Bill Zhen. Photo by Yujie Zhou.


On a recent Friday, Bill Zhen joined the long line snaking down the street in front of the Alabama Food Hub, part of a gathering of elderly Asians. As the long wait dragged on, many chatted or played poker; up ahead, others filled their bags with brightly colored vegetables, marinated chicken, bananas, bags of rice and gallons of milk. 

For Zhen and other aging Asian residents, the bounty of free food available in San Francisco’s food lines during the pandemic is a lifeline, but also a reminder of their earlier lives, when there was no safety net.

For months, Mission Local has been reporting stories from the food lines. These have been stories of struggle, but, as we began to talk to some of the older Asian residents, it became clear that, for many, any difficulties they have faced in the pandemic of 2020 pale in comparison to the famine and upheaval they experienced as youngsters during Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962.

“There was a day my mom asked me why my belly was so bloated.”

Bill Zhen

Thanks to overconfidence, excessive food exports and other policy errors, the Great Leap Forward instead led to the Great Chinese Famine of 1959 to 1960 and beyond. It was the “deadliest famine” in recorded human history, and killed as many as 17 million to 45 million people. That compares to 5.2 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide, and fewer than 1,000 in San Francisco.

So, it’s no surprise that, to many Asian elderly, the pandemic is a minor itch.

“After all, I have been through so much in my life, but nothing urgent happened in the pandemic,” said Zhen, a 71-year-old U.S. citizen who immigrated from Guangxi Province in China in 1982. 

But urgent it was in China between 1960 and 1961, when Zhen and his family had to live on “swine food” such as rice bran, the flower buds of plantains, and papaya cores. 

The Chinese Communist Party also offered the food substitute chlorella, a kind of rapidly multiplying, single-celled algae that was considered especially nutritious when diluted with a small amount of urine.

“There was a day my mom asked me why my belly was so bloated,” said Zhen, who was about 10 years old then. Only in that context could he see his next move to the westernmost tip of Hainan Island, courtesy of the Cultural Revolution, as an improvement. There, he survived on rice mixed with a few grains of sand. 

Furong Zhou, also a regular on the food line, remembered surviving on rice bran and papaya cores in the communal canteen in Zhongshan County, where he was born in 1948. He was 13 years old and forced to drop out of seventh grade to work on the only tractor in the village’s organized work unit. There was no going back to school, and what he most regrets about that experience is that he only had a few years of Mandarin lessons in elementary school.

Under a government policy that favored urban areas, compulsory quotas were imposed on rural residents like Zhen and Zhou, and it was the rural areas that accounted for the majority of the death toll. Both of them remember having barely enough to eat after their communes paid their quotas. 

Compared to Zhen and Zhou, Zhaobin Zhang’s life was easier in the early 1960s because of his status as a citizen of Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China. Central planning protected urban residents like Zhang, but even then, he remembers the difficult years of 1963 and 1964. His family, he said, appeased their hunger by grinding rice and adding water to make a paste. They cooked it with taro, sweet potatoes and chard, a green leafy vegetable that is often fed to pigs. Ironically, in Chinese, the word for chard also means “to make a prosperous career in government.”

For many the pandemic has meant no shopping trips to China. “I’ve never bought any clothes in the U.S.”

Zhaobin Zhang

J. Zhen, a translator at the food hub, is 20 years younger than many of the clients she works with. Her memory of China is somewhat different, as she spent her childhood in Taishan during the 1970s. (Taishan, along with Zhou’s hometown, Zhongshan, is the primary source of elderly Chinese in San Francisco.)  

“Our family was doing okay in the village,” J. Zhen said. “At least we had three meals to eat.” Breakfast was noodles drizzled with lard and light soy sauce, she said. Lunch and dinner were plain rice.

Food distributed by the Alabama Food Hub. Photo by Yujie Zhou.

Today, while their lives might not be perfect, many of the Asian immigrants in line appear to have carved out sustainable lives as U.S. citizens.

After retiring in 2012 as an electrician in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Bill Zhen lives in a one-bedroom apartment on 16th Street that he and his wife rent for $500 a month. His pension is only $700, but he says he lives comfortably. Aside from occasional visits to Chinatown to see his 100-year-old mother, his main pastime is reading Chinese martial arts novels on his phone, a hobby the pandemic has done nothing to interrupt.

J. Zhen remains strapped for cash because of her mortgage payments, but the food she receives as a volunteer translator has greatly eased her burdens. 

Furong Zhou says he spends all his spare time watching TV. The current U.S.-China relationship worries him more than the pandemic. “If the relationship was any worse, we would definitely be locked up by the U.S. government,” he said. 

Zhang seems the most troubled by the pandemic. He no longer has the time to play his beloved chess. Instead, due to the health policy at his grandson’s kindergarten, he frequently has to stay home to take care of the boy.

The biggest complaint they all share: They can’t return to China for a visit. This not only means forgoing family visits; it means no more new clothes. Bill Zhen says he has been wearing the same pair of shoes for more than two years. “I’ve never bought any clothes in the U.S.,” said Zhang. He, too, needs a new wardrobe. 

But they understand these are small inconveniences. 

That Friday, Bill Zhen’s biggest problem was trying to jam an immense watermelon into his backpack. In the end, he exchanged it for a smaller one from the food bank volunteer. Either way, he knew he’d be eating dinner that night.

“I’m not asking too much,” he said. “A lifetime of peace is enough for me.”

This is Mission Local’s first article on the senior Chinese immigrants we meet in the Alabama Street food line. Click here to read the second one and here for the third one.

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. While canvassing door to door for a supervisor candidate, I met many elderly Chinese. Despite having experienced hardship under authoritarianism, most of them were strongly political conservative. They favored extreme law and order policies with harsh punishments and long incarcerations even for relatively minor offenses like theft and assault. While readily accepting public housing, food, and medical assistance themselves, they judgmentally opposed social support for homeless, mentally ill, and substance dependent. A good number of them supported Trump despite his anti-immigration policies.

  2. My grandparents were from Canton, China migrated to Singapore before the Japanese occupation. We were poor but 3 meals a day easily obtained. At time my lunch was consist of warm rice mixed with black soyu and a raw egg. We were happy. I am 68 yrs old living in Virginia Beach.

  3. Thank you Ms. Zhou for the excellent writing and more important, the moving and astounding accounts from these esteemed seniors. I really can’t believe those “meals” of rice and sand, or the sheer number of people who died in the famine in China. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first I’ve ever heard of this famine. I wish we were taught this in history textbooks.

    1. Today’s closet Marxist’s feign amnesia regarding the ‘Great Leap Forward’. They are far more concerned about the horrors of Capitalism than the documented far more lethal horrors of Marxism.

      1. “closet Marxist’s”: Being a Marxist who understands punctuation, I have never denied famine under Mao, Stalin, or anyone else. Since I also understand arithmetic, I know being born in 1948 does not make one 71 years old. But I also eat chard regularly, so what could I know? Heck, I don’t even regard China’s government as inspired by Marxism. Oink!

  4. Thank you Yujie Zhou for writing the stories in our communities. Nothing can faze our seniors after all those they have been through.