In Memoriam Wilma Chan

by Eddie Wong with commentary by Sherry Hirota, Keith Carson, Nikki Fortunato Bas, Nancy Skinner, David Brown, Pam Tau Lee, Gordon Chang, Fay Wong and Alex Tom. Posted November 6, 2021

How does one begin to process the sudden and tragic death of Wilma Chan, a progressive  Alameda County Supervisor, who broke ground as the first Asian American to serve as State Assembly Majority Leader?  On November 3, 2021, a motorist hit Wilma, who was walking her dog, in the morning hours in Alameda, California not far from her beachfront condo. She succumbed to a head injury despite efforts to save her.  Wilma was 72 years old but she looked much younger and had an energetic, determined manner; she had so much more to do on the people’s business, i.e., fighting for equality and social justice.

Supervisor Wilma Chan.

I first met Wilma at a Third World film screening at UCLA in 1971. She was visiting her sister May Chen, taking a break from Wellesley College.  After a particularly heated exchange between a professor and a filmmaker of color about his film, we both turned to each other and said almost simultaneously, “So racist.” But that was typical of some white professors who didn’t understand the subject matter that many of us young filmmakers of color were producing. We chatted a bit more and it was clear that Wilma was extremely bright, articulate, and down with the movement.  Although she had a quiet demeanor, she stood firmly by her convictions.  Years, later I met Wilma again after moving to Oakland to work on Getting Together newspaper and later on Unity. She looked almost the same, youthful and serious.  Wilma was a clear thinker and wonderful writer as you will soon see as we have republished part of her 1982 essay on Chinese immigrants that appeared in East Wind magazine.

Although we had not stayed in touch over the decades, I was pleased to read about her progressive stands, many of which resulted in important legislation that others will explain more fully in this article.

I know how much of a shock Wilma’s death is to her family and friends.  We share your grief and send you healing thoughts. The randomness of life, meting out happiness and sadness in mysterious ways, is hard to accept. All we can do now is carry on with the work as Wilma would have wanted us to do.  There will be a community celebration of Wilma Chan on Dec. 8, 2021. Go to the end of the article for details on the in-person and virtual presentation.

Here are some remembrances culled from public statements and personal recollections.

Memorial for Wilma Chan, Nov. 4, 2021. Oakland, CA. Photo by Eddie Wong.

Sherry Hirota, CEO of Asian Health Services, and the Alameda County Health Consortium organized a memorial to honor Wilma Chan on November 4, 2021 outside of the county building.

“Supervisor Wilma Chan was the personification of leadership, courage, and impact without ego. Her tenacity and humane values were the constants that were woven through all she touched — her relationships, her legislation, and her initiatives. She was our champion — yes she valiantly represented our AAPI community but also all communities of color and vulnerable people. And with all her heart and soul: she fought for community health centers, health care for all, and she advocated so effectively for children, and access to healthy food. She did not hesitate for even a second when called upon to stand up for and with controversial or unpopular issues, be they immigrant rights or language and cultural access, and so much more. It will take some time to even process this great loss to our collective community in the East Bay. Supervisor Wilma Chan’s legacy as a stateswoman and pioneer will be felt for generations to come. We offer our deepest and heartfelt condolences to the Supervisor’s family.”

Sherry Hirota, CEO of Asian Health Services. Photo by Eddie Wong.

Keith Carson, President of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, issued his condolences and spoke at the rally:

Late into Tuesday night, November 2, 2021, Wilma and the rest of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors had been meeting to maintain those same values by trying to decide on how to allocate scarce county funds to many of the programs and services that had first introduced Wilma and I to each other – the beginning of a more than 40-year working relationship and, more importantly, our friendship. My thoughts and heart especially go out to Wilma’s two children, Jennifer and Daren, and the rest of her family. I will always remember Wilma the way I first met her as a committed fighter to improve the quality of life for everyone from 0-5 and from 5 to sunset.  I miss her. The work continues.

Keith Carson, President of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Nov. 4, 2021 memorial for Wilma Chan. Photo by Eddie Wong.

Nikki Fortunato Bas, the President of the Oakland City Council, tweeted, “She was a champion for working families, affordable housing, quality healthcare; a mentor to AAPI women. She will be missed + her legacy will continue.”

State Senator Nancy Skinner offered this message:  “My heart is broken by the news of Supervisor Chan’s passing in this awful tragedy, and my deepest condolences to the Supervisor’s family. This is a true loss for all of the Bay Area. Wilma Chan was an absolute trailblazer and a decades-long champion for those in need. She was not only the first Asian American elected to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, but she was also the first woman and the first Asian American to serve as State Assembly Majority Leader. She spent her entire career in public service fighting to better the lives of low-income families, children, and seniors. And she was passionate about expanding health care and protecting Californians, especially families of color, from environmental toxins. She was also instrumental in saving San Leandro Hospital, an essential East Bay institution, from closure. This is such a devastating loss.”

David Brown, Wilma Chan’s chief of staff and longtime strategic consultant, shared his remembrance of Wilma.

I am very proud to have been Wilma’s first staffer in 1992. I worked for her for 15 years during the past three decades, serving as her Chief of Staff for the past 6 years.

Wilma is many things: kind, compassionate, dedicated, fierce, visionary, humble, hard-working, innovative, brilliant, inspirational, role model, mother, grandmother, boss, mentor, friend…a warrior for justice and equality.

Student activist, community organizer, parent advocate, School Board member, County Supervisor, State Assemblywoman, Majority Leader, children’s policy expert and County Supervisor once again.

She was a trailblazer: the first Asian American elected to the Oakland School Board, first Asian American elected to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and first woman and first Asian American to serve as Majority Leader of the State Assembly.

She has had numerous accomplishments in her career. Here are a few:

  • Passing statewide legislation to provide health insurance to 800,000 uninsured children, another to prevent the practice of hospitals overcharging uninsured and underinsured patients and one to require health insurance plans to specify why they denied a claim based on pre-existing conditions which helped lead to the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

  • Leading the campaigns for three successful county-wide ballot measures that will bring in more than $5 billion to the county to fund affordable housing, childcare, children’s health, homeless programs and other needed services;

  • Creating ALL IN Alameda County, an innovative county and community initiative to end poverty in Alameda County;

  • Launching ALL IN Recipe4Health, an award-winning food as medicine program that has helped low-income patients pro-actively treat diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and depression;

The Friday before she passed away, Wilma attended a meeting at the Native American Health Center to welcome Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Biden. There were about 15 attendees ready to discuss community health, food as medicine and the health care safety net. Before the speakers addressed Mr. Becerra, they each took great care to thank Wilma for all the work she had done. Wilma blushed – not comfortable with the praise.

She did, however, speak glowingly of the beautiful Native American blanket that she was given. She loved that blanket and had it wrapped around her with a look of joy and contentment. The further we get away from the day of her passing, I’m more and more convinced that this meeting happened for a reason. I believe that she is being kept warm by those wonderful words and that beautiful blanket as she takes the next step in her journey. We miss you, Wilma.

David Brown was appointed by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to fulfill Wilma Chan’s term as Supervisor for District 3 on Nov. 16, 2021. He is also a former school board member for the West Contra Costa School District.

Wilma Chan. Photo by Nancy Osbourne.

A longtime friend, Gordon Chang, Senior Associate Vice Provost for Under Graduate Education and the Olive H. Palmer Palmer Professor in Humanities, offered this fond remembrance:

Wilma was one of my oldest friends, we met when still in college decades ago.  I recall our first encounter.  We rode together from Boston to Yale to attend one of the first Asian American student conferences on the East Coast.  Wilma and May, her sister, were in the back seat of the car and I was in the front.  I’m not sure who was driving.  Wilma was attending Wellesley and she and May chatted quietly while I tried to befriend them.  I’m not sure I got very far in that attempt, as I recall giggling that suggested I wasn’t making a great impression.  But what I do well remember is the impish smile on Wilma that she exhibited throughout her life.  She possessed a striking combination of deep intelligence, focus, and seriousness, on the one hand, and, on the other, a wry sense of humor that could unexpectedly flash, signaling bemusement and maybe even impatience with some foolishness.  Wilma could be tough – she had to be, so deeply committed to advancing social justice.  Her sharp wit and steel spine got her through the many personal and professional challenges she faced in her rich life.  I saw that wit and steel over fifty years, but it will be the young twinkle in her eye that I will hold in my heart.  

Educator and activist Fay Wong worked alongside Wilma Chan as volunteer organizers for the Chinese Progressive Association.

Fay Wong. Wilma Chan and Donna Wong. Photos courtesy of Fay Wong.

The recent sudden passing of Wilma Chan is tragic and heartbreaking.  My work and friendship with Wilma began over 40 years ago.  We first got to know each other in the mid 1970s at the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), located in the old I-Hotel basement in San Francisco Chinatown.  Wilma was one of the early members and leaders of CPA, an organization that not only fights for the rights of Chinese workers and immigrants but supports the struggles of other oppressed peoples in the US. In those days CPA had a multi-generational membership, ranging  from young Chinese American activists to progressive old timers who advocated for the normalization of relations with China.

Each Sunday, CPA would have huge, noisy, festive Sunday dinners for all the members and friends. A core of women, young and old, would hang out together, and Wilma and I usually  joined them.  Though Wilma spoke little Chinese, she had a good ear, and it was obvious she understood everything that was said.  The women talked about their concerns and the challenges of raising a family. Wilma would listen carefully, totally focused. To the delight of all the women, she was able to express her support and understanding of their needs and even provide advice in choppy Chinese. Most of all, the women respected and trusted Wilma for her  clear and astute political insights on how CPA should move ahead or how to tackle various community issues.  She was a sensitive, intelligent, and insightful leader who deeply cared for her community.

I found these same qualities in Wilma when I worked with her on the Chinese edition of Unity newspaper in the late 1970s.  Unity, available in English/Spanish and English/Chinese editions, covered the progressive and revolutionary struggles of oppressed communities in the US and internationally.  The Chinese edition covered the main articles on the English side, but also included struggles specific to the various Chinese communities.  Editing was a difficult but necessary task because of limited space and the goal of keeping articles vivid but brief.  I often found the job frustrating: how can you make your political stories come alive when you have to cut out the “meat” of an article?  Wilma would always come to the rescue.  Because she was politically sharp, articulate and sensitive, her articles were often brief, but still got to the essence of people’s struggles. 

Most of all, Wilma was a wonderful friend whose friendship helped me weather the “all nighters” and tight deadlines at the newspaper. Both Wilma and I had weakness for fluff magazines, the kind you find at the dentist’s office.  We loved to swap stories about our kids and talk about the gossip from our latest read. Any time Wilma had a good story to share, her eyes would get big and a sly but wide smile would spread across her face. Often when we were “shooting the breeze,” she would relax in a deep chair with her legs twisted up like a pretzel; her flexibility always amazed me.

Wilma Chan and CPA member. Photo courtesy of Chinese Progressive Association, SF.

Wilma was reserved when it came to expressing her emotions, but she showed that she cared through her actions.  She visited, comforted, and provided advice when I was home and in pain after the birth of my second child.  She planned a joint baby shower for me and another close friend/activist in her home.   She appreciated hosting  childcare at her home on rotating weekends so that our circle of activists  could do our political work without worrying about the kids.

My one regret is that I did not get to see Wilma over the years. I moved to Portland, Oregon and returned to Oakland only recently.  Our lives took us in different directions, but I will always remember and cherish the time I spent with her.

Pam Tau Lee, the Board Chair Emeritus of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco,  said the following about her work with Wilma Chan:

In 1972, Wilma was fresh out of college and was part of the Asian movement to return to community and embraced the spirit of serving the people. Though we were all in our early twenties, Wilma’s calm demeanor and her political astuteness won over the elder’s trust during the formation of CPA. She was kind and patient and generous to her peers like myself and although we were the same age, I was blessed to be mentored by her.

Wilma with her children Daren and Jennifer at CPA Picnic. Photo courtesy of Chinese Progressive Association, SF.

Alex Tom, former Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association, currently serves as Executive Director of the Center for Empowered Politics and a baba blogger.

Reading Wilma Chan’s 1982 East Wind Magazine essay “Chinese Immigrants” was heartwarming, moving, and awe-inspiring. It was so beautifully written. Her personal journey and transformation through her learning from the community was so powerful and familiar to me, especially as an American Born Chinese (ABC). I saw her deep roots of humility, grace and courage.

I first started at CPA in 2002 nearly 20 years ago as a volunteer scanning photos and archiving for CPA’s 30th anniversary video. Although I never met Wilma, I was standing in her legacy. As I was immersed with the boxes of photos and materials, I remember reading a paper she wrote about the need to organize workers in Chinatown, which later became a major part of my transformative journey.

Back in the early 2000’s, organizing workers in Chinatown was seen by the community as “anti-Chinese.” We should “rock the boat,” we were told. However, our core values were to center the voices of immigrant workers. We understood that not paying workers hurts the entire community.

As an American Born Chinese, I resonated with this quote and her call to action to us:

“It is the American born who must take the extra step forward to unite with Chinese Immigrants, understand their particular hardships and what shapes their thinking, and to support their demands. Furthermore, this cannot be done In a missionary or deprecating way, but out of a genuine feeling of unity and mutual respect. These are very real and difficult questions In each and every one of our lives at this point In time.

I remember having difficult conversations with workers and community members, which deepened my understanding of the complexities of the Chinese identity, the fear of retaliation and the challenges of small businesses – at the end of the day I realized that people did truly care about working conditions in Chinatown but just did not believe that change was possible. This transformed how I organized. Rather than “convincing” people of my ideas, we needed, as Wilma wrote, “a genuine feeling of unity and mutual respect” towards winning concrete changes in the lives of everyday people and societal transformation.

Much has changed the last 20 years but one thing remains true in all we do. We need to enter community work with humility and heart that is deeply grounded in our communities.

Thank you Wilma for all your grace and spirit. You are truly the conscience of Chinatown and our movement. May you rest in power and peace.

We will end this reflection by “hearing” from Wilma Chan from back-in-the-day when our concerns were how to organize the masses and fight for political power. This excerpt from her essay “Chinese Immigrants, ” which Alex alluded to, demonstrates Wilma’s ability to take her personal story and weave it into a political perspective. If you want to know the roots of her commitment to social justice, look no further than this essay which speaks to the transformative nature of political life.

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Chinese immigrants by Wilma Chan – An Excerpt from East Wind magazine, Fall/Winter 1982

Like many Chinese Americans, whether conscious or not, a large part of my life has been spent coming to terms with the immigrant question. Part of coping with life as a Chinese American in this country is dealing with the fact that more than half of our people are immigrants and that most of these immigrants are working people; many in the restaurants and garment shops of our communities. Unless we plan to go through life wearing blinders, being Chinese American means coming to terms with the immigrant question. If we despise immigrants, we can have no real self-respect respect for our families, our rich roots and traditions or Chinese Americans as a people.

This was brought home to me constantly in my childhood growing up as a second-generation Chinese American in a suburban community on the East Coast. Although I couldn’t speak but a few words of Chinese, while I could speak English like the best of them and was at the top of my class all during my school years, I was constantly singled out and brought back to my identity with Chinese immigrants. “Don’t you identify with the hordes of poor refugees from Hong Kong,” asked my best friend’s brother one day as I was helping her family prepare for Hanukkah. “How would you like to play the Chinese refugee in the church Christmas play?” And along with this identification came discrimination in the form of racial taunts and restrictions on my family’s mobility such as when we try to move into a white middle-class neighborhood.

While my first reaction was to disclaim my Chinese heritage and any links I had to Chinese immigrants – how often have I thought I’m American, not Chinese – something truthful and sane inside of me stopped me. Maybe it was the love for my mother and father, immigrants from Hong Kong and China. Maybe it was a fact that I really enjoyed Chinese food, Chinese holidays like New Year’s, or didn’t feel quite comfortable disowning Chinatown when I knew that thousands of Chinese worked and lived there. At the same time, however, I could not totally resolve this conflict and felt torn in two.

It was not until I was in college in the late 1960s that, through learning more about Chinese American history and doing actual organizing work among immigrants in the Chinese communities of Boston and San Francisco, I came to have a deep respect for Chinese immigrants particularly immigrant working people.

In the middle row (l-r): Daih Wong, Jennifer Chan, Yiuman Chan, Wilma Chan and Ray Hing. CPA event in early 1970s.  Photo courtesy of Pam Tau Lee.

In this regard, many inspiring individual immigrants impacted my thinking.

One such person was a middle-aged man from Toisan, China, later Hong Kong, who came to the US in the early 1960s and worked in kitchens and dining rooms in New York City and San Francisco. He told me of the hardships of leaving his wife and son in Hong Kong because there was simply no work available for him. He said that his intention had always been to send for his his family, but that dream was shattered when he along with about 600 other Chinese immigrants were tricked by the Kennedy administration into confessing to having come under paper names in return for promised citizenship status. Instead, he lost his permanent residency and lost his legal right to sponsor his family and even to return to his home in Hong Kong. The picture which he had one shown me of his son was soon discarded and he told me several years later that his wife and son were dead, for they might as well have been as far as he was concerned.

But despite his personal sorrows, this man tenaciously fought for the rights of Chinese people. He opened a vendor’s stand to sell books from China for the first time in San Francisco community at a time when Chinese books were officially stamped as “communist propaganda” by the US government. He participated in the formation of the Chinese Progressive Association, a new community mass organization for Chinese workers and progressive people which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Another immigrant was an elderly restaurant worker in his 60’s, a Loh Wah Que from China, who had lived in the Bay Area Chinese Community since the 1930s. I first noticed this man standing moist-eyed at a festive International Workers Day program in Chinatown in 1973. I approached him to ask him if anything was wrong and if he needed any help. He told me that to the contrary, he was crying with happiness because he was witnessing a new beginning in the struggle of Chinese people for justice and our rights. I sat with him in the corner, and he opened up a whole history of Chinese immigrants that I had never known about before. He talked about the sad and painful experience of leaving a China ravaged and torn by US and other foreign powers, and of the extreme discrimination and hardships in the US during the Depression.

In response, a group of Chinese had gotten together to form the Chinese Workers Mutual Aid Association, a community mass organization of over 600 members to organize Chinese workers into the US trade unions and to support the liberation struggle in China. He told me about how many Chinese immigrants had joined left movements, many becoming Marxist-Leninists, to fight to change the fundamental inequalities that Chinese in the U.S. face.

And there was the beautiful young garment worker who had left Macau in 1968 with her young husband and two children hoping to “find a better life” here. Her husband was a waiter and she was a seamstress. She asked, “What dignity was there to this life; what was there to look ahead to in the next 40 years of eking out a living?” Her tensions and family conflicts grew.

She sewed in a Chinatown shop part-time for about a $1.50 an hour. She loved to go downtown with us to get out of the house and look at “pretty things.” One day we saw the dress she had sewn for $1.50 in wages selling at Macy’s for $30.00. She wanted to fight too. She had an indomitable attitude and spirit of women’s liberation which contributed greatly to my thinking about Chinese immigrant women.

Jung Sai garment workers on strike in San Francisco, 1974. Photo by Cathy Cade.

There were many others, and I learned even more having left my law studies U.C.’s Boalt Hall to get a job working among Pilipino and Chinese immigrant women in the typing pool of a large San Francisco Corporation.

All together, what I learned was that my uneasiness with Chinese immigrants was based on many misconceptions and prejudices instilled in me by society. First, I understood more the actual reasons why Chinese immigrants come to this country, the pains and hardship of leaving home and the relationship of immigration to the impoverishment of Asian countries by the U.S. and other exploiting world powers. Secondly, I understood for the first time that while we should be credited with the contributions of those who have made it in white eyes such as An Wong, I.M. Pei, etc., the contributions of Chinese immigrants are predominantly a contribution of a working people. I learned that the actual material richness of society comes from the hands minds and toil of thousands of Chinese and other working people – whether in the form of the clothes on our backs or the food we eat.

Thirdly, I understood that it is not Chinese immigrants who keep U.S. society down but that it is the society that keeps Chinese immigrants down and exploited by its deeply embedded fabric of economic, social, political and cultural discrimination.

Lastly, I learned of the pride and dignity of Chinese immigrants in fighting Injustice and standing up for what is rightfully theirs and that this pride and dignity could be my own as a Chinese American.

This understanding, taking place over several years, helped me to reorient my life towards Chinese people to become a Marxist-Leninist and to deal with the complex question of uniting immigrant and American-born Chinese and to build a powerful Chinese National Movement which, together with the movement of Blacks, Chicanos and all oppressed peoples in the US and US workers, would fight for fundamental change in society. After almost 14 years of this work, the question of Chinese immigrants has never been more important that it is today for myself as well as other American-born Chinese, whether workers, students or professionals; it is time to reaffirm our unity with Chinese immigrants in to fight even harder for equality as Chinese.

If you want to read the complete version of Wilma Chan’s essay on Chinese Immigrants, go to the following website and scroll down to East Wind Magazine, Fall/Winter 1982 and click on the PDF. https://unityarchiveproject.org/getting-together-publications/

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Community Celebration of Supervisor Wilma Chan and Her Legacy

Please join us as we honor the legacy of Supervisor Wilma Chan and share her community initiatives and programs. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021
2 PM

The Oakland Museum of California Garden
1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA

To attend in person, please RSVP on Eventbrite. Masks are required for in person attendance. The event will be held rain or shine. Please plan accordingly.

The event will also be broadcast virtually via Zoom. Please check back on Wednesday, December 8, 2021 for the Zoom broadcast link.

The live broadcast of the Community Celebration of Supervisor Wilma Chan and Her Legacy will also be available to watch on both the County of Alameda YouTube channel and the County of Alameda-CA Facebook page on Wednesday, December 8, 2021 at 2 PM (PT). Please check one of those channels at that time.

4 Comments

  1. floyd huen on December 8, 2021 at 8:05 am

    my wife former Mayor Jean Quan and I mourn the loss of Wilma Chan. Jean and she joined the Oakland school board at the same time back in 1990 in Oakland with Wilma representing the Oakland Chinatown area. they worked together to reform the Oakland school district to allow more parent say to put Kidhen s First. While Jean stayed on the Board for three terms Wilma went onto the Board of Supervisors and then onto the Assembly and State Senate. She fought for progressive change along the way Then she returned to our County Board. While we did not always agres with all her positions in general we fought hard for our immigrant communities and the rights of regular people. Her tragic passing reminds us how we need to treat each day purposefully and full of the spirit that she kept: for the people and by the people. We will miss her. We plan to attend her memorial today at Oakland Museum. Floyd Huen and former Mayor Jean Quan

  2. Alex Hing on December 9, 2021 at 8:36 am

    So sad when we lose a revolutionary, but losing Wilma, a long time comrade whose kids grew up together with mine and who was continuing in the heart of our movement is truly tragic. RIP, Wilma.

  3. Cindy Ng on December 9, 2021 at 2:22 pm

    When I was a senior at UC Berkeley, Wilma was one of the first people I met at CPA. While we were close in age, I considered her a mentor. I remember her calm, quiet leadership but also her sense of humor. She was direct, answered your questions with her own questions, which helped you draw your own conclusions. Later, she and I were neighbors in Alameda. We shared a love of cats and I would run into her walking her dog with her cat trailing along. She will be missed as a leader and a friend.

  4. Ravi Chandra on December 9, 2021 at 5:08 pm

    Like many others, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Supervisor Wilma Chan’s passing. I had heard her name for years, but finally met her virtually at a Stanford Asian Pacific Alumni Summit last year. I was really trying to connect all the speakers via our stories as Asian Americans, as the election was just weeks away, and Asian Americans had been under attack even more during the pandemic. Wilma was one of 3 Chinese American women who spoke, and the little bit she shared about fighting for justice and recognizing forces of oppression in daily life beginning early in her life in Boston really resonated with me. We can’t know ourselves without memory, history, and fierce compassion, and Wilma embodied that deep knowing. If you are interested in hearing what she had to say, that youtube clip is linked at the bottom of this article on the SAPAS event. Affirming Identity, Relationship, & Compassion During COVID | Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-pacific-heart/202010/affirming-identity-relationship-compassion-during-covid

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