Oldest Asian American service organization in the country celebrates 100 years in San Francisco

In 1924, seven young female trailblazers created a club to raise money to help flood and famine victims in China.

The group was the first of its kind - created at a time when the organizers themselves weren't welcomed in San Francisco.

They met at the Chinese Congregational Church, which is still located on Walter U Lum Place near Portsmouth Square.

Since then, the Square and Circle Club has been on a mission to give back to the community. It is the oldest Chinese and Asian American women's service organization in the country. 

"We're talking about a group of women, or young ladies who grew up during the Chinese Exclusion era," said co-president Lorraine Dong. "So it's a very important part of our history to know how minorities survived in a society, where they have been discriminated and definitely neglected."

Lorraine Dong and Claudia Jeung, both born and raised in San Francisco's Chinatown, serve as co-presidents of the Square and Circle Club that today has nearly 70 members.

This year the group is celebrating a very important milestone - 100 years of service and philanthropy in San Francisco.

Jeung has been a member for more than half a century. She joined in her late 20s. 

"For me, it was the late 60s and women activism was beginning to take hold and I was a very independent person and so were the ladies who were in the club. They didn't follow tradition," said Jeung. "I admired them for their commitment, and their leadership, mentorship."

Dong is a retired professor at SF State in the Asian American Studies Department.

She received her first scholarship from the club when she was a student at the university.

$150 covered a full year's tuition.

"My family wasn't well-to-do and my father always told me if you want to go to college, you're going to have to find a way to support yourself. So this very first scholarship that I got from Square and Circle sort of pushed me," she said.  

The Square and Circle Club's first benefit was a jazz dance that raised $250.

Over the years, the women hosted charity fashion shows, dances, and carnivals to raise money for beneficiaries, including Chinese Hospital and the YMCA. They also donated to causes like disaster relief and humanitarian crises.

In 1969, Claudia became a founding teacher at what would become the first school in the nation to teach English to newly-arrived chinese immigrant students.

"We did that for several years and we had our own members, many of them were teachers, and anybody who wanted to help," said Jeung. "We did that until the school district made a commitment to open a school for newcomers."

Women of the club were also the first to build and enter a float in the Chinese New Year Parade, the largest in the country.

Among its centennial projects, the group raised $5,000 to help victims of the Maui wildfires in 2023.

They also created a special scholarship award to be given to a high school senior this year.

Rachel Hum will be 90 years old this year. She is one of the oldest in the group who has committed 63 years to the club. Hum will be among those honored at the club's sold-out centennial celebration luncheon on June 1 at the Hilton San Francisco Financial District.

"I feel privileged to be living now, celebrating the 100th year of the Square and Circle Club," said Jeung. 

The Square and Circle Club is an all-volunteer organization without a big budget.

"I love Square and Circle because it's very homey. We don't have an office, we don't have anything, we have a storage facility," said Dong. 

The women say beyond the pride they take in community service, and they treasure the friendships they've formed in this group.

Mayor London Breed has declared June 1st, 2024 Square and Circle Club Day in San Francisco. 


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