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East Bay Tibetans, Chinese Clash Over S.F. Olympic Torch Relay

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 11, 2008
Will Lee, a native San Franciscan of Chinese descent, looked forward to the torch relay on Wednesday at the Ferry Plaza. “We did not have that many role models growing up,” he said. “I’m here to show my pride. I've wanted for 30 or 40 years for China to stand up.”
Chris Krohn
Will Lee, a native San Franciscan of Chinese descent, looked forward to the torch relay on Wednesday at the Ferry Plaza. “We did not have that many role models growing up,” he said. “I’m here to show my pride. I've wanted for 30 or 40 years for China to stand up.”

As pro-Tibet groups and supporters of the Beijing Games engaged in a war of words during the Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco Wednesday, Tibetans in Berkeley kept their businesses closed to join in a movement very close to their heart. 

A handwritten message greeted customers at Little Tibet, a curio shop at 2037 University Ave., saying, “We are closed on April 8 and 9, sorry for the inconvenience.”  

Tsewang Khangsar, who owns Little Tibet, trekked across the Himalayas to escape from the Chinese occupation 47 years ago. Khangsar was one of thousands of Tibetan refugees from India to win a green card lottery in 1995, which eventually brought him to Berkeley. 

“We were there to let the world know what China is doing to Tibet,” said Khangsar, who spent Tuesday and Wednesday in San Francisco. “China has occupied Tibet for the last five decades ... Three generations have passed. They said they would liberate us from serfdom to justify their occupation, but there has been no economic or social progress since then. After 50 years, the condition of Tibet has not changed. It is politically unstable. Tibetans are still suffering economically. There is no religious freedom, and our culture has been destroyed.” 

Next door at a shuttered Lhasa Salon, a “Why Care about Tibet” poster with saffron-robed Bud-dhist monks rallying in the background left no doubts about where its owners could be. 

Signs encouraging passers-by to join the “Global Human Rights Torch Relay” to protest China’s crimes against humanity and free Tibet were plastered all over the desolate storefronts of adjacent stores Tibet Jewels and Cafe Tibet on University Avenue. 

Dawa Lama, who owns Tibet Jewels, echoed Khangsar’s comments. 

“We don’t have human rights in Tibet,” said Lama, who crossed over the Tibetan border into Nepal to escape from the Chinese when she was six years old. “There is no good education for the younger generation. We don’t even have the right to put Dalai Lama’s picture in our homes.” 

Lama said fear of being arrested by the Chinese government for believing in democracy kept her away from visiting Tibet. 

Neither Lama nor Khangsar had any qualms about the loss to their businesses during the last couple of days. 

“People are giving their lives in Tibet, what is closing your business for two days?” said Lama. “It’s the least we can do.” 

More than 160 groups from across the Bay Area rallied against the 2008 Olympic Games in San Francisco, the only city in North America through which the torch will pass during its journey spanning six continent and 150 cities. 

Students, local businessmen and entire families from Berkeley took BART or drove to San Francisco as early as 6 a.m. to support Tibet or the Beijing Games. 

Yiining Chan, a third-year finance student from UC Berkeley, missed school to show his support for the torch relay at the Justin Herman Plaza in front of the Ferry Building. 

“It is sports for people from all over the world,” said Chan, who grew up in Hong Kong. “It’s about the Olympic spirit, there should be no relationship between the Olympics and politics.” 

Jessica Kali, who had braved the crowds on the MUNI’s underground trains disagreed. 

“I think it’s important for people of color to stand in solidarity with supporters of Tibet,” Kali, a member of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “It’s up to us to pressure China to free Tibet. A lot of people think that China isn’t using the Olympics for political reasons, but it is. It’s using it to justify its power.” 

Yi, a Beijing Games supporter, held on tightly to a “San Francisco Welcomes Olympic Torch Flag,” on the steps of the Plaza. 

“My wife’s hometown is Beijing and we are very proud that the games are being held there,” he said. “We want to welcome this great moment. I think the protests are improper. It’s an insult to the Olympic spirit. When I read about how a protester hit a disabled torch carrier in France and grabbed the torch, I was very sad. We want this to be a peaceful event. We don’t want to talk about politics at a sports event.” 

Most Tibetans at the rally said they were not protesting the torch. 

“I did want to see the torch, and I was disappointed when they re-routed it,” said Tenzin, a sophomore at Berkeley City College who immigrated to the United State from Dharamsala, India. “What was great was we could carry our flag freely here. We can’t do it in Tibet. We want people to be safe, to be in peace, whether it is in Tibet or Burma or Darfur.” 

Groups clashed in a riot of sound and color at the Justin Herman Plaza minutes before the torch was scheduled to stop there, but it went down Van Ness Avenue instead. Edward Liu, who had mobilized hundreds of Bay Area Chinese for the relay, confronted his Tibetan opponents. 

“The Chinese community from all over the Bay Area have worked to showcase this event,” he said. “This has been destroyed by a very simple group of radicals using bull horns to get people together to bash China. With all due respect to Tibetans, the Dalai Lama’s speech about renouncing radicalism is not being followed. With all due respect to the Dalai Lama, he cannot control his own people.” 

More than 20 pro-Tibet protesters started circling him with Tibetan flags, but Liu kept on speaking. 

“When Tibetans peacefully protested, 140 Tibetans were killed,” Khangsar said. “We want China to give us the human rights it promised to the Olympics committee.”