Walking for Peace: San Francisco Activist Returns to Chinatown

July 01, 2020

Crystal Chan is an 18-year-old writer and activist who is passionate about advocating for social equity. She is the Founder and Executive Director of SPACE 4 US, a community organization that democratizes professional opportunities by connecting underserved students with career exploration resources. Crystal is also an avid writer who strives to use storytelling as a vehicle for social change. She writes for her school newspaper and represents District 7 on the San Francisco Youth Commission, a body of 17 young people that advises the San Francisco Mayor and Board of Supervisors on policies impacting San Francisco’s youth. In her free time, she loves writing, reading, knitting, and hiking!

For born and raised San Franciscan Max Leung, Chinatown has always been home. Max grew up roaming the streets of Chinatown with his friends and visiting his uncles’ bakeries on Waverly Place and Powell Street. He received his education from Chinatown’s public schools, attended summer programs at Saint Mary’s Chinese Catholic Center, and was a member of Chinatown YMCA’s Youth Basketball League.

Even though Max no longer lives in the neighborhood, the Chinatown community holds a “special place in [his] heart.” So when he saw that Chinatown was being targetted with violent attacks, he decided to take it upon himself to protect the community. 

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, Chinatown residents and businesses have been regular victims of robberies and crimes. Attacks against people of Asian descent have risen dramatically since the beginning of March, as the global pandemic amplified racism towards Asian people. Determined to stop these crimes, Max, along with a couple of other activists, founded the San Francisco Peace Collective, a group of local volunteers who patrol the streets of Chinatown. The organization’s primary goal is to make sure that residents feel safe and protected, but they also provide assistance for businesses and vulnerable populations like youth and elders. 

“There’ve been incidents where merchants would call us and say, ‘Can you check on my store, I heard somebody broke my window’ and we’ll help them board up and secure their storefronts,” Max said. “We’ve assisted merchants by waiting with them when they close up their stores and we walk with them to their cars. We also try to help through small acts of kindness, like helping out the elderly when we see that they’re in need.”

As a grassroots effort, the SF Peace Collective relies on passionate volunteers who dedicate their time to help advance the group’s mission as well as avid supporters who donate money, which goes towards purchasing patrol vests, walkie talkies, and face masks for volunteers. 

“All of us are doing this because we care about people and the community,” Max explained. “We try to be mindful that we always have a choice. We can always choose to be kind in any situation.” 

(Photo by Max Leung)

Max notes that since the group started patrolling in March, they haven’t encountered many crimes, aside from a mass looting incident on May 31. 

“As far as the violent crimes and robberies, which we originally formed to deter, none of that has happened so far since we’ve been patrolling,” Max said. “However, there was a mass looting incident that happened a couple of weeks ago. A member of our group and other community members recorded the incident and the next day, during the aftermath, we went down there and assisted the merchants. We helped clean up and board up their stores.” 

Aside from the group’s protection services, Max emphasized that the SF Peace Collective is committed to uplifting the Chinatown community by connecting with local residents on a more personal level. He hopes that their work can create long-term, meaningful change surrounding race relations and promote solidarity between different groups in the city. 

“We are working in a way that’s in alignment with the principles of peace and solidarity of our collective,” Max said. “It’s important to acknowledge the historical and social context of why certain events like these are happening in the first place, and we need to be mindful of that and really try to be part of the bigger solution.” 

Max never intended for the SF Peace Collective to go beyond San Francisco, but the organization’s work has inspired people in cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, and New York to form similar patrol groups. Currently, Max is focusing specifically on patrolling Chinatown, but he hopes that as the SF Peace Collective grows, they can start patrolling other neighborhoods in San Francisco as well.

No matter what the SF Peace Collective becomes, Max is glad to have made a difference in the community he loves so much. Above all, patrolling Chinatown has allowed him to reflect on his experiences growing up and help him connect to his community. 

“By going back to Chinatown, I’m able to reacquaint and refamiliarize myself with every street, every alleyway, the stores, the sites, the sounds, and the smells – everything about Chinatown that’s so nostalgic and sentimental to me,” Max said. “In a way, it’s like coming home.” 

If you live in San Francisco and have the capacity, consider patrolling Chinatown with the SF Peace Collective! They’re always looking for volunteers to help out! Visit their Facebook or Instagram for more information.