-income housing have provided a haven for those new to the country to get on their feet and start building a new life.

It also serves as a cultural touchstone for people like the Zehners, who will frequent the businesses and restaurants. Its influence is strong enough that Zehner has studied the Chinese language since middle school. He is in his fourth year of Chinese at Culver.

That is why he and Ian Smith ’18 (Bloomington, Indiana), another four-year Chinese student, wanted to examine the problems facing Chinatown for their senior service project. They decided the best way to do that was by producing a documentary film about the plight of those trying to preserve Chinatown, especially the affordable housing stock.

People don’t understand the problems that gentrification is causing.

“We wanted to heighten the awareness about it,” Zehner explained. “People don’t understand the problems that gentrification is causing. It impacts a lot of people, especially the senior citizens.”

It is the senior citizens who have been left as the younger generation has moved out, Zehner said. Now, community leaders are working to bring the younger generation back to help preserve Chinatown’s identity. Many of the people involved in the movement came through the Chinatown Community Development Center, which is a focus of Zehner and Smith’s film.

Filming over the fall long weekend, Zehner and Smith spent much of their time interviewing Rev. Norman Fong, the executive director of the CCDC. Fong took them to one of the center’s single-room-occupancy hotels, a building containing 100-square-foot rooms that often house entire families. These families share a communal kitchen and restroom with others on each floor.

Today, those hotels are giving way to places marketed to people working in Silicon Valley. And, as the affordable housing gets squeezed, those people living in the SROs are forced out, they said.

While Smith and Zehner had never tackled a video production, Zehner’s sister, Anna, is a film major at Sarah Lawrence College. They borrowed a video camera from her, audio equipment from Rory Sever ’18, and added some inexpensive lights from Amazon.

“We walked into interviews with all this equipment and people would say, ‘How many documentaries have you guys done?’’ Smith laughed. “And we’d say, ‘This one.’”

Along with the footage they shot, Zehner’s sister found old news clips about Chinatown they have been able to work into the video to give it a historic perspective.

Their goal is to raise awareness about the struggles facing Chinatown residents and community leaders; and to get others, especially younger people, interested in helping to preserve the culture for years to come.

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