response: Nov./Dec. 2021

A Golden Door to New Life

Gum Moon Residence and Asian Women’s Resource Center 
supports women and children in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

A Golden Door to New Life
Children pose for a photo during a "Cuties" graduation ceremony at Gum Moon in San Francisco in July 2021.

As a child, Angelica Wong attended preschool at Gum Moon Women’s Residence in San Francisco. She participated in the program through 6th grade, and then became a volunteer. Today, she works for Gum Moon as a teacher’s assistant coordinator and an instructor for the summer school. Her father and sister are also volunteers, and her brother is a student.

Gum Moon was established by a Methodist missionary in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1868 to provide shelter, education and vocational training for Chinese girls rescued from human trafficking. In 1870, a group of Methodist women formed the Woman’s Missionary Society of the Pacific Coast to run the mission. Today Gum Moon provides transitional housing for up to 30 women and educational programs for infants, children and youth. It is still located in Chinatown and now offers additional locations in San Francisco. It also maintains its Methodist connection as a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution.

In the 1980s, Gum Moon started its Asian Women’s Resource Center, and in 1990 began its first parent–child development program with a seed grant from United Methodist Women.

Wong credits Gum Moon with helping her find her voice.

“When I first started as a volunteer, I was a bit lost. It was hard for me to raise my voice to instruct children, or just raise my voice at all,” Wong said. “But after the years of working here, I’ve learned how to use my voice—not just with the kids, but in general. I definitely use my voice a lot.”

She says the responsibility with which Gum Moon entrusted her gave her life skills that go beyond her job, from building self-confidence to financial and organizational skills.

“A few years ago, I agreed to be in charge of the field trips. I had to plan where we were going, figure out the costs and how to get there,” Wong said. “That was difficult. But it made me learn how to be independent and do things on my own that I’ve never done before.”

A place to learn

My first visit with Gum Moon was on one of these field trips, at Golden Gate Park. The children were riding paddle boats at Stow Lake. Everyone had on life jackets and masks and departed in succession, making loops around the lake. This trip also included a visit to the botanical gardens and a ride on a large Ferris wheel.

I shared a Ferris wheel gondola with 7-year-old Zoe Chen. This summer was Zoe’s first time participating in the Gum Moon program. She said playing with her friends was her favorite part.

“She also really liked the arts and crafts,” her father, Sidney Chen, said, “and the nutrition class. It got her motivated and excited and helped stimulate her mind. They also teach English and math class and other skills. I think it’s a good course to prepare her for 2nd grade.”

The summer program met in-person on Fridays and offered online classes the other four days of the week.

Yuan Yuan Xu’s son, Leo, participates in the summer school. She and her daughter Lena also attended the outing in the park. Lena, 5, started in the parent–child interactive group at 6 months old.

“I like the environment Gum Moon provides,” Xu said through Gloria Tan, Gum Moon’s executive director, who served as Xu’s translator. “I like the ambience and the teachers. It’s very warm.”

A friend recommended the program to her. At first Leo’s program was full, and she put him on a waiting list. Immediately after giving birth to Lena, she said, she signed her up for Gum Moon.

“As a new immigrant, I didn’t have many friends around, and I wanted to enroll Lena in the program so she could meet other children and I could meet other parents as well,” said Xu. “She learned good socialization skills and was always happy and excited to attend classes.”

The first kindergarten classes at Gum Moon started in the 1880s as a response to President Chester Arthur’s Chinese Exclusion Act, offering classes for children who were kept from attending public school. Today Gum Moon also offers afterschool tutoring, children’s art classes and even individualized piano instruction.

A place to turn

After the outing finished, Tan and I went across town to visit with Gloria Li, a Gum Moon client living at the Chinatown YMCA a few blocks away from the Gum Moon building. Gum Moon is the tenant of the room, and Li pays Gum Moon a small rent. This partnership helps women find housing they may otherwise be unable to obtain. Gum Moon usually offers transitional housing for 12 to 18 months, helping women find jobs and more permanent housing, but will not make anyone leave until they have a solid place to move.

For the visit we sat in Li’s room, which had a single bed and window. She had a table, a small fridge, microwave and rice cooker and room for personal items. Tan again served as translator.

Li, 57, immigrated to the United States from Tianjin Province in China. She’s currently working at a credit union through a paid internship with Gum Moon.

“The job helps me learn English,” Li said. “Working reception, I have to answer the phone in English, and I also help low-income clients with their tax returns.”

She moved to the YMCA in December 2020. Her husband is a gambling addict, and she sought help from Gum Moon when it was no longer safe for her to live with him. She stayed with him for many years before leaving.

“Now that my kids are all grown up, I do not have to tolerate him anymore.”

Li knew about Gum Moon’s services because she and her children, now in their 20s, participated in the parent–child programs when they were younger. She appreciated that the program was right in the neighborhood in which she lived. She’d recently participated in a number of Gum Moon’s free workshops, including self-defense, financial literacy and mental health support groups.

“I also received supplies like hand sanitizer and gloves during COVID-19. And they also have cultural events. They try to celebrate with us during the holidays such as Christmas and Mother’s Day. They serve a delicious meal and even give little gifts and gift cards,” Li said. “On weekdays I can go over to Gum Moon and get a hot lunch.”

A place to call home

A few days later I visited Gum Moon’s women’s residence. The red-brick building is located on a hill across from an elementary school and next to the Chinese United Methodist Church San Francisco. Down the hill are many Chinese restaurants, grocery stores and shops.

The building was built in 1909, designed by architect Julia Morgan, who was commissioned by the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A stone at its entry is from the original Oriental Home and School, as it was called, which was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. In 1940 the mission was renamed “Gum Moon,” Cantonese for “golden door.”

Tan, originally from Singapore, lived at Gum Moon while a student in San Francisco in the 1980s. She also volunteered. After graduation, she was hired as the organization’s assistant director. Soon after, encouraged by the board of directors, Tan applied for the executive director job when it opened. She’s been executive director for over 30 years. She came to the United States, she said, to pursue her education and “the American Dream.”

When the Methodist mission first started, many Chinese men were immigrating to work on the railroads being built across California. Chinese women were encouraged to immigrate too, but for different reasons.

“Women were brought under false pretenses, many of them thinking that they will marry a rich, wealthy merchant and have a happy family,” Tan explained. “They’re immigrating to the United States to live the American Dream, but many of them came here and they were sold as slaves and were forced to work in the bordellos as prostitutes.”

The Rev. Otis Gibson, who with his wife Eliza was the Methodist founder of what would become Gum Moon, met with some of these women and asked them what they needed. What they needed was housing, Tan said.

Like many United Methodist Women-related national mission institutions, Gum Moon has adapted to its community’s needs in the past century. One need that continues is transitional housing.

At the home I was welcomed by resident Sanaz Naseri. We spoke in one of the residence’s shared rooms, with sofas and art and windows. She immigrated to the United States from Iran as a science researcher. The company who hired her mistreated her and failed to pay her. She felt trapped. When she left she had no support, and leaving the abusive situation meant risking deportation.

“I went from city to city to city. I couldn’t work legally. I was looking for a safe place to stay and some luck. It was hard,” she said. “Being a woman is not easy. There are predators looking to take advantage of the vulnerable.”

But then she was introduced to Gum Moon. And she found home in more ways than one.

“Gum Moon is unique,” Naseri said. “I felt welcomed, comfortable, a part of the community. They go above and beyond. When I found Gum Moon, I could breathe again. This is my place.”

She didn’t expect immigrating to the United States in a male-dominated occupation to be easy, but she did expect to be treated with respect. The recruiters promised training, support and payment for a job. It didn’t occur to Naseri that she’d been trafficked until an attorney told her so. She blamed herself. Thankfully, Gum Moon helped her get through a hard time, and recently helped her report and survive sexual harassment at another job.

“Gum Moon helped me understand that it’s not my fault. Gloria encouraged me to speak up. Not all women have the support and encouragement I have.”

A place to grow

One of the reasons Gum Moon recently offered a self-defense class was the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes seen since careless politicians gave COVID-19 a racist misnomer targeting China. Many Chinatown businesses are still closed. Discrimination against Asian women is not new, Tan pointed out, but in the past 18 months she’s seen an increase.

“This anti-Asian discrimination did not happen overnight,” she said, reminding me of the Chinese Exclusion Act. “It goes back many, many years. We’re seeing an increase in violence thanks to the finger pointing in this pandemic. There’s a heightened threat to our Chinese community. We see our elders being attacked. We see Asian women who have been threatened. Women are insecure walking the streets of San Francisco or Chinatown. We have to be careful.”

She encourages United Methodist Women members to support Asian organizations working against anti-Asian violence, and to be allies: “We are stronger in power when we have a bigger voice, when we all combine our voices.”

She called America a quilt of different cultures.

“Asians come together as a beautiful piece of this country.”

Tan also talked about the need for affordable housing, especially for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Gum Moon offers a room, but also community and support.

“They need a safe place to be able to go, a place that they can call home and seek refuge. Once they can find affordable housing, then they can proceed to the next steps in life,” she said.

Gum Moon hosts mental health support groups twice a month, cultural and holiday celebrations and job help. While offering independence, Gum Moon also fosters a sense of belonging and support. Rent is very low, and often subsidized, for its single and double rooms. Shared facilities help the space feel like a shared home.

A place to celebrate

My last activity with Gum Moon was the “Cuties” preschool graduation. After health checks and hand sanitizing, students and parents gathered in a gated parking lot where the moving-up celebration for the 2- and 3-year-olds was held. The children processed in their graduation hats and performed a song with hand motions with their teachers’ help.

Because they’d taken all of their classes online this year, this was the first time the children were seeing one another in person. They even got to meet Moo Moo the dog from “Reading With Moo Moo,” eat cake and take photos with their teachers.

Gum Moon is a place where people of all ages can find the community, support and confidence needed to begin a new, brighter phase in life. Gum Moon is indeed a golden door to a lifetime of joy and support. .

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Santa Rosa, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 11/1/2021 12:00:00 AM

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* Tara Barnes: Editor