Article | May 22, 2023
We Belong: Highlighting Some San Francisco Bay Area AAPI Leaders from Past to Present
I am so excited to share our “We Belong” poster with Grace Cathedral! I’m honored to have worked with Grace Cathedral leaders, Eva Woo Slavitt, Alina Davis, Sophia Wang, and Heidi Ho, as we honor the accomplishments of local Asian Pacific Islander American (AAPI) leaders. As we highlight AAPI Heritage Month, we also take a moment to acknowledge that these past few years have been difficult for our communities. San Francisco is no different. With the rise of COVID-19, anti-Asian hate, the need for essential workers, and more, we see there is still a need for action. During this month of celebration, while we turn to our past and present leaders for inspiration, we hope this activates you to speak up and support.
These leaders, as shown in our “We Belong” poster, is listed alphabetically by last name:
Kala Bagai (1892-1983): Born in Amritsar, colonized India, and immigrated from modern-day Pakistan, Kala (affectionately named “Mother India”) was one of the first South Asian women on the West Coast. Upon building a business in the Bay Area and buying a home in Berkeley, she and her family dealt with aggressive examples of xenophobia. Their neighbors physically barred the family from moving in, and soon after, the court stripped all South Asians of their citizenship. Her husband committed suicide out of despair. Still, Bagai persisted, building one of the earliest South Asian communities in the United States and becoming a critical California immigrant leader. Learn more about Bagai’s story in the words of her grandmother at Berkeleyside.
Lipo and Saeng Chanthanasak: As leaders in Richmond’s Southeast Asian refugee community, they are outspoken about their experiences living near the Chevron refinery. Their community was exposed to high levels of pollution, and many suffered from respiratory illnesses. Together, they fought with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) for over a decade, becoming active in their community’s struggle for environmental justice. Learn more about their journey through Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Sun Kissed Productions’ short film.
James Hirabayashi (1926-2012): As one of five children to Japanese immigrants in Washington, he and his family were incarcerated at the Pinedale Assembly Center in Fresno and then Tule Lake. After the war, he attended school, eventually his Ph.D. at Harvard. He was part of the first generation of Asian Americans to earn doctorate degrees from U.S. universities following WWII. Hirabayashi became one of the founding fathers of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, marching with students. He stayed at SF State for over thirty years, becoming the first dean of the College of Ethnic Studies.
Rev. Dae Wei Lee (1879 -1928): Also known as David Lee, 22-year-old Lee left his home near Pyongyang to study in the United States. He spent much time assisting Korean immigrants to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly in the U.S. He successfully argued that Koreans who arrived at Angel Island Immigration Station without passports were stateless (as Korea was occupied by the Japanese). He advocated to assist in paying for medical expenses, legal fees, and posted bonds to secure admission into the new country. For more than fifteen years, he served as a pastor and helped found the San Francisco Korean Methodist Church. He co-founded the earliest Korean community organization in the U.S., which consolidated into the Korean National Association in 1909, and is credited as the inventor of the inter-type Korean lettering printing press in 1915.
Al Robles (1930-2009): Born and raised in San Francisco, Al Robles was a prominent Filipino American poet and activist. Having grown up in the Fillmore district in the 30s, his neighborhood was diverse and busy. He was at the forefront of the grassroots movement to stop the demolition of the International Hotel (or I-Hotel), which housed many low-income Filipino elders. Robles was one of the last people to leave the building. Much of his work documented the voices of Filipinos and Filipino Americans as well as other marginalized communities. His poems are based on oral histories. Learn more about his poetry through Ifugao Mountain: Paghahanap Sa Bundok Ng Ifugao (1977) and Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark (1992).
Rev. Fran Toy: Like her mother, who was the first woman to open a school in Oakland Chinatown, Toy, too, began her career in education. For eighteen years, she taught elementary school and eventually became the first female senior warden at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior Church. In 1985, Toy was the first Asian American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and the first female cleric to be elected as a deputy to the General Convention from the Diocese of California.
Taunuu’u Ve’e: Ve’e co-founded the Regional Pacific Islander Taskforce in 2015. Their goal is to raise awareness and visibility of Pacific Islander health and social issues through education, data collection, and civic engagement. For eight years, she served as a national advisor on the Pacific Islander Affairs for Asian and Pacific Islander Health Forum. The APIAHF was one of the anchor institutions representing AAPI for the Kellogg Foundation “American Healing” initiative. Support Ve’e’s work at the Regional Pacific Islander Task Force – Bay Area.
About Artist & Writer: Born and raised on Ramaytush Ohlone land (now known as San Francisco), Katie Quan (she/her) is a third-generation Chinese American. She is an artist, community advocate, curator, storyteller, and educator. She is the creator of REALSOUL, a curriculum-based organization that focuses on making Asian American stories intersectional, interdisciplinary, and accessible to learners of all ages. Katie currently serves on the advisory board of the Asian American Women Artists Association and Newsletter Editor to the Square and Circle Club. In her free time, you can find her drawing, bouldering, or swatting gnats away from her indoor plants.
About REALSOUL: Founded in San Francisco, REALSOUL is a curriculum-based organization, focused on exploring intersectional stories of Asian America and other BIPOC communities. Our work aims to bring BIPOC stories to the forefront of classrooms, workplaces, campfires, living rooms, and beyond. Through lesson guides, workshops, and activities, REALSOUL’s heart is rooted in advocacy and accessibility. We aim to make space for complex dialogues and questions, with the firm belief that it is never too early or too late to start imagining the change you’d like to see in the world. Learn more at: www.realsoul.us.
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Ge, Lily. “Al Robles.” Badass Asian Americans, 12 Sept. 2016.
“Kala Bagai Way, Berkeley, CA.” Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.
“Lipo Chanthanasak.” The White House.
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