The only Chinatown I remember growing up was Oakland Chinatown.
When my family first came to the Bay Area, we lived in the East Bay, and Oakland Chinatown was the nearest place my parents could get Filipino vegetables and other Asian groceries. For a long time, the nearest dim sum restaurant was in Oakland Chinatown, and when I was a grad student at Berkeley, I did volunteer work there – just a quick BART ride away. With that background, I was saddened to read that like other Chinatowns in the US, Oakland Chinatown is struggling.
It seems rather odd that Oakland Chinatown would be hurting. Oakland in general is doing much better economically, as parts of Oakland benefit from the tech boom and as people flee from the high costs of San Francisco. A number of my nieces moved there in the last few years, and my family likes to visit them and various parts of Oakland. We don’t go to Oakland Chinatown, though – I have trouble remembering the last time that I went there. So what happened?
Some of the problems are the same that afflict may other traditional Chinatowns in the US. Rents, like in many urban areas, are increasing, a fact made worse by growth of tech in San Francisco. While Oakland Chinatown used to be my parents “go to” place for Asian groceries, the proliferation of Ranch 99’s and the growth of Asian ethnoburbs reduce the attractiveness of Chinatowns as places to go. I live an Asian ethnoburb, and with its plethora of restaurants and Asian markets, my family and I don’t need to go a Chinatown for authentic Asian groceries or food. Business owners have reported a decrease in foot traffic in Chinatown.
Other problems are more unique to the Bay Area and California. Carl Chan of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Congress, attributes much of the decline to the 36% increase in the minimum wage in Oakland that happened last year. Oakland Chinatown, comprised of small family owned businesses that are frequented by fixed-income seniors, saw a significant impact. The Mercury News article cites business owners who have to reduce their workers hours and increase prices.
Proposals for reviving the area include bringing in more housing, although there is debate over market rate vs low-income housing. Market rate would displace many current residents, but some feel that low-income housing might not bring in people with enough income to sustain businesses there. Then again, there is no way to guarantee that people in market rate housing would shop in the neighborhood anyway. Renovating and cleaning up the area might help, and some recently renovated business have seen increases in business. Another idea is to bring in a regular night market. That’s something might interest my family and I enough to make the trip there.
Whatever the idea, I hope that Oakland Chinatown survives, or better yet, becomes a place that once again gives me a reason to visit regularly.