Chinese Recreation Center Celebration Tradition – On Scene with Bill Wilson

Workers and City officials gather for a group portrait after the placement
of the final beam at the Chinese recreation Center
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

Mayor Ed Lee joined workers, construction company officials, city officials, and community members on September 1 to take part in the traditional “topping out” ceremony at the Chinese Recreation Center. Topping out is what they call the placing of the last beam in a building. It means that the shell of the building is complete. It marks the 51% completion of construction.

Mayor Lee adds his name to the last beam
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

The last beam is signed by workers and everyone who attends the ceremony before being hoisted into place. The last beam traditionally is adorned with flags and evergreens symbolizing growth and for luck. It is believed that originally placing a fir tree on the top was to appease the gods who lived in the trees that were displaced by the building. However the Chinese Recreation Center is located in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in San Francisco, so no trees were lost because of construction.

With an American flag on the left, a pine tree on the right and signatures all over
the final beam is hoisted to its place in the Chinese Recreation Center
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

The “topping out” ceremony provides a reason for all the people involved in the building to celebrate the milestone that 51% completion represents on any project and the Chinese Recreation Center renovation project was no exception. There were remarks from Mayor Lee, DPW head Mohammed Nuru, Recreation and Parks Commission President Mark Buell, Judson True, representing Supervisor David Chiu and community leader Gordon Chin emceed by Recreation and Parks Department General Manager, Phil Ginsburg.

Mayor Lee speaks to the crowd gathered for the topping out ceremony
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

Mayor Lee, in commemoration of the ten year anniversary of the terrorist attacks that took place on the tragic day of September 11, 2001, requested that the RPD Commission name the Chinese Recreation Center in honor of Betty Ong, a Chinese-American hero. Betty Ong grew up in Chinatown, attended San Francisco public schools and often played at Chinese Recreation Center with her brother and two sisters. Betty Ong was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston bound for Los Angeles and was the first person to report the hijacking. Her call led to air traffic controllers landing every plane flying over U.S. airspace on that day.

“As we approach ten years after the tragic events, we are once again reminded of the tragic events that occurred that day and the people who lost their lives. Betty Ong is a national hero who grew up here, and her courage and her heroism have saved untold numbers of lives by telling emergency personnel on the ground what was happening,” said Mayor Lee. “Today, I ask the community to consider naming this wonderful new community center in the heart of Chinatown in remembrance of Betty Ong in the Chinese- American community and throughout our country for her heroic acts.”

Betty Ann Ong’s brother, Harry, speaks to the crowd
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

After people were moved out of the way, the crane preceded to lift the beam to its place three stories above ground, where workers used ropes to guide it into place and to keep it under control.

Betty Ann Ong family members (sister and mother) and Mayor Lee watching
the final beam being lifted into place
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

The beam being placed
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

After the placement of the final beam the attention turned to the time capsule that is going to be buried o the site of the Recreation Center and opened in a hundred years. People had been invited to bring items they thought might let the future generations know what it was like in our times. The students of Gordon Lau Elementary School wrote letters to future students that were put in the capsule. They also included a Muni Fast Pass. Gordon Chin donated a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle with the headline, “Giants Win It”

Lid of the time capsule get screwed in place
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at

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