S.F. APA Heritage Awards celebrates 20 years

Kinmon Gakuen Principal Rev. Akihiko Tominaga. photo by William Lee

With the start of Asian American and Pacific Islander month, San Francisco held its annual APA Heritage Awards May 1 at the War Memorial Herbst Theater to show how to “properly” celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This year marked the 20th annual celebration by the APA Heritage Foundation, and the ceremony honored several longtime APA institutions in the city.

Dion Lim, news anchor at ABC7, emceed the program entitled “Moving Forward Together,” which recognized Wah Mei School in San Francisco’s Sunset District for their 50th anniversary and Kinmon Gakuen in San Francisco’s Japantown for their 100th anniversary. The program also recognized longtime leaders, Rose Chung and the city’s former mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. with a Community Impact Award. The program featured opening performances by Legacies of the Pacific and Ke aka o Polynesia and the national anthem sung by 13-year-old Alliana Yang, along with an entourage of elected officials, including Mayor London Breed, who signed the annual city proclamation.

Claudine Cheng, president and founder of the APA Heritage Foundation, spoke to the event’s 20th anniversary. While the San Francisco Examiner reported the annual celebration started with “spontaneous ‘serendipity,’” Cheng said the two decades of annual events since then have been an ongoing conscious effort.

“All of us involved in this voluntary effort to put together the celebration fee(l) very strongly that we want (the) celebration of the month to be a part of San Francisco’s civic tradition,” Cheng said. “But every year, we talk about how can we be bigger, how can we be better and what does that mean? That means every year, we want to continue to reach out to diverse ethnicities within the APA family, that have not been involved. That means to expand the circles of communities to include everyone. And we mean everyone.”

City Attorney David Chiu introduced the Wah Mei School, a bilingual early education program. Gabi Wu, president of the school’s board of directors, accepted the award celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary.

“For half a century we have championed the values of language learning, inclusivity and diversity,” Wu said. “… From enrolling just 20 students to now providing services to over 500 families, through programs in early care education, after and before school, weekend Chinese classes and community engagement, Wah Mei School has stood as a pillar of bilingual education.”

Chiu also presented the award to Kinmon Gakuen, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary since its incorporation. While school was started in 1911 and the building was completed in 1925, the program recognized the school’s incorporation as the Golden Gate Institute in 1924.

The Rev. Akihiko Tominaga, the school’s principal, accepted the award and offered his thanks. Taking a bow, he shouted “arigato gozaimasu” and said that, given the 100-year history, he should say it 100 more times. He recognized not only the role the school played in educating Japanese Americans to maintain their culture, but also the African American community, which cared for the building during and after the war while Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps.

Along with the organizations, Chiu also recognized Rose Chung, a former Miss Chinatown USA who went on to a life of community service and civic leadership in the city. She has helped choreograph and lead the annual cultural procession of the APA Heritage Awards. The “Chinatown golden girl” said it felt like winning an Oscar, and forwent a “dignified speech” to “keep it real,” and called on the audience to “channel in our dogs” to howl with her in celebration.

“I’m getting this award for doing what I love, with really cool and smart people,” she said.

Finally Jeff Mori, former head of the Japanese Community Youth Council, and Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, co-introduced the former mayor and state assembly speaker. Mori noted that during his time in office, Brown appointed many Asian Americans to various positions and commissions, as well as encouraged the city to set aside funds to form the Japantown Task Force.

Yeung, meanwhile, considered Brown among Chinatown’s “most respected leaders,” even joking he would be launching the Willie L. Brown Consolidated Benevolent Association.

“Over the time duration of decades, not just years, Mayor Brown has been there for Chinatown when we need him,” Yeung said. “I don’t know of any elected official that has been to more Chinatown functions than Mayor Brown and that doesn’t go unnoticed. While just being there doesn’t seem like much, it’s actually everything.”

Brown expressed his surprise and gratitude.

“This was indeed a great surprise. I have been in attendance at each of these celebrations from the time this started in 2005, to present day. I came, frankly, to enjoy myself,” he said. “… So I thank you very much all for your wonderful words, and the benevolent association that I now have the honor — please feel free to call upon me as things unfold. It’s going to be really interesting, though, to become the seventh organization in the six company operation.”

The annual program finished off with its cultural procession, coordinated by Chung and choreographed by Linda Chuan, featuring representatives from various Asian cultures.

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