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Bike to China alum discusses Chinatown park access

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Kevin Liao may one day be your orthodontist. But today, he’s a biology student at California State University, Los Angeles. His ultimate goal is to open multiple dentistry practices, some of which would serve as community centers providing orthodontic services at low costs, if not for free, depending on the client’s need.

“The government says braces are not a necessity, more of a privilege,” Liao said. “But I know how some individuals, if they don’t have a perfect smile, it kind of impacts them. They may not want to smile.”

The community dentistry centers Liao hopes to one day open are his way of giving back to the community — a continuation of the work he already does with Para Los Niños, a nonprofit that provides social services and education opportunities to Los Angeles youth. Liao, who is based in Lincoln Heights, has worked with the organization for the past four years. He is involved with programs such as the Men of Action Initiative and the Escalera Program, both of which are in partnership with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Liao has also been instrumental in much of APIFM’s work. He recently collaborated with Program Director Scott Chan to form Chinatown Fit Club — a weekly gathering of runners and walkers at LA State Historic Park. Their goal in forming the club, Liao said, was to encourage people to utilize the recently reopened recreational space while bringing residents of neighboring communities together.

LA State Historic Park is a 32-acre space — by far the largest park in the area. Despite this, there are only 1.6 acres of park land per 1,000 residents in LA Central City North compared to the county average of 3.3 acres per 1,000. This relative lack of park space makes it critical that residents fully utilize LA State Historic Park. Alpine Recreation Center, the second largest park space in the area, is 1.94 acres, but is often overused due to Chinatown’s high population density.

Although the turnout for Chinatown Fit Club has improved since its first meeting at the end of April, attracting the elderly population of Chinatown continues to be a challenge. Many of the elderly Chinese residents choose instead to frequent the Alpine Recreation Center, where they have been doing 6:45 a.m. tai chi for years.

“It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” Liao said. “They’re just so accustomed to their way of life, their habit.”

LA State Historic Park’s opening hours — 8 a.m. until sunset — contribute to its inaccessibility to the elderly population, whose days begin and end early. Liao also cited a language barrier, noting a lack of Chinese signs advertising the park. He thinks that although the elderly are likely aware of the park’s existence, they need additional encouragement to utilize its facilities.

But accessing LA State Historic Park, which does not currently have a bridge over the Metro Gold Line running directly behind it, may be unsafe for some elderly. Chinatown features some of the most dangerous intersections in LA, which Liao attributes in part to residents’ indifference to red lights; many, new arrivals from China, are accustomed to a culture in which traffic laws are not enforced. He thinks enforcing jaywalking tickets, or at least issuing warnings, might scare them into adopting safer practices.

Liao’s first introduction to APIFM (then APIOPA) was during his junior year in high school, when a teacher suggested he apply for their summer Bike to China program. He did, and by the end of the summer, he and the other participants had met the target goal of collectively cycling 5,000 miles. Liao, who rode a lot independently in addition to the group’s scheduled rides, claims to have ridden the most miles that year.

The following summer, Liao helped coordinate Bike to Japan, a continuation of the Bike to China program with a new goal of 6,000 miles. Although he did not ride as many miles as he had the year before due to other commitments, the group completed their 6,000 miles, and participants received the free bicycles promised to them upon completion of the program, sponsored by Lincoln Heights Cyclery.

Although Liao no longer has as much time to bike given his full-time work and school obligations, cycling remains an important aspect of his identity. He recalled begging his mother as a child to purchase his first bicycle from a toy store in Chinatown, then learning how to ride it at the Alpine Recreational Center — the same location at which he first removed his training wheels.

“I don’t think there has been in a point in my life when I didn’t own a bike,” Liao said. “I just like spending my time on two wheels.”

Liao understands the necessity of motor vehicles in a city such as LA but wishes there was a bigger push to get people onto bikes. Perhaps if there were greater incentives to bike or take public transportation, he mused, more people would do it.

Cycling in LA, a city rife with cars, necessitates safety precautions. When Liao rides his bike, he makes sure to wear bright colors, arming himself with a helmet and reflective vest. Bicycle lights are mounted on both his bike and on his helmet. He tries to stick to bike paths and rides at times when there is less traffic, such as early on the weekends or late at night.

As he spent a good amount of his childhood visiting the Chinese town his parents grew up in, Liao knows what it is like to live in a place designed for bicycles. At the time, he said, most people in China got around by bike. Cars were simply too expensive.

“It worked because there were lots of alleys, shortcuts. A lot of infrastructure tailored for a bicycle,” Liao said. “If you drove a car you wouldn’t fit.”

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