a man holds a flow stick in his right hand, a beer in his left hand, and a cigarette between his teeth
Li Yen with his essential items. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

Li Yen was back at Dolores Park with all of his essential items.

In one hand, a flow staff was sliding between his fingers. In the other hand, a beer. In between his teeth, a cigarette. 

“If you don’t see Li at the park, you should be concerned. It might mean the apocalypse is coming,” his friend Calvin joked. 

“What did you guys do when I was on vacation for two months?” Yen asked. 

“I don’t know what we did,” Calvin laughed. 

When he’s in town, Yen can be found in Dolores Park every day. Some days, you’ll see him kicking around a hacky sack for hours. Others, you’ll see him twirling around his flow staff, strolling around the grassy area and somehow managing to not spill his beer. It’s a hobby he picked up more recently. 

But what is a flow staff? Think of it as a really long baton, similar to those staffs you see in martial arts movies. Now imagine one of those staffs also has the ability to light up in the dark (kind of like a light saber). You got that image in your head? Good. Now imagine that really long glowing baton is used as a toy for people to spin and do cool tricks with. That’s a flow staff (since it was day time, Yen’s flow staff was not glowing when I met him).

“You’re basically Darth Vader,” a young boy skateboarding nearby said to Yen, referring to his flow staff. 

“Darth Vader, that’s a new one,” Yen chuckled.

Yen goes by a few names. Some people in Dolores Park know him as “Hacky Sack Guy,” others know him as Uncle Li. More recently, he has been going by the name “Stick Man” (and maybe he’ll add Darth Vader to the list soon too … who knows). He’s been living in San Francisco since 1983, but, he explained to the young skateboarder, he was born in the ’70s. 

“Why did you come to San Francisco?” the young boy asked.

“Because my family and I were running from Communist China,” Yen said. “I’m originally from Taiwan. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Yen has bounced around almost every neighborhood in San Francisco since moving here, always in search of cheaper rent. Each neighborhood is special, he says, but he will never forget Halloween in the Mission.

“Man, growing up, Halloween was just the best. Everyone would be out, all the corner stores would be giving out candy,” Yen reminisced. “I miss those days.”

Yen now lives in the outer Mission, where he has resided for 20 years. When he’s not at Dolores Park in the afternoons, playing with his hacky sack or flow staff, he works in the IT department for the Rafiki Coalition for Health and Wellness, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating health inequities in San Francisco’s Black and marginalized communities. 

“They actually do the work,” Yen said. “They were able to increase covid vaccination rates for the Black community And that was huge.”

After speaking for a while, Yen threw his cigarette on the ground, put his flow staff away and pulled out his old reliable hacky sack, which he has been playing with for 21 years. 

For a brief moment, Yen kicks his hacky sack into the crook between his neck and shoulder. He pulls out another cigarette and lights it. And then, he’s back to kicking around his hacky sack.

It’s his favorite trick. 

Li Yen playing with his hacky sack at Dolores Park. Video by Carolyn Stein.

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Intern reporter. Carolyn grew up in Los Angeles. She previously served as a desk editor for her college newspaper The Stanford Daily. When she's not reporting, you can find her going on an unnecessarily long walk.

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  1. Another great People We Meet episode! (And yes, Walter Mackins, I noticed. We need a hip, Mission-centric nickname for this dude. Maybe riffing on The Headless Horseman…)

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