After decades in prison, Oakland Chinatown ambassador works to keep streets safe and clean
on May 1, 2023
It’s 5 a.m. and the seagulls are perched on top of Da Feng Feng Seafood in Chinatown, screeching. “They’re here for the trash,” Sakhone Lasaphangthong says, pointing with blue medical gloves to an overturned garbage can.
Near the littered food scraps are a giant TV and mattress on the sidewalk. Sakhone snaps a photo that he sends to SeeClickFix, the city’s citizen reporting app for illegal dumping. Last year, he sent over 200 of those photos. As a community ambassador with the nonprofit Family Bridges, part of his job is to make sure the business owners can open their grates with pride when the sun rises.
Around the corner on Webster Street, water blasts from the power washer Kao Saetuern uses to clean the ramp at Asian Health Services. Usually, Sakhone is the one responsible for the sheen of wet cement, but today he’s training his co-worker on a second truck because he can’t keep up with the demand. Over on 10th, Somsak Uppasay pushes a garbage can, its wheels squeaking on the pavement. Reece Reed sweeps.
As anti-Asian hate increased nationally during the pandemic, anxiety and fear became the norm in Oakland’s Chinatown. While officials and residents debated whether to increase police presence, eventually installing a community liaison officer, volunteer efforts like the Blue Angels and Toishan Association foot patrol groups filled in the gap. The ambassador program, which started in 2017 through the Asian Prisoner Support Committee before Family Bridges adopted it two years ago, is part of that collective effort and is quietly growing.
For a short while, it was only Sakhone. Now he leads a team of seven. Every day, the morning crew dons green reflective vests and gets to work cleaning the 52-block area of the Chinatown Community Benefits District before doing community outreach the rest of the day. The crew is used to getting up that early, as all are formerly incarcerated — including Sakhone, who spent 20 years in the California prison system on a gang-related murder charge. “I came home and felt the urge to give back for the pain I caused,” Sakhone said. Sometimes, cars honk to cheer them on.
According to the most recent Oakland Police Department report for Area One, a large swath of the city that includes Chinatown, crime overall decreased 17% from last year. (Although non-firearm aggravated assaults increased 18% and motor vehicle thefts went up 94%.) Sakhone said targeted abuse still occurs. In January, a restaurant owner told him of a man who cussed her out and spat on her, one of several similar incidents he’s heard about.
“It’s part of the culture. We just endure, right? And it’s tough,” he said. “So, we try to be that voice. But for those of us who are formerly incarcerated, sometimes nobody wants to listen.”
Sakhone views his incarceration experience as an asset. When he’s out walking around, picking up discarded needles or cleaning graffiti, he’ll use the de-escalation skills he informally learned in prison to prevent elders and others from getting hurt. That can look like intervening at the scene of a car accident, assisting when an unhoused person is having an episode or medical emergency, or stopping a situation from happening in the first place. It doesn’t always go smoothly but for Sakhone, relationship building is a key component of violence prevention.
Once, early in the pandemic, three guys wearing ski masks pulled up at dusk on a street corner in a Dodge Charger. Sakhone walked over to them and asked if they needed help. He told them to be careful because there’s a lot of break-ins that happen and he wanted them to be safe. He also divulged that he’d gone to prison. “When they hear that, there’s already a connection,” he said. “They know I’m not a cop.” Sakhone walked away, another guy jumped in the car, and they drove off.
But the middle of the night remains a vulnerable time for the area’s businesses. At the end of March, a string of eight burglaries at Chinatown businesses prompted more hired security and renewed calls for police presence. Sakhone helped document the damage.
Sakhone sees Janet, who is unhoused and has been living intermittently near the corner of Eighth and Webster for over 10 years. A “guest,” he calls her. Because it’s cold, he offers to help Janet relocate to the Oak Street Community Cabins, an emergency shelter run by Family Bridges. He also offers to bring her breakfast from McDonald’s. “You want the pancakes, right?”
Assuming another role as director of housing services at Family Bridges, he helped 13 people move into stable homes last year, most proud of the single mothers. These days, he spends less time at the shelter, which some residents don’t like. Still, Sakhone’s presence can be felt at the small office at the cabins where he stops to pick up paint cans and swap his vest. On the whiteboard, there’s a cluster of smiley-face magnets next to quotes he has written, including, “Everything you lost will be replaced with something better.”
Sakhone removes his gloves, slings the green vest over a chair. He slips a red one over his black Nike T-shirt and khakis that has a digital translator in one pocket because he speaks English and Lao, but not Mandarin, Cantonese or Spanish, which he needs to converse with more people. Printed on the new vest is ‘Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council,’ which now funds the ambassador program, a tangle of local politics he finds frustrating. Usually, the vest holds a pack of Marlboros. He doesn’t smoke, but he uses them as a “social lubricant” when he’s out, a way to calm people down.
On his left forearm, there’s a scrubbed-off elephant tattoo, though a large one on his back remains. Elephant was his given name in war-torn Laos, where he migrated from with his mom and three sisters in the ‘70s to escape domestic violence. Now he tells people to call him Sakhone. But the ones who come home from prison remember him as Elephant — a man who had anger issues and often got sent to solitary confinement.
Sakhone liked going to solitary because it was peaceful. In the small space, outfitted only with a cement bed and toilet, he loved reading fantasy books like “Game of Thrones.” He’d plug his ears with wet toilet paper to shut everything out so he could picture what he was reading. What else he’d picture when there weren’t books: Winning the lottery. Going back to Laos to reconnect with his three brothers who were left behind. Finding a wife, having kids, buying a house.
He still wants a house, but now he also wants a house for others. He dreams of opening a reentry home so guys like Kao, Somsak, and Reece can sit together around a fire pit after a day of solid work, feeling hopeful that they can rebuild. “If I fail them, I fail myself,” he said.
After the cabins, Sakone hits up the drive-thru at McDonald’s for Janet’s pancakes then stops at Wilma Chan Park, where a couple of months earlier, he held an origami heart at the vigil for Monterey Park shooting victims. A line of Asian elders with grocery carts are awaiting food distribution.
He’s supposed to be assisting, but the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council president comes over in a black suit and asks him to join a walking tour for Alameda County’s first female sheriff, Yesenia Sanchez. Sakhone reluctantly agrees. He grabs the McDonald’s bag from the truck.
For nearly two hours, a small parade of elected officials, Oakland police, and orange-vested elders from the Toishan Association follow a dancing lion amidst boisterous clanging. They stop at Chinatown businesses for blessings and photo opportunities. Sakhone is indifferent. Yet as people spot him on the streets, there’s no shortage of waves, fist bumps, and hellos. “You’re everywhere!” says the newly elected mayor’s special assistant when he sees Sakhone lingering behind, bag still in hand.
Finally, they’re back near Eighth Street and Sakhone breaks free momentarily to hand off the pancakes, now cold. “Ni hao,” Janet greets him. The mattress and TV from the morning are still there.
Sakhone rejoins the parade. He points out graffiti he needs to paint over, the best produce market to get quality avocados for cheap. He finds Yesenia’s captain to talk about the reentry home idea because he believes if you’re doing the right thing, everything will align. They exchange numbers. The networking continues when they circle back at Wilma Chan Park, where he meets former Oakland mayoral candidate Greg Hodge. They also exchange numbers. “We never meet people by accident, brother,” Sakhone tells him.
The last time Sakhone went to solitary was in 2012. In the middle of the night, the door disappeared and became a light. In walked his mother, who had passed away on Christmas Eve right before he went to prison. She was wearing a white sarong. “When are you going to stop being so bad?” she asked. He promised her he’d behave, that he would do better.
It might’ve been a dream, but it was the new start he needed. First day out, his friend offered him four grams of meth to sell. “Am I going forward or back?” The greed tugged, but he said no. He stopped going to solitary altogether, revamped the college education program at New Folsom prison, and got released 18 years early.
He tears up. “Everything I do, I do it for her,” he said, clearing his throat.
At the office, his boss Heidi makes sure he’s been logging separate hours for power washing, a side hustle he started nearly two years ago. He shares his insights during a grant proposal meeting while his bespectacled friend Tom Saevang, who recently got out of prison after 23 years, waits for him. “If it wasn’t for Sakhone, I’d be lost,” he says.
Sakhone is going to help Tom find a Medi-Cal doctor but first, he brings him along to remove graffiti on an apartment building. “Job security,” he jokes. On the walk, they sidestep a trail of human waste, which Sakhone makes a mental note to clean up later, before stopping at a boba tea shop. He orders a taro milk tea with pudding and grass jelly.
It’s now late afternoon, and Sakhone is back near Asian Health Services where he started. In a short bit, he will drive their staff to the train station as the area starts to shut down for the evening. For now, he’s wearing blue gloves again and has a bottle of Goof Off in hand. He sprays close and scrapes the purple paint off the marble, careful not to flick the paint. “Safety’s number one, right?” Sakhone says to a postman walking by. Two masked elderly onlookers stop. They know, as does Sakhone, that the graffiti will likely be back, and he will do it all over again tomorrow.
The story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.
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