Fighting COVID-19: One Community

Shiqiao Peng produced this story as part of her participation in the 2020 National Fellowship, a program of USC Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism. It has been translated from the original Mandarin in which it was published in Sing Tao Daily.


A small portable square table, a small set of Legos, an iPad with headphones - this is the entire world of Xiaolin, a 7-year-old boy since the City of San Francisco started the “Shelter In Place Order" in March 2020. In the meantime, this is real-life for thousands of families who live in the Single Room Occupancy hotels (SRO) in San Francisco Chinatown.

Xiaolin is playing with his Lego toys on his portable study desk. (Photo: Shiqiao Peng)

Xiaolin is playing with his Lego toys on his portable study desk. (Photo: Shiqiao Peng)

Yongyu Situ and her son Xiaolin left their hometown Guangdong, China, and came to the United States to join her mother Zhen five years ago. The family has lived in an SRO room on Washington Street in Chinatown since then. The room is only big enough to have one bunk bed. The four people of Situ’s share the bathroom and kitchen with all the residents on the same floor, from about ten other rooms.  Situ’s husband, Mr. Fang, also squeezed into this tiny space after coming to the United States two years ago. Grandma Zhen sleeps in the upper bunk, Situ, and Xiaolin in the lower bunk. Mr. Fang could only sleep on the floor and be surrounded by furniture, kitchenware, clothing, and debris. His bed needs to be put away during the day time to give the family space to eat, work, rest, and entertain.

Outside of Situ’s window is a wall and the family can’t see the sky from inside. Laking of storage for the family of 3 generations, the window has long been blocked by a large wardrobe anyway. An extremely bright fluorescent ceiling light serves as the only light source of the room.  Xiaolin sits at the table with Legos, Situ works remotely, and Grandma Zhen sits at the small dining table at the door of the room. She sometimes sang a song along with her phone. "The Shepherd of the Cocoa Sea" is her recent favorite - you can hear her melodious singing walking along the hallway.

This is an ordinary day for Situ’s family for the past 270 days of shelter in place. “My kid gets up in the morning to have online classes, others will sit in the room. My mom cooks for the family when there’s no one in the kitchen. Because it’s not possible to keep 6 feet distance in the kitchen.” Grandma Zhen bought a new refrigerator last year which happened to be used for storing food during the pandemic. But the space in this room was so narrow, she needs to move the dining table and chairs first, and then she can barely open the refrigerator door halfway. “Look at this, we are doing this all day, it’s really annoying,” Zhen demonstrated and said with a smile on her face.


The challenges and difficulties for the residents of SROs have long existed before the pandemic. However, the COVID and stay at home order has amplified their plight of "dwelling in a shell“. The shelter in place order impacts families individuals live in SROs far exceeds it impacts those living in single houses or larger apartments. Consider the dense population, the challenge of COVID prevention and response in SROs concerned the community from the beginning of the epidemic. After going up to the SRO buildings for a check, Dr. Jian Zhang, the Chief Executive of the Chinese Hospital was worried about the residents. “Four people are living in a room of 100 square feet, how can we maintain social distancing? When I went to see the SROs, I thought - oh my god, what should we do?”

According to an April news release by the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a Chinese community non-profit that owns and operates dozens of SRO buildings and public housing, Chinatown has more than 6,000 SROs. SRO units are as small as 80 square feet and can only accommodate one bed. All residents need to share the kitchen and bathroom. Social distancing is extremely difficult to implement in such narrow settings. The risk of cross-infection with the virus in SROs is significantly higher than in other residences.

Dr. Zhang proposed the “COVID-19 Prevention and Management Program in San Francisco Chinatown Community” to the city in March, aiming to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus among residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown. To provide an effective, culturally sensitive, and linguistically appropriate approach for the Chinatown community to address the COVID-19 crisis locally. Dr. Zhang proposed to form a community task force including all stakeholders. The Chinese Hospital will provide COVID-19 testing to SRO residents in Chinatown to collect baseline data. Based on testing results, the care coordinators will immediately identify and interview people with COVID-19, support isolation of those who are infected, warn contacts of their exposure, assess their symptoms and risk, and provide instructions for the next steps. Those that present symptoms will be connected with proper care facilities.

“There are approximately 14,000 people live in the SROs,” Dr. Zhang said, “I wanted to establish a database at that time. If anyone has symptoms, they can report immediately and get tested. They can be quarantined once tested positive. ”

This proposal was not immediately adopted by the City, and it was not until October that the Chinese Hospital officially became the City's community partner. 

Starting from March, the Chinese Hospital and the community followed the rules in that proposal as much as possible.

An emergency ordinance proposed by Aaron Peskin, the Supervisor of District 3, where Chinatown is located, was passed in May, providing resources for SRO residents in the city to respond to the pandemic. Since May, the Chinese Hospital has set up tents several times to provide free tests for some residents in SROs.

Dr. Zhang originally wanted to collect contact information from the owners of the SROs before anyone was tested positive. Some of the SRO owners were unwilling to cooperate. Covid information could not be sent to individuals without their contact information, the Chinese Hospital had to take a more indirect path to get the message out. Social platforms, websites, Covid educational online sessions, and other methods were utilized to educate the community on Covid prevention.  In that way, the public understands that it’s not their fault if they get COVID-19, “Letting the community members know that services will be provided was essential. Get tested if they have symptoms. We are not afraid of individual cases. The point is not to let the virus spread in the community.”

Anni Chung, Director of the Self Help Elderly, agrees with the idea to establish a database and to coordinate with the community. In that way, community organizations would better provide services and ease the tension. “The SRO residents are our most vulnerable population, particularly the seniors. We need a database and we need to know, we need to have a common database that we could list these 9000 SRO residents, like what CBO is serving them already. Like 1000 of these 9000 are my seniors, then I know them already. So if something happened to them, we can get to them. They trust us already,” Chuang said, similarly with the Chinese Hospital and other community-based organizations and the population they served. In her view, if time were to go back to the beginning of this year, the whole COVID-19 response would have a more detailed and comprehensive coordinated “game plan” to follow. “It’s not just about the tests, it’s what to do after the tests”, she explained, the residents need to know who will be responsible for outreach and follow-up, and which hotel the patients will be sent to if diagnosed positive, who will ensure they received language services and meals during the quarantine. Chang believes that people need to know all of the information so that they will be willing to tell when something happened, and will not hide them out of fear and worry. 

The City and the Department of Health refuse to release much COVID-19 related information due to privacy concerns. The lack of transparency made the Chinatown community feel unsettled. The sentiment reached its peak after multiple cases found in an SRO on Clay Street in August. Community leaders held a press conference back then to criticize the City’s negligence in Chinatown. They requested the City to immediately provide more resources to the Chinatown community to prevent outbreaks.

“The Clay Street SRO outbreak was not just about a dozen or more cases,” Dr. Zhang said, “it brought panic to the community.”

When the first few cases were tested positive, the Department of Health could not find out who the owner is. The owner, at the same time, never knew and had not been notified that someone in the building had contracted the virus.

“You have to be culturally sensitive and the testings must be done immediately,” said Dr. Zhang. After the Clay Street outbreak, the Chinese Hospital and the community negotiated with the City again. She said that the Chinese Hospital, based in the community for over a hundred years, has its inherent advantage: The board members are all community leaders, and they know the SRO building owners and their backgrounds. The building owner, on the other hand, they face pressure from the community. By cooperating, other cases found after August didn’t cause any outbreaks like the in the Clay Street building.

Working back and forth for more than half a year, the Chinatown community has gradually managing to monitor the pandemic in SRO buildings. The Chinese Hospital and other community medical services and providers are following up on cases promptly.  To contain the risk, they try to notify the residents of SROs within 48 hours and they contact the property owners or management to identify any other possible cases.

“We have achieved certain results in the fight against the pandemic of course,” said Dr. Zhang, “but we dare not to relax for one second. Because that’s when things happen when you let down.” 

The relatively low positive rate in Chinatown has aroused curiosity nationwide. Since the beginning of this year, many mainstream media have reported that the densely populated Chinatown has the lowest positive rate. The culture of wearing masks of course help and also the culture of being vigilant. When walking on the street of Chinatown during the COVID-19, it is common for men, women, and children of all ages to wear masks, and it is common to take out tissues to cover the buttons when taking the elevators. Actively following health guidance is one aspect, early education and preparedness were the basis to protect the community. 

“There is no secret, but to prepare early and to prepare well,” Dr. Zhang concluded, “and also to cooperate with the community as a whole, to cooperate with the City, the Department of Health, the community members and the in-language media.” Dr. Zhang explained that they started to work into those SROs and had kept doing contact tracing since early. 

When other hospitals and other services were still “business as usual” at the beginning of this year, the Chinese Hospital was ready. Dr. Zhang was aware of the shortage of PPE from very early and used all her connections and resources to obtain more masks and other supplies.  As early as the beginning of the year, she and her staff completed a lot of preparation and training, and community awareness programs. She knew that only by doing so,  the community will not be caught off guard when the pandemic arrives.

The city finally provided 2 mass testings of over 800 people in Chinatown at the Portsmouth Square located at the center of Chinatown at the end of October and early November. All results returned negative. This seems to be a success of the community response, but no one dared to put down their vigilance for one second - an outbreak could happen any minute in such crowded narrow spaces. At the same time, what impact will the cheerful all negative results have on requesting additional resources from the city concerns the community leaders? Is it possible the Chinese community be neglected by the City because it can take good care of itself? 

The popularity of the mobile testing site  Portsmouth Square far exceeded expectations. Victor Lim, External Affairs Officer of the Department of Emergency Management, states that this is the result of the community’s efforts in outreaching and coordinating. The city has sent a large number of Chinese-speaking officers for outreach work every week. A Chinese-language media briefing was held to update the situation. Many community organizations have done a good job of mobilizing, vigorously promoting the testing site, and explaining what can happen after testing, or tested positive. The information greatly reduced the fear of the public. Cooperation with hospitals trusted by the community also reduces language barriers, Lim said. 

A 3rd  mobile testing site was opened at Portsmouth Square on December 9th, and another 430 people came to be tested. Lim noted that the testing site that came to Chinatown is the result of the community's active advocating. 

The Chinatown community repeatedly requested additional testing before October. The reason why the City did not set up one at that time was the low positive rate in the Chinatown area. "Less testing" and "low positive rate" have become the metaphysics of "the chicken or the egg comes first". For a long time, the community cannot determine whether the COVID-19 situation in Chinatown was good or bad. "For a long time, everyone said that Chinatown is in good condition, but it may be because they have not been tested. It is possible that someone is asymptomatic but is spreading the virus," said Anni Chung.

As of December 10th, a total of 104 people tested positive in Chinatown, made it one of the communities with the lowest positive rates in San Francisco. However, 26 people have been diagnosed in Chinatown in the past 30 days, accounting for one-third of the cumulative cases. The growth rate cannot be ignored. 


“Prevention is cheaper,” Dr. Zhang emphasized. Educating the public to wear masks and other common sense of the pandemic prevention, keeping social distance, conducting contact and crowd tracing, and ensuring that public areas are cleaned and disinfected are all part of the COVID-19 prevention. But the reality is, in SROs of different sizes and managements, it is not uncommon for residents to be panic when the building fails to meet sanitation standards. 

Situ is the family organizer of the SRO Families United Collaborative. Funded and supported by the City’s Department of Building Inspection, the Collaborative includes five community organizations that serve four communities including Chinatown. CCDC and the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) served the families with minors under the age of 18 in Chinatown for the Collaborative. The Collaborative is usually responsible for understanding the needs and difficulties of SRO residents. During the pandemic, Situ and her coworker have done a lot of work to address the problems SRO residents faced. Situ also learned about the urgent needs of residents for cleaning.

Grandma Zhen is singing a song along with her phone. (Photo: Shiqiao Peng)

Grandma Zhen is singing a song along with her phone. (Photo: Shiqiao Peng)

Living in an SRO unit with her family, Situ is particularly aware of the sanitary conditions here. Grandma Zhen is nearly 70 years old and belongs to the high-risk population of the COVID-19, while Xiaolin is at a lively and active age but is confined to the tiny space in the room. This makes Situ worried day and night. It is very difficult to always keep social distance, wear masks, and sanitize at all times given the densely living situation in SROs. Situ dare not let Xiaolin go out and run around.  The three generations of four were crowded in a small room of 100 square feet during the many months when they could not go to work and school.

According to the instructions of the Health Department, residents of SROs should also wear masks in the building. The owners need to provide daily cleaning and disinfection services. However, there is always a gap between theory and reality. Many residents no longer wear masks when they return to the building. The cleaning service is not always satisfactory.

Positive cases were found in late October in the SRO building Zhen and the family of three live in. Zhen learned the news from neighbors on the third day. Before the positive cases found, residents would no longer wear masks when returned to the building, because they always felt that they wouldn’t be the one, until someone in the building was diagnosed with COVID-19. Zhen felt scared when learned the news, “my first reaction was very scared, very scared that my family may also be infected.” 

Although it is not clear which department should be responsible for the specific work, Zhen is dissatisfied with the response process after the diagnosis in the building. "The process was too slow. After knowing the positive cases, some residents went to Portsmouth Square for testing, and the Health Department arranged work. It has been a week since the people with the City entered the building. If everyone was infected, they would have spread to a larger area.” In Zhen’s view, the building should be closed as soon as the cases are confirmed, entry and exit shall not be allowed. But the actual operation was not the case. The tenants in the building still went to work after receiving the exposure information. Knowing that they should be quarantined at home, the tenants have no choice because they face the actual risk of losing their jobs. 

As a close contact person living in the same building, Zhen mentioned that during the 14 days of quarantine, a staff member of the Health Department called to ask if the food was needed. After answering "needed" for more than 20 days, Zhen did not get any replies, "If we really need that food, our family would have starved to death at home...I think the Health Department has done very, very badly.”

Fortunately, the test results of Zhen and the family returned negative, but the other resident Li was not so lucky. Positive cases were also found in Li’s building, Li and the child tested positive and were transferred to the hotel for isolation. Li had no symptoms other than a slight cough and returned to the residence after 14 days. The new problem is Li does not know when to be allowed to return to work.

Li said that the food was good during isolation in the hotel. “It’s just not so hot sometimes, and I didn’t sleep well at night, maybe because of a change of place.” During the isolation, Li called other tenants and heard that the building was not thoroughly disinfected. After returning home, Li found that cleaning was just as usual. "I hope that the City will strengthen sanitation management so that the personal safety of our residents in SROs can be guaranteed."

After returning from isolation, Li found subtle changes in the neighborhood. “My neighbors seem to be different from usual. They seem to avoid me a little bit. They are not so enthusiastic. I say hello first... This could be a little stressed."

Li’s most dissatisfactions are tenants not receiving timely notification of someone in the building was tested positive and the public space was not disinfected enough. "I don’t know which department should be responsible, but someone should definitely do it. To protect us, at least we can feel at ease.” Zhen also believes that “generally, the cleaning is not enough. The entire environment of the staircase and walkway should be cleaned in-depth, just like in Mainland China, like those supermarkets disinfection, and large-scale disinfection.”

When the City implement the stay-at-home order in March, the San Francisco Department of Public Health released guidance, requiring the SRO building owners or managers to clean and disinfect surfaces like doorknobs, tables, desks, bathroom and kitchen surfaces, handrails, elevator controls, light switches, and other frequently touched surfaces daily or more frequently when needed. The Department also requires building owners to provide hand sanitizers in all common gathering areas and to maintain a cleaning log for all common area that records areas cleaned, date, time, and cleaning staffs’ initials. How well these regulations are implemented in real life often depends on the building owner or managers.

Ding Lee, who mainly managed the Ning Yuny Benevolent Association’s SRO building this year hired someone to clean the building twice a day. Ning Yuny SRO residents were the first to be tested in the community, Lee himself filled out the forms and applications for his residents to get tested and to sign up for food delivery programs. Ms. Huang who lives in the building for decades said, “We have all been tested, and I was the first one to do that… (Mr. Lee) notify us about anything, there’s no need to be afraid.”

Malcolm Yeung, Director of CCDC said, “we have met and in most cases exceeded the cleaning requirements for SRO’s and in all of our residential buildings and offices”.


Looking back at the efforts of Chinatown’s fight against COVID-19 in 2020, almost everyone mentioned the work of  a “united community.” 

The CCDC, Self Help Elderly, Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, NICOS Chinese Health Coalition, YMCA, Chinese Merchant Association, Be Chinatown, and API Council, Chinese Hospital, Northeast Medical Center ( NEMS), and other community-based organizations were in the same boat and walked side by side with the community during this arduous year. 

Since the beginning of the Stay-at-Home Order, Malcolm Yeung stated that to protect the elderly in Chinatown and families in SRO buildings, it was necessary to take care of the daily catering problem for them. So that the residents could avoid gathering in the shared kitchens to cook, and to reduce the number of times to use the shared space, and to lower the probability of cross-infection.

CCDC launched the “Feed and Fuel Chinatown” program, partnered with the Chinatown local restaurant New Asia to provide take put food for the SRO families. CCDC also partnered with Far East Cafe to provide cooked meal boxes to elderlies living in Ping Yuen Center public housing.

With the close partnership between community organizations and businesses, Chinatown is riding out the storm together. Eligible seniors living in the SRO rooms signed up for the meal delivery program with Self Help Elderly. The Self Help Elderly provided 1,500 meals a day in the entire Bay Area before the pandemic, the number soared to  5,000 since the Stay-at-Home order. About 3,500 were delivered to seniors in the City of San Francisco. Many employees were of the organization were reassigned as food delivery drivers according to Chung, and many volunteers joined the journey.  The additional expenses are reimbursed by the Department of Aging, as well as personal donations and funds from various sectors. When the City started to reopen, the Self Help Elderly switched its services to the mental health of the seniors, and teach them to use electronic devices, and Zoom to participate in online meetups.

With the team efforts of CCDC, Selp Help Elderly, YMCA, and Chinatown Restaurants,  the Feed and  Fuel Chinatown program provided 122,000 meals either through home delivery or Food Voucher programs via restaurants to over 800 seniors living in SROs, 220 families living in SROs, and 784 public housing residents for 3 months during Shelter-in-Place Order.

"Watching and helping each other" is also reflected in each community organization's use of their strengths. Wing Hoo Leung, president of Community Tenants Association (CTA),  noted that during the stay-at-home, his staff and volunteers kept telephone communication with members to understand the needs of tenants. Looking back at the year, he said,  “We shall have a little faith in each other, and to love each other. We help each other to get through the hard times.”

Joyce Lam, Political Director of the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), and her co-workers helped the community members to apply for unemployment benefits, paid sick leaves, and other supporting programs. The Chinatown has relatively low infection rates, “but this community was hit even before the COVID-19 outbreak because of xenophobia and racism,”  Lam said, “I’m more worried about the recovery of the Chinatown as a whole. How do we ensure everyone will recover next year? That’s something the City should really work on.”

The future of Chinatown worries Ding Lee deeply as well. He has a five-year improvement plan and vision for the economy and tourism in Chinatown. Though the pandemic is almost halting the economy and the tourists seem not returning in near future, “we just cannot stop fighting because of the pandemic.” 


Managing a large number of SROs and public housings to serve low-income families, CCDC has spent more than $1.28 million on COVID-19 responses. That does not include the amount spent covering for rent losses, according to  Malcolm Yeung. None of these expenses were budgeted in the 2020 agency-wide budget, so immediate actions were taken to create a comprehensive fundraising campaign to raise money solely for the COVID-19 response.

CCDC has not received any additional or direct funding from the City for our COVID response, said Malcolm Yeung, “although they have allowed us to include COVID response as a deliverable in a number of our contracts – this has helped a lot.”  

Recently the city provided significant amounts of PPE to distribute to the residents and community members. Nearly 200,000 surgical masks were distributed in November and will continue into December. Yeung pointed out that the DBI and the Chinatown District Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s office have helped secure cleaning supplies and PPE, especially early on. CCDC also received donations of PPE and food from the community, Yeung said.

The response to COVID-19 involves all aspects of work, said Yeung. In addition to the meal program, CCDC installed fresh air intake and exhaust fans as needed, and improved ventilation for the communal kitchens and baths. The organization tripled janitorial work, installed hand sanitizer dispensers on all floors, and distributed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to residents. CCDC also coordinated communication between San Francisco Unified School District and families living in SROs and public housing to address distance learning issues from educational materials and equipment to access to the internet. To better communicate with the seniors, CCDC assisted seniors and families in enrolling in internet services and provided technical assistance and tablet/phone lessons to first-time digital users.

Employment and childcare services are the biggest needs of SRO residents after more than half a year of shelter in place, Yeung said, the CCDC would work with partners to support on this front. “Amazing to see the community come together!! ” Yeung wrote in an email, “public health engagement from the Chinese Hospital and NEMS were critical!! Community buy-in to safety protocols – especially masks wearing!! Also – a huge shout out to the many organizations that have stepped up and in to support small businesses. ”

If the surge gets worse and the City increased shutdowns, CCDC is considering relaunching the Feed and Fuel meals program. While Yeung acknowledged that continued and expansive COVID relief programs are only possible if they obtain resources from the government, or else CCDC needs to fundraise for it.

“CCDC is a non-profit organization and not a city department. There is only so much that we can do.” Yeung added, “however, we are committed to not reducing any of our services and in fact, we have increased our services.  We are also committed to not laying off any of our staff.” 

Chinatown’s fight against the pandemic reflects the cohesion of the community, but many organizations are facing budget shortages already. The  Chinese Hospital also needs manpower for the case and contact tracking. After community leaders called on the city government to pay more attention to Chinatown's COVID-19 prevention, it was not until the end of October that the temporary testing site open to the public at Portsmouth Square for the first time, and finally became a weekly routine in December. There has been no clear answer on how much resources the city has invested in Chinatown's fighting against the virus, and whether there are specific prevention and response plan for the Chinese community. While many Chinatown community organizations are committed to maintaining services regardless of whether there are additional resources.

If the pandemic continues until next year, Anni Chung believes that more bilingual community workers are needed, she continued to say, “whether we get resources or not, we have to do it for the sake of protecting our own community. We have to take a leap of faith, and believe that there will be resources if we do the right thing.” 

Looking back at 2020, Malcolm Yeung believes the community would benefit from setting aside historic differences and uniting as one voice to fight for Chinatown and the Chinese Community.  “We need to follow the lead of our Latino brothers and sisters who have come together for the Mission District.” The City committed $28.5 million to secure testing, outreach, financial support for businesses and residents in the Latino community, which has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. “We could do so much more if we worked together more,” he said.


For a long time, the deepest desire of most SRO residents has been to "move out," and a year of sheltering at home has made such wishes and needs even more urgent.

“SRO Families need exits into affordable family housing.  This more true now than ever,” Yeung said, “but the city isn’t prioritizing this and it’s a disservice to our community.”

SROs were initially created as transitional housing. Due to the soaring housing prices in San Francisco and the affordable housing crisis, the SROs are used as a permanent residence for many families. In a report by CBS Bay Area, families in SROs are known to openly disregard fire codes and crowd multigenerational families into a tiny space. Tan Chow with the CCDC said those who lived in SROs could move to other places after saving for a few years in the past, now it’s just not possible with the soaring rent in the city.

The SRO Families United Collaborative submitted a report to the Board of Supervisors, SRO Health and Safety Task Force, and the Department of Health in 2015, presenting the real problems SRO families faced. The report found that the whole SRO residents group was forgotten by policymakers, and only 40 out of hundreds of SRO families had the opportunity to move into permanent affordable housing in a decade.

The report found that the majority of SRO families reside in Chinatown, the proportion was as high as 74%, most of which are immigrants from mainland China and Hong Kong, and only a few can speak fluent English. Nearly 62% of the families listed lack of social support, community services, and public transportation outside of San Francisco as their main concerns if forced to move out of their neighborhoods. 29 % listed lack of language/cultural competent services outside of San Francisco as their main concern. Joyce Lin, one of the authors of this report, said that five years have passed and rents have risen a lot, but the structure of SRO residents has not changed much. 

With high rents and the affordable housing crisis, it has become more and more difficult to move out of SROs.

Situ and Grandma Zhen have been applying for affordable housing and senior housing for years, but they have yet no luck.  Like many SRO residents, Situ’s income level does not meet the minimum requirement of many affordable housing projects, and for those she is eligible, simply too many people are competing.

San Francisco passed the Eviction Moratorium to protect the renter from being evicted during the pandemic. Everyone understands the law while reality’s crueler. Amy Dai, a family coordinator of the SRO Families United Collaborative and CCDC, learned that one of the tenants with children was forced into a room without a door in the kitchen by the landlord, with the excuse of remolding the original room. With limited knowledge of rental regulations, the tenant was not protected because no lease was signed with the landlord when they took over the room from the previous renter.

“People living in SROs, they are truly helpless. Knowing that the pandemic is terrible, that they may get infected at any time - they cannot do anything. They are not able to move out,” Dai said. When the holiday season’s coming, she is busy registering the names of residents and preparing gifts for them, “whatever they need, we do our best to find those for them.”


Situ is walking in Chinatown, not daring to think about the future. (Photo: Shiqiao Peng)

Situ is walking in Chinatown, not daring to think about the future. (Photo: Shiqiao Peng)

“If it were not to live in this place, this year could be a gift for my family to stay together. We don’t have that very often,” said Situ, walking on the street of Chinatown that was much more deserted than usual. “But the room is too small. Living here every day, it’s embarrassing to even change your clothes. It caused a lot of problems. Sometimes I felt that there might be some mental issues. ”

“I did not expect that I’ll live in this place when I came from China,” Situ said. 

Situ used to learn English after work and take Xiaolin to the parks and playgrounds before the pandemic. This year, she had to stay at home and watch TV dramas, “I’m a fan, I like TVB shows.” (TVB is a television broadcasting company based in Hong Kong.)

When the holiday season comes at the end of the year, everyone is discussing how to celebrate the festivals and what gifts to prepare, Situ’s family can only spend it “casually”. During the year of “stay at home”, a “hotpot” became Situ’s obsession and impossible dream. “My husband really wants to eat hotpot. It will be so good if our family has a place to hot-pot, but we don’t have that space. I don’t dare to do it without ventilation either.”

The holiday season is the time for children to expecting gifts, but Situ said “living in a place like this, my son dare not to make requests.” 

Situ knew that her son wanted a room of his own, especially after he saw his classmates have a sofa and writing desk at their homes when attending online classes this year. Xiaolin would be desirous of that, but the 7-year-old has learned to turn his desire into a good hope for the future - When I live in a big home. “He often said that he will do this and that when he lives in a big house,” Situ recalled when she took Xiaolin out in the past, “we went out and he saw some toys and asked ‘Can I buy that?’ I told him that our place was not big enough, he’d just say ‘Then I will buy it when I have a bigger place.’”

“All that I can say to him was tomorrow will be better,” Situ said sadly. With the impact of COVID-19, “moving out” seems not going to happen in the near future. Renting another SRO room next door would cost $1,200, which is far more than the family can afford. Situ is expecting her newborn in May next year that will make the room even more crowded, “I am worried. This place is so… I dare not to think about it. Let it be. I don’t want to think about it. I hope that the City will build more affordable housing and lower the income requirement.”

“When all of the pandemic things are over, I want to go and eat hotpot,” Situ chuckled and said she would also go shopping, “not for buying anything, but I miss the feeling of shopping. And I want to take Xiaolin out to play badly.”

Shiqiao Peng reported this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship.

The story originally ran in Sing Tao Daily on Dec. 13, 2020.