ALAMEDA -- City and Chinese leaders were ready to mark China's National Day -- the annual celebration of the founding of the People's Republic of China -- on the steps of City Hall Tuesday with speeches, music and dancing.
But after printing programs, setting out chairs and plugging in the sound system, organizers abruptly canceled the celebration when a crowd of up to 75 people showed up to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
"They need to understand that the Chinese government does not listen to the Tibetan people," said Giovanni Vassallo of the Bay Area Friends of Tibet. "We are hear to give them a voice and to let the American people know what's happening."
Along with commemorating National Day, the event was to mark the fifth anniversary of Alameda's sister-city relationship with Jiangyin, a city of about 1.2 million residents along the Yangtze River in the country's Jiangsu Province.
The flags of the United States and China were to be presented and Yuan Nansheng, the Chinese counsel general in San Francisco, was to speak. But Nansheng backed out after Tibetan supporters announced they planned to protest.
"This was not just about a flag raising," said City Councilman Stewart Chen, who helped organize the event. "It was about celebrating our culture. One-third of the residents of Alameda are Asian-Americans. This was about recognizing them and their contributions to our city."
As part of the celebration, students from the Chinese Christian School on North Loop Road were to sing the American and Chinese national anthems. But their chaperones shepherded them back onto a bus parked outside City Hall when organizers said the event was canceled amid cheers and applause from protesters.
City and Chinese community leaders in San Leandro were also set to mark National Day on Tuesday with a ceremony that would have included raising the Chinese flag. But Mayor Stephen Cassidy halted the plan, despite the City Council voting 4-3 to go forward with it.
"San Leandro does not fly the flags of other nations at our City Hall," Cassidy said in a statement. "We need to call a 'time out' and allow the community to weigh in on whether or not we should raise the flags of other governments."
San Leandro leaders are expected to take up the issue again Oct. 7.
Frank Matarrese, an organizer of the Alameda event, said he was disappointed protesters had forced a last-minute cancellation.
"Our mission was always to promote a greater understanding between cultures," said Matarrese, who helped foster the sister-city relationship with Jiangyin when he served on the Alameda City Council five years ago. "But I understand the passions of those who wanted to protest."
More than 1.2 million Tibetans have died of starvation, forced labor and executions since the Chinese army occupied the country in 1950, according to those advocating for Tibet's independence. In the past four years alone, 122 people have committed self-immolation to highlight the injustices arising from the occupation, Vassallo said.
"These are our cousins, our brothers and sisters and our uncles and aunts," he said. "They are burning themselves alive to stop what's happening. The worlds needs to know about it."
Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.