Seventeen Chinese American families who won a pitched battle in June with their landlord, San Francisco City College, to remain in their apartment building was one of the greatest tenant success stories in San Francisco history – a no-bullshit instance where David beats Goliath. And yet all the tenants had to say about their triumph was (translated from Cantonese) “this is really convenient.”
After shooting a couple hours of video footage the grand opening at Columbus Street Cooperative, I figured I had a disaster on my hands. I’d captured a zillion soundbytes from the city’s top hand shakers, who had turned out in droves to effuse about the historical moment, condemning SFCC with clenched fists in the air and applauding the tenants for bucking the system that wanted them out of the city – with a helping hand from the San Francisco Community Land Trust, which bought the building and reshaped it into a permanently-affordable resident-owned cooperative.
But when the tenants spoke, any emotion they harbored seemed to get lost in translation. I shared a somber moment with my co-shooter, Jamie Lejeune: “The only good stuff I’m getting is coming from the mouth of politicians. Arghh!,” I said.
“Same here,” he said.
I probed the building up several flights of stairs and entered the apartment of a disabled elderly woman sagging in her wheelchair, able to watch the ceremony only by peering down through her dining room window. Using the building manager as an interpreter, I asked questions to elicit a gut reaction.
“You speak only Chinese. From the sounds of it, you rarely travel outside Chinatown – where all your family and friends live. You can’t afford another place in the city,” I said. “What would relocating to somewhere else mean for you?”
She mumbled a few words – maybe only half of a really long word — which the translator turned into an epic: against all odds, I get to hold onto my living situation. The outside world freaks me out. We fought long and hard for this. And we won.
Yeah right. If I had been interviewing the twinkly-eyed interpreter I would have had a banging story.
Ultimately, I did record some color: “We were scared,” Mrs. Ru M. Peng, who with her husband and children faced eviction after occupying the same building for 18 years.
LeJeune, himself a member of the cooperative who had lived several years in east Asia, broke it down for me after the shoot, explaining the San Francisco touch-feelyness I’ve grown accustomed to here doesn’t resonate in Chinese culture.
Short of the building burning down halfway through the ceremony, I would never unearth the hidden emotions I knew lay just beneath the surface.
Maybe I’m editorializing a tad here, but I’ll argue to the grave I’m not, when I say: Take all this to mean when Mrs. Peng says she’s scared, the matron really means she’s never been more terrified in her life.