On a recent foggy night in San Francisco’s Richmond District, a group of about a dozen people bent their knees and prepared their fists to assume a fighting pose.
Master Jeff Chow’s booming voice led the Tat Wong Kung Fu Academy class through a sequence of blocking and striking moves to practice palming, elbowing, kneeing and kicking — mimicking a confrontation with a would-be attacker all of them hoped they would never actually have to encounter.
With San Francisco mired in an intensifying debate over crime and public safety, the lessons taught by instructors like Chow are in greater demand. Several operators of self-defense schools and people who sell security equipment said they are seeing an uptick in business.
San Francisco — which has long struggled with a high rate of theft crimes — has not experienced major increases in violent crime this year, according to police figures, but more burglaries, robberies and other crimes are being captured on videos that spread virally on social media, and the city has been consumed by the war of words over progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin and his efforts to reduce incarceration in favor of treatment and rehabilitation.
Tat Wong academy, which has more than 450 students, has seen its new student count double in the last year, with more than 100 students enrolling in 2021 so far. Many of those new students are women and older adults who say they’ve come to the studio for reasons other than just fitness.
“This was something I wanted to do in light of recent events,” said Dorothy Wong, 35, referring to attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, some captured on video, that shocked the city over the summer.
“The hate, especially towards elderly, is super concerning,” she said, adding that she lives with her 99-year-old grandmother. “So part of that was me trying to be prepared in case I needed to defend my family.”
Hayes Valley’s Tactica Krav Maga Institute, which teaches a combative form of self-defense developed by the Israeli military, has also seen its enrollment grow by more than 60 new students this year, and has seen increases in enrollment by women and Asian Americans looking to learn self-defense, said CEO and head instructor Danny Zelig.
“There has been a big shift,” said Zelig, adding that most students used to come to the center primarily to get stronger or in shape. “People are coming here to literally defend themselves. The urgency for that has definitely increased more than before.”
Martial arts center United Studios of Self Defense, located in Lower Pacific Heights, has seen an increase of students in the last year — from 60 to around 85, according to Principal John Collins. He added that around 70% of his new students have shared they don’t feel safe walking on the streets.
A spate of well-publicized, violent incidents over the past year in San Francisco and across the Bay Area — particularly assaults against Asian Americans — have fueled concerns about crime in the city. In addition, home burglaries surged after the onset of the pandemic, with police seeing a shift away from other potential targets as stores closed and tourists stayed away.
Overall, the per-capita rate of reported violent crimes in San Francisco — murders, robberies, assaults and rapes —decreased between 2017 and 2020, according to data from the city’s police force. So far this year, assaults have risen slightly compared to 2020, with 165 more incidents reported to date, compared to the same period a year ago.
There were four more homicides in San Francisco through Nov. 14 compared to the same period a year earlier and 33 fewer reported rapes. Burglaries through Nov. 14 this year also decreased slightly compared to 2020.
In addition to self-defense classes, San Franciscans are turning to hardware to shore up their sense of security.
Locksmiths and home-security companies say they’re struggling to keep up with relentless demand from people looking to invest in higher-grade protection to deter thieves, as well as those who have already suffered break-ins.
“People are freaking out,” said Nestor Guardado, shop manager at Lock World, who noted that he could only give a brief interview because the shop phone wouldn’t stop ringing. He estimated his shop has seen somewhere between a 25% and 40% increase in business over the last year, with around 150 more customers this year compared to usual sales patterns.
San Francisco retailer Yes Locksmith has seen a threefold increase over the last year in purchases for smart locks and additional security among San Francisco residents, according to owner Ramon Nia, who added that people are adding higher-grade, pick-proof deadbolts even on top of the deadbolts they already have. And compared to in years past, they’re seeing hundreds more safety-related inquirires, he said.
Security alarms and home-surveillance cameras are also flying off of San Francisco shelves. Bamboo Communications owner John Jiang said his business saw an increase of up to 70% over the last year — about 50 more customers this year — particularly among residential customers.
Paul Singh, the Northern California general manager for the security company ADT, said that inquiries and business among San Francisco residents have doubled since the pandemic, a change that has now been made challenging due to supply issues, shipping delays, and chip shortages. He said they’re seeing thousands more customers this year, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“We just blew up, everybody wanted a camera,” he said.
“When you have an alarm sticker on your house you’re sending a message that you’re kind of security-conscious,” said Brian Jones, an employee at Rhinoceros Security, who had someone break into his S.F. home right before the pandemic while he and his wife were eating dinner. He chased the perpetrator out of his house with a crowbar, he said.
“It leaves you with such a weird feeling afterwards that you can understand,” he said, referring to the impulse to invest in security systems.
“Almost immediately after something like that, people get alarm systems. They’re looking for anything.”
Annie Vainshtein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org