Lily Lo isn't a fan of the spotlight. She wasn't exactly excited to see a TV journalist show up at her office recently to profile her. And as for San Francisco Mayor London Breed's recent proclamation declaring Lily Lo Day in San Francisco, she deadpanned: "I hate to say that but it's just a piece of paper. "
Despite her aversion to recognition, Lo's gift for pushing paper has turned the credit union manager into a sort of local folk hero in Chinatown. During the pandemic, she toiled in her spare time helping dozens of businesses apply for federal aid that helped them survive the economic free fall.
"I can’t even tell you how many businesses that she probably single-handedly saved here in Chinatown," said longtime friend Myron Lee.
As manager and CEO of Northeast Federal Credit Union in Chinatown, Lo already had a reputation as powerbroker for those living on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. She describes the company's mission as securing grants and loans for immigrants and the underserved.
It's a long-running theme for Lo, who has spent her entire career in Chinatown, starting out at the powerful Lee Family Association, which was founded in 1880 as a social service organization for new immigrants.
When the pandemic landed a sudden right hook to Chinatown's tourism, Lo leaned on her many years behind a desk to help businesses navigate the deep paperwork required to apply for federal paycheck assistance or PPP.
"At that time I was the only one doing it," Lo said, tucked behind her desk. "So I was quite stressed."
The pandemic battered Chinatown especially hard, with many would-be visitors mistakenly connecting COVID-19 to San Francisco's Chinese community and avoiding the area. Restaurants struggled to even maintain to-go business, gift shops saw scant visitors and bars remained shuttered.
Shannan Kwan, third-generation owner of Chinatown's iconic Buddha Lounge, was among those who got help from Lo in applying for the government aid. Last week, Lo showed up with what's now become a familiar gesture: handing over a check.
"PPP was such a hard thing to do," Kwan said in front of the bar, which only recently reopened. "So she reached out and got everything together and it was so easy. She’s a blessing in disguise. She helps all the merchants here."
Just around the corner from Buddha Lounge, Lo helped the owners of Imperial Palace Restaurant apply for aid that helped them build a curbside dining parklet.
"Without her assistance we would not be able to survive," said Imperial Palace owner Yan Xiao Li, through an interpreter. "With a restaurant this size and being a single immigrant owner here, it would be a huge struggle."
It could be Lo's motivation is painted with an immigrant's empathy. Her family moved to San Francisco from Indonesia when she was 12. Her father, a businessman in Indonesiam initially had to take a restaurant job in the city to get by. Lo said the restaurant owners working away in their kitchens 12 hours a day, seven days a week are what inspires her efforts.
"So, during the pandemic, I work very close and work very hard to help all those chefs, all those businesses," Lo said.
Both figuratively and literally, Lo has helped bring light back to Chinatown. After noticing how dark some streets seemed at night, she started a campaign to add lighting – illuminating the gates of Chinatown at Bush Street and along Waverly Place and in Ross Alley. It's become an added layer of security for residents as attacks on the Asian community have become more frequent.
"So, at night it’s quite bright and people feel comfortable," Lo said. "Before, nobody want to walk through Waverly at night."
Lee, whose father is a former president of the Lee Family Association where Lo started out, said her desire to lift others up has been a hallmark of her career since the beginnings.
"It’s just in her heart to help people," Lee said. "She’s just so selfless and so giving."
Giving interviews though, well, that's a different story. That she'd be happy to skip. Yet, for someone who hates attention, everywhere Lo walks in Chinatown, she's stopped by business owners and residents saying "hello" and "thank you."
"I feel good inside," Lo reluctantly admitted about her pandemic successes. "I’m glad I did it."