A Journey through Chinatown: It’s Alleyways and an Untold Kingdom Story

Guest Post by Steve Hong.  Steve, along with his wife and son, started attending SF Lighthouse about a year ago and quickly became family. This Sunday, July 27, after the second gathering, Steve will be leading a tour of Chinatown for anyone interested in learning about the story behind this famous San Francisco neighborhood. (See Upcoming Events for more details and to RSVP.) In this post, Steve shares his heart for the people of this neighborhood and how their story and his story intersect.  


The picture above is how most people see Chinatown. Shopping, eats, fortune cookies, maybe even “oriental curiosities.”  But that street, the main drag, the epicenter of Chinatown’s “face” is called “foreign devils” street by the locals. If you knew the story of Chinatown, and why it had to fight and “sell itself” in order to survive, the name of Grant Ave by locals makes perfect sense. On this tour, you’ll go behind the Chinatown’s “face”  to experience the story of Chinatown.

Once upon a time, this neighborhood had barbed wires surrounding it.  It was a place where its citizens once were barred from basic rights (like voting, owning land, and even stepping outside its boundaries without risk to self). The only reason Chinatown exists today is because of entrepreneurial shrewdness by its patriarchs.

After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco wanted Chinatown removed. At the time, Chinese were scapegoats in SF’s labor wars; the newspapers screamed “The Chinese must GO!” Chinatown was able to stay in its current strategic location on the condition it be rebuilt from the ashes to attract tourism. The charter was then given to make Chinatown look attractive for “Western eyes.” That’s why Chinatown’s architectural flourishings look nothing like what you’ll find in “real China.” What most see is indeed an early form of an “urban theme park” like Disneyland meant to draw in the crowds.

But behind this facade is the “real Chinatown. In the “real” Chinatown, “real” people shop, play, worship, get haircuts, and more.

The “real” Chinatown was a bachelor society, a place of separated families, underground activity, brothels, opium dens, massacres, gambling, gangs, parlor games, smells, herbs, dim sum, evangelism, sex trading, and much more. The real Chinatown is a story of survival, of vices, but also of Kingdom redemption that continues today. If any of you heard Quiqui’s testimony last Sunday, the story of Chinatown helped inspire the mission of the SF Arts Collective.

I tell the story of Chinatown because I find my own story in it. I never lived in Chinatown, but it’s my cultural home.I was born there, I got married there, and I relate to its vices. Here's why: when I tell the story of the largest City massacre of its time, and how the shame of the Chinese made the case difficult for police to break, I relate to that shame. It’s the same shame I grew up with. Shame hides a person from who one really is. That shame was my old identity, and that shame characterizes many people who relate to Asian culture both abroad and here in the US.

But I also relate to its story of redemption. Shame can cause one to hide, and put up a “face.” Redemption, in a culture that likes to save “face”, offers honor--the same honor that Jesus offered the woman at the well. In Chinatown, one particular missionary woman brought that honor to thousands of woman by saving them from a life of human trafficking. As I sometimes preach Gospel messages to groups of Asian people, I preach this message of honor.  Unfortunately, I scarcely see Gospel presentations that shun shame and give new honor. The  gospel designed to guilt-trip people, does not cause people, who come from a place to shame, to see their need for repentance.

On this tour, you’ll stand in the very places where vices were committed, but you’ll also share in the Kingdom stories of redemption.

You’ll enter in my story, and the story of Asian-Americans. And as Amanda shared last Sunday, even a “white girl from Alabama” can find her story in Chinatown’s story. Sometimes it takes contrast to see our own story.

As we learn our own story better, we’ll be better equipped to cross over into other people’s stories. This will be the subject of this Sunday’s sermon from Acts 17. What is good about allowing our spirits to be provoked as Paul’s was? How can we more effectively cross over into other people’s stories?

Spiritually speaking, Asians have not done well in resolving their many stories of pain, including  not identifying their own spiritual thirsts. These quests get easily lost in lofty acts of obedience and head knowledge. If the emotional life is any indicator of Asian's experience of God (Jesus says it is the BEST measure), Asians are lagging, thanks in part to the fact that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. Asian philosophy says showing too much emotion can even get you sick.

 By the end of the tour, you’ll have a sense of how to fulfill the greatest discipleship needs of people who relate to Asian culture. My prayer is that as you step into this story, you’ll find your story in this.  But ultimately, you’ll get to know God better. There’s just something about walking through a neighborhood, through its “bowels”, that can allow the Spirit to speak.

“Go, inspect the city of Jerusalem. Walk around and count the many towers. Take note of the fortified walls, and tour all the citadels, that you may describe them to future generations. For that is what God is like” - Psalm 48:12


Steve Hong, a former engineer, pastor, and missionary, is currently bi-vocational. He started the non-profit "Kingdom Rice” to continue to reach the lost in San Francisco, and to equip Christian leaders in evangelism and discipleship starting from an Asian context. e.g. Campus Crusade is using Kingdom Rice video and print to train all new interns reaching lost Asian and Latino students. Steve is also a commercial salesman for Nhance Wood Renewal, a company that seeks God’s Kingdom in San Francisco. He’s been married for 12 years, has an 8 year old son, and can often be found commuting by bike, and playing uke in local cafes.