Saving Chinatown 

As ethnic enclaves around the country grapple with displacement and gentrification, activists and business leaders offer competing visions for the future of Oakland Chinatown.

The Oakland Chinatown StreetFest is easily the single biggest event in Chinatown each year.

Bert Johnson

The Oakland Chinatown StreetFest is easily the single biggest event in Chinatown each year.

On a late-August Saturday in Oakland Chinatown, a Taiwanese-American cover band performed a version of "Uptown Funk" to the great delight of the handful of middle-aged white couples gyrating at the foot of the stage. The 28th annual Oakland Chinatown StreetFest sprawled over the eight blocks that constitute Chinatown proper, and although the festival had just kicked off, Webster Street was beginning to fill up with tourists.

Sponsored by the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the two-day StreetFest is easily the single biggest event in Chinatown — the one time each year when the spotlight shines most brightly on the historic neighborhood. At a time when the entire city of Oakland is undergoing rapid changes, the festival is also, depending on who you talk to, either a symbol of Chinatown's vibrancy, or a sign of how out of touch its leadership is.

To spend time in Oakland Chinatown is to risk falling in love with the place, especially if you go on a random weekday when there isn't any special event scheduled. Day-to-day life is what sets the neighborhood apart: elderly Chinese doing their early-morning tai chi exercises at Madison Square Park, or squabbling good-naturedly in Cantonese at the Ruby King Bakery — a folded-up Sing Tao newspaper in their lap, the table scattered with crumbs from the flakiest egg custard tarts in town. If you want to buy a live fish to steam at home, or choose between a half-dozen varieties of fresh Chinese noodles, or eat a bowl of jook before the parking meters start running for the day, Oakland Chinatown is the place to be.

This is why folks who frequent the neighborhood talk about how Oakland Chinatown is a "working Chinatown" — a characterization that doubles as a jab at the trinket shops and tourist traps that dominate the more famous Chinatown across the bridge. And it's also why StreetFest, for all its pomp and circumstance, might be the worst time to visit the neighborhood if you want to get a sense of Chinatown's real flavor.

At no other time does the area feel quite so corporate than during StreetFest. Onstage, the emcee rattled off the list of sponsors, whose logos covered the large banner that served as a backdrop for the morning's proceedings: Kaiser Permanente, Xfinity, Budweiser, Wells Fargo, Allstate. Later, about twenty local dignitaries with perfunctory connections to the neighborhood (someone from the Oakland Police Department, a person from the district attorney's office, etc.) lined up and each offered his or her own two-minute variation on a theme of "why I love Chinatown." It was a lot of glad-handing.

StreetFest included a full slate of cultural performances — a lion dance, kids doing choreographed martial arts routines to the Mortal Kombat theme song, and so forth. But the main emphasis of the festival was the tables and booths that lined the streets. They ran the gamut from community organizations to the Graton Resort & Casino to at least two different funeral homes that were — rather macabrely — offering discounts to the local Chinatown seniors that stopped by their displays.

The food, too, wasn't exactly what Chinatown regulars would have expected: Taiwan Bento, a Taiwanese restaurant in Uptown, had set up a table, as had the downtown Korean takeout specialist E+M Catering. At another booth, a Southeast Asian vendor pressed thick branches of sugar cane into juice. The rest were your typical, generic festival food purveyors.

Noticeably missing were Oakland Chinatown restaurants. None had set up booths. Moreover, little of the food that was being sold seemed particularly Chinese. Instead, a small cluster of gourmet food trucks hawked wood-fire pizza and frozen custard.

The festival's organizer, the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, was founded in 1985 by a group of local business owners as a way to foster economic development in Chinatown. The chamber's board is a mix of property owners, real estate agents, business owners, and corporate execs. Jennie Ong, the longtime executive director and the chamber's only full-time paid staff member, has been putting StreetFest together since 1994. Besides the Lunar New Year Bazaar held in February, it's the chamber's signature event and its biggest source of revenue. The idea, Ong explained, is to attract people who don't normally visit Chinatown, and, once they're there, to show off all the things the neighborhood has to offer so that they'll come back.

But the chamber isn't without its critics. Sonny Le, a community activist and a former board and staff member of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, doesn't mince words in that regard. As Le sees it, there are really two Chinatowns. On the one hand, there's an "upstairs" Chinatown that consists of property owners, lawyers, doctors, and real estate developers. Then, there's the "downstairs" Chinatown, which includes the minimum-wage workers and the struggling immigrant-run businesses — marginalized folks who tend to be hidden from view during big events like StreetFest.

Who in Chinatown is speaking up for those "downstairs" people? From Le's perspective, and that of other local Asian-American activists, the chamber's efforts — which, in recent months, have included railing against Oakland's minimum wage increase and advocating for extensive market-rate development — mostly benefit the developers, property owners, and landlords. "I don't see anyone fighting for those businesses and workers in Chinatown," Le said.

These issues have a particular urgency right now as Oakland Chinatown faces a crossroads. What may not have been obvious amid the upbeat atmosphere of the street festival is the grim reality that many Chinatown businesses aren't doing so well. A recent walk around the block on 8th and 9th streets, between Webster and Franklin streets — the very heart of Chinatown — revealed no fewer than five empty storefronts. Meanwhile, the neighborhood's large group of low-income seniors are particularly vulnerable to being displaced by Oakland's citywide affordability crisis.

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