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Regional Interests

In ‘Shang-Chi,’ a Muni Line Made Possible by Chinatown Community Advocacy

Sure, Marvel’s newest superhero flick, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, impresses with its high-flying martial arts fight scenes, the usual show-stopping, Disney-caliber visual effects, and a groundbreaking Asian superhero taking center stage.

But for advocates in San Francisco’s Chinese community, the movie’s trailer perked up eyebrows for a totally different reason.

That San Francisco Muni bus—now that was a show-stopper.

No, I’m not kidding. The 1-California line, in fact, plays the leading role in a key scene that early reviews have called the second-best San Francisco car chase of all time. As Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) lands artfully thrown fists against his attackers on Muni, the bus careens through San Francisco, moving faster than any Muni bus has before, from the Stockton Street Tunnel, through Chinatown, to Ghirardelli Square.

The 1-California carries more than just passengers gawking at superheroes in Marvel blockbusters, though. It carries the history and legacy of San Francisco’s Chinese community, its advocacy, and its perseverance.

That is, if you know the history.

A Chinatown Connector

Community advocacy wasn’t quite the first thing that Queena Chen noticed when she first saw the Shang-Chi trailer—even with her role as co-chair of the Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project (TRIP).

55 Sacramento bus line on Sacramento Street at Grant Avenue looking east | September 18, 1972 (SFMTA Photo | SFMTA.com/Photo)

Chen, 32, was watching her year-old daughter playing in her room when she first took a peek, excited to see a movie with more Asian representation. She remembers thinking that the Muni bus traveled far too quickly from the Stockton Street Tunnel to Ghirardelli Square, “and I’m pretty sure the 1-California is off route.”

You know, regular Muni stuff.

But at the next meeting of Chinatown TRIP, her colleagues were all aflutter: the Shang-Chi bus routes were ones their organizations’ founders had fought for in the 1970s and 1990s. The trailer even showed tunnel safety improvements they’d fought for, as well.

These Muni connections trace back to the flourishing of the Chinese community in San Francisco, following the repeal of exclusionary racist laws. With new communities came new transportation routes, fought for through advocacy, and established to keep Chinese Americans in touch with their heritage in Chinatown, just a short bus ride away.

A Muni bus ride in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy Chinatown TRIP.)

“It was significant because the superheroes of TRIP had fought for all those things,” Chen tells KQED. While Chen says she’d always heard bits and pieces of the old stories about lobbying for different bus lines, “I didn’t know the fights and struggles they went through to get Chinatown connected to other neighborhoods.”

Citywide Community

While drumming up fear over Chinese labor competition, local politicians passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned new Chinese immigrants from entering the country. The act’s repeal in 1943 still came with restrictions, as the number of new immigrants was severely limited by an annual cap.

That all changed in 1965 with the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the national-origins quota law. As Chinese immigration began to rise again in San Francisco, housing restrictions across San Francisco were lifted, says Pam Wong, deputy director of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

“Because of this, the Chinese population in San Francisco grew out of Chinatown,” Wong says.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Visitacion Valley, the Richmond District, the Sunset District, the Excelsior and the Bayview all blossomed with their own Chinese communities. But Chinatown remained the social, political and shopping hub for Chinese Americans in San Francisco, including those living in other neighborhoods across the city.

“The cultural traditions of food, Chinese traditional medicine—those were still very important to these families,” Wong says. “So going back to Chinatown, where these resources were centered, was a way to stay connected to their cultural heritage.”

And to get there, many would take Muni.

Bus service wasn’t perfect in Chinatown, but Muni was a bit forward-thinking, at least. In 1976, an engineering findings team made their first proposals to improve Chinatown service. But their concepts of how to do so clashed with the residents’ views of what buses they needed.

(“It still stands true today,” says Chen. “We have planners telling residents of Chinatown what they need but they don’t go out and actually see what’s happening.”)

Cue the Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project.

A transit-focused community meeting at Cameron House in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Left, Michael Louie, right, Phil Chin. (Photo courtesy Chinatown TRIP)

Chinatown TRIP became one of a bevy of San Francisco advocacy groups—like the Asian Law Caucus, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Chinese Progressive Association—that sprung from the civil rights era, when the fight for Black equality stirred the hearts and charted the careers of Asian American advocates.

Chinatown TRIP lobbied Muni for a new bus line catered directly to Chinatown and the people who frequented it. Some involved had a direct tie to both the community and Muni, like Phil Chin, one of the group’s founders. Now in his 70s, Chin was once a bus driver himself, and his experience behind the wheel in his own community helped inform the organization’s advocacy at its inception.

(Even today, Chin wants bus service to improve. “It’s great that we have superheroes to inspire us as we strive to improve, but superheroes are all make-believe,” Chin says. “What we need is for the [San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] to provide full-service levels and to ensure true safety on every single one of their trains and buses.”)

Finally, in 1978, two years after TRIP’s effort began, Muni christened the 82-Chinatown, a wholly new bus line meant to ease crushing crowds on the 30-Stockton for Chinatown commuters. It launched with a small ceremony at Washington Square Park, replete with acrobatic lion dancers and “good luck” fireworks.

Then-San Francisco Mayor George Moscone attended the inauguration. Chin did, too.

A Muni bus advertisement talks up the ‘new’ 82-Chinatown line. (Photo courtesy Chinatown TRIP)

Martial-Arts Muni

So what does this all have to do with Shang-Chi?

Fast-forward 40-plus years, and the 1-California bus in Shang-Chi travels the same route the 82-Chinatown traveled, right through the Stockton Street Tunnel. The 82-Chinatown traveled this route, advocated for by the community, for years, before being folded into the expanded service of the 30-Stockton and 45-Union lines.

Transportation gets taken for granted, Chen says. But “it brings you to places for stability or to a job. It could bring you economic opportunities that you probably won’t have for folks who live in lower income areas, for the kids going to school.”

Chen adds: “I think when people think of transit, they think it’s only going to point A to point B, but for me, it’s really about opportunity, right?”

It’s that ethos that emboldens TRIP’s advocacy, and helps embolden other groups like the Chinatown Community Development Center and Self-Help for the Elderly. It also brings us even more ties to Shang-Chi.

A 55-line bus tackles a San Francisco hill, with passengers waiting beside it. (Photo courtesy Chinatown TRIP)

Going back to the years when it was known as the 55-line, the 1-California bus line that Shang-Chi rides in the movie has long been a way for Chinese residents of the Richmond District to shuttle into Chinatown—part of that spread of the community to other neighborhoods, jump-started in the 1960s.

But in the 1980s, the motor coaches on the 1-California line were so sluggish that when they got too crowded, they’d slow down on the steep slopes of Nob Hill. Passengers would have to hop off the bus, let the bus finish the hill, and walk up to catch up with it.

Chinatown TRIP successfully fought for the route to become an electric one, replete with “bunny ear” poles, to ensure those buses got where they were going.

Also in the 1980s, the Stockton Street Tunnel that Shang-Chi rides through on the 1-California bus was—if you can believe it—an even more dark and dangerous place than it is today, and the site of a pedestrian death that shook local residents.

“An auto had lost control and ended up on the sidewalk pinning the pedestrian against the wall,” recalls Landy Dong, another Chinatown TRIP founder (and former Muni driver).

While many locals and tourists know the historic, ornate Dragon’s Gate to Chinatown on Grant Avenue, the most-used portal to Chinatown by locals is the Stockton Street Tunnel. Even to this day, it’s frequently used by Chinatown shoppers to walk south, toward downtown, to catch a connecting bus to take them elsewhere in the city. That death spurred advocates to ensure safety for their community.

Street lighting in Stockton Street Tunnel, looking north at tunnel entrance below Bush Street | August 3, 1950 (SFMTA Photo | SFMTA.com/Photo)

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) gets ready to fight on a Muni bus going through the Stockton Street Tunnel. (Disney)

So in 1982, Chinatown TRIP pushed the city to apply for a $200,000 federal grant for safety rails, new lighting, and waterproofing, which was completed in 1984.

This all may seem like dry infrastructure history. But between the tunnel improvements, new routes, electric enhancements and openings attended by the mayor, these transportation advocates helped connect San Francisco’s outlying Chinese communities with Chinatown. They helped weave together their community.

And, watching Shang-Chi on the big screen, all these changes and more flash through their minds when they see an Asian American superhero fighting through San Francisco—much the same way they fought for transportation justice.

‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is in theaters now.

Copyright 2021 KQED