SAN FRANCISCO — What does a safe space really look like?

That question is reverberating among Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the country, after shootings last month at three Atlanta-area spas killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. The attacks came amid a 150 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic.

Many of the reports of anti-Asian hate incidents and crimes are coming from California, a state that has long had one of the highest Asian populations in the country. Several high-profile attacks in the San Francisco Bay area have made headlines in recent months.

In San Francisco, Asians account for about 36 percent of the population. The city also boasts the country’s oldest and largest Chinatown, which was established in 1848 at the height of the Gold Rush era and grew into a bustling business, food and entertainment district. But it has, throughout its history, endured its share of discrimination — and now faces newfound hardships brought on by the pandemic.

Messages of peace and unity are seen at Portsmouth Square in San Francisco's Chinatown. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Messages of peace and unity are seen at Portsmouth Square in San Francisco's Chinatown. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

Today, the Asian population is concentrated in neighborhoods spread throughout the city — Chinatown, Japantown, Bayview-Hunters Point, Excelsior, the Tenderloin and the Richmond and Sunset districts. Amid changing demographics in the Bay Area — driven in part because of the tech boom — many residents are reconsidering their own safe spaces.

And in light of the latest violence, Asian Americans are demanding spaces to heal, educate and effect change. There have also been calls to redefine what “safety” really looks like, especially in places Asians and Asian Americans have long called home.

We spoke with three Asian American millennial women for whom San Francisco has been “home” for most, if not all, of their lives. They recalled memories of their safest spaces in the city — and how anti-Asian racism has altered their visions of them.

‘Chinatown is like a safe haven’

Elisa Szeto, 26, has deep roots in San Francisco. Now a first-grade teacher for the San Francisco Unified School District living in the Marina neighborhood, she was born and raised in the city’s Bayview district.

These days, she recalls the “transformational” years she spent living in a multi-generational household — with more than a dozen aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents in one home. “I don’t think I would trade it for anything,” she says.

Elisa Szeto, a teacher, poses at Fort Mason in San Francisco. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Elisa Szeto, a teacher, poses at Fort Mason in San Francisco. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

The Bayview district, made of predominantly African American and Asian residents, was and still is a food desert, devoid of affordable, healthy food choices. So Szeto’s family, who immigrated from China, would seek familiar food elsewhere. She remembers accompanying her mother and grandparents to San Francisco’s Chinatown to eat lunch and run errands.

“Essentially, I grew up going there,” Szeto says. “Chinatown is like a safe haven for Chinese immigrants where you can shop for familiar food.”

But in terms of restaurants, one place stands out for Szeto: Washington Bakery & Restaurant, a mainstay since 1996. Family-owned, serving Hong Kong-style cuisine, the eatery is located on the first floor of a peach-colored building on the corner of Washington Street and Walter U Lum Place — right in the heart of Chinatown. It offers baked goods, boba drinks and kid-friendly meals like garlic-fried chicken wings and fries.

Washington Bakery & Restaurant is located in the heart of Chinatown. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Washington Bakery & Restaurant is located in the heart of Chinatown. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

But it wasn’t necessarily the food she remembers. “My earliest memory of this restaurant is actually my mom,” Szeto explains. She was raised by a single immigrant mom who worked at Washington Bakery & Restaurant as a waitress, she says. In the fifth-grade, she would get dropped off there after school. While Szeto waited for her mother’s shift to end, she would try different noodle soups she still loves today: ham and sunny-side-up egg macaroni, wonton noodle soup, beef stew noodle soup.

Chinatown has changed since Szeto’s elementary school visits, especially the main streets of Powell, Kearny, Grant and Stockton, she says. Szeto remembers its streets teeming with older folks, immigrants and tourists alike when she was growing up. “Its bustling streets gave Chinatown its character,” she says.

To Szeto, it seems like things have changed since she was a kid. Chinatown’s location, right next to the city’s once-busy financial district, has seen the impacts of covid-19: Szeto says she has noticed more shops closing, including Golden Gate Bakery, which made her favorite egg tarts. In her mind, the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian violence have contributed to the neighborhood’s “deserted streets.”

Szeto says Asian American women “can’t afford to be silent now.” (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Szeto says Asian American women “can’t afford to be silent now.” (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

These days, Szeto can’t help but feel like she has an “ill-founded paranoia” walking around the city. Every day, Szeto says, she hears of more incidents involving harassment of or violence against Asians, but fears the actual numbers are much higher than what’s reported. Sometimes, reading headlines about violence and crime is too much, Szeto says. But she also believes the cost of staying quiet and invisible are too great.

“Asian women have long been objectified, hypersexualized and abused throughout history,” Szeto says. “I just feel like we can’t afford to be silent now, more than ever.”

The Atlanta shootings reiterated the need for more spaces for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, she says, just like the comfort of Washington Bakery & Restaurant: “If a home is not a place where you feel safe, it’s important that everyone finds a place where they can go. It makes me think of how safe spaces are, especially for older women of Asian descent, who could be our aunts or moms.”

‘It’s not a safe space without others’

Despite the pandemic’s impact on 30-year-old Melanie Getman’s hometown and the community spaces she knows and loves, the San Francisco born-and-raised artist is hitting milestones she once only dreamed of. She is a full-time muralist and is being commissioned to paint murals in public spaces; she is also planning to start a design and art consulting business. For her, art is the key to creating a “safe space.”

When Getman seeks solace in a physical place, she might head to her art studio or to Ocean Beach, the 3.5-mile-long swath of sand and sea next to the Sunset and Richmond districts, neighborhoods that have been deemed the “new Chinatown.” Usually, Getman will rely on creating art — accentuating motifs in the female form, landmarks and flora — as a way to escape to a “mental safe space.”

Melanie Getman works on a mural at a North Beach home in San Francisco. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Melanie Getman works on a mural at a North Beach home in San Francisco. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

“I think of [safe spaces] as a place where the abrasiveness of life itself isn’t so overbearing,” she says.

When she was younger and discovering public art spaces in San Francisco, Getman, a first-generation Chinese American, realized she had stumbled onto what felt like safe spaces to her: “I felt like I could see my own unconventional self and had a community,” she says.

But without a physical community during the pandemic, she has noticed how unsafe she can feel. During a treacherous California wildfire season last fall, Getman was commissioned to paint a large mural at Mr. Bing’s, a dive bar on the border of North Beach and Chinatown, where she grew up. Creating the mural allowed her to “contribute my perspective in the neighborhood that shaped me,” she says.

She painted on an empty street in the middle of the day, she says; the skies were a smoky, apocalyptic orange, and she wore a heavy-duty gas mask. There wasn’t a single car in sight.

Getman says she misses having a community to create art with. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Getman says she misses having a community to create art with. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

“It was weird to be accomplishing this goal and doing it entirely alone,” she says. “I really missed having a community around. It’s not a safe space without others.”

Safety has been a big fixture in Getman’s mind since the Atlanta shootings. She says what especially affected her were many of the headlines and social media posts: how they fed into the same mentality that the shooter claimed as part of his defense by using the term massage parlors instead of spas, for example. The euphemisms baked into language have always led to assumptions about Asian women, she says.

“Unfortunately, just traversing the world as a woman, not even just an Asian woman, is difficult,” Getman adds. “We need to find ways to create safe spaces for our community so people can be vulnerable and speak out.”

Getman has been reflecting on the history behind racism and sexism since the Atlanta shootings. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Getman has been reflecting on the history behind racism and sexism since the Atlanta shootings. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

For now, Getman is filling those gaps herself. Recently, she was commissioned to paint outside of a private residence in the North Beach neighborhood, just blocks from where she grew up. On the mural are iconic San Francisco symbols, including a cable car, Lombard Street and a stretch of Chinatown.

“Because the mural was based on landmarks that are very much home to me, it was a safe space,” Getman says. “Creating made it feel even more like a safe space because my clients made the decision for me to be a person that represents that.”

‘Knowing that someone will look out for me’

After leaving Thailand around the age of 3, Punyavee Phothong, now 25, arrived in San Francisco to live with her mom, aunt and uncle. She grew up in the Japantown neighborhood and has been living in the city ever since.

When she was 12 or 13, Phothong would regularly drop into an art gallery, 1AM. The space offers urban art exhibitions, workshops, murals and community events — a familiar type of organization in a city that has long been home to an arts community inspired by sociopolitical culture.

Punyavee Phothong poses for a portrait at the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps in San Francisco. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Punyavee Phothong poses for a portrait at the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps in San Francisco. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

Phothong fondly describes her former art instructors as “always arriving in big, platform boots; super punk rock.” She felt she was around adults who believed in her and nurtured her desire to create, she says: “I didn’t have any money at the time, and I would come and hang out there anyway. I think they saw I had a need to create, so they let me come over and put things together for free.”

This safe space initiated a love of art for Phothong. In college, she studied graphic design, but she decided it wasn’t for her; while taking a break from schooling, she helped out at her family’s massage business in San Francisco. There, she worked as a receptionist before enrolling in school to become a massage therapist.

After the Atlanta spa shootings, Phothong took to her Facebook to publicly share her experience as a massage therapist in the United States. “I’ve been asked very personal questions about where I live, who I live with, when I work, how I get home, from a man who came in specifically asking for me. I’m kept wondering if the next person is going to be weird or dangerous, and that’s something I have to carry with me every day that I go to work,” she wrote in her post.

Phothong says her personal experience mirrors the sexism and racism she saw play out in the attacks. “For as long as I’ve been in this industry, which is most of my life, we’ve dealt with harassment and sexual harassment, and it’s such a common thing,” says Phothong, who specializes in Thai massage. “A lot of my colleagues are Asian women. Many times we were targeted because of that.”

Phothong looks out over San Francisco, where she feels safety is still elusive. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)
Phothong looks out over San Francisco, where she feels safety is still elusive. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

Phothong believes this speaks to a larger issue society needs to tackle: “A lot of it is rooted in racist beginnings and stereotypes, and it still affects us today,” she says. Look at the Page Act of 1875 for example, Phothong suggests: Congress passed a bill that barred Chinese women from coming into the country on the basis they would become sex workers.

While safety still remains elusive for Phothong, she relishes regularly connecting with other business owners near her massage business, where she is working as a manager and a massage therapist; they’ll come in for therapy, and she’ll visit their businesses, too.

“Knowing that someone will look out for me is really important in my safe space,” Phothong says. “I don’t know if they could replace what 1AM was to me, but I definitely think there could be more neighborhood hubs like this for others.”

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