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.

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When I interviewed Chan and Ong at the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce's second-floor office in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, Chan joked that the reason he lives in Alameda is because, here in Oakland, "Everyone wants me to run for office." Chan is popular in part because he's a relentless cheerleader for anything and everything related to Chinatown. He's also an unapologetic critic of the minimum wage increase and a champion of unfettered market-rate development, both in and around Oakland Chinatown — positions that are reflected in the stances taken by the chamber.

The story Chan and Ong tell about Chinatown's recent decline is one familiar to those who have watched various touchstones of the Chinese community spread to the suburbs during the past decade. Call it the "99 Ranch Effect," after the Los Angeles-based chain of Taiwanese-American mega-supermarkets that have spread all over the East Bay, with locations in Richmond, Concord, Fremont, Newark, Dublin, and Pleasanton. Open since 1998, the 35,000-square-foot Richmond location of 99 Ranch Market is typical in that it anchors an entire Asian-themed shopping mall — the Pacific East Mall. On weekends, a family can easily spend the better part of an afternoon here: a dim sum (or ramen or sushi) meal followed by a haircut, a grocery run to pick up hard-to-find imported ingredients and fresh seafood, and maybe even a couple rounds of karaoke — all tasks that, just a couple of decades ago, were almost exclusively the purview of traditional Chinatowns. Chan explained that the prices at 99 Ranch tend to be higher than what you'll find at Chinatown's mom-and-pop grocery stores, but for many, the wide aisles and vast parking lot are an irresistible draw. Meanwhile, the higher-end Chinese restaurants — the Koi Palaces of the world — have opened almost exclusively in these suburban Chinatowns, drawn, presumably, by the large swaths of available space and the prospect of a more affluent customer base.

click to enlarge Jennie Ong (left) and Carl Chan of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce advocate for aggressive market-rate development. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Jennie Ong (left) and Carl Chan of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce advocate for aggressive market-rate development.

The upshot, Chan explained, is that more and more Chinese Americans who live in the East Bay suburbs are staying there to shop and eat — and even Oakland residents are choosing to frequent 99 Ranch and its associated businesses. For some shops and restaurants in Oakland Chinatown, that competition proved to be more than they could withstand. And, in Chan's view, the minimum wage hike exacerbated a precarious situation. Business owners who were already struggling decided to close for good; those that had shut down for extended, unspecified "renovation" projects simply never reopened. One of the casualties was Legendary Palace, a dim sum restaurant and banquet hall that had been a Chinatown landmark since 1917 and was housed in a building owned by chamber president Ong's husband's family. According to Chan, the owners cited the minimum wage as one of the reasons they decided to close. (The dim sum house finally reopened earlier this month under new ownership and with a new name: Cinnamon Tree.)

From Chan and Ong and the chamber's perspective, the answer to saving Oakland Chinatown from the 99 Ranch Effect is unbridled growth — especially more market-rate housing in the downtown area. "We all believe that housing is in huge demand. No matter how fast you are building, you can't keep up with the demand," Chan said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist."

Chan argues that market-rate housing will bring an influx of affluent residents who will help build up Chinatown's declining customer base — in essence replacing some of the spending power of those shoppers who have been drawn away by the siren call of 99 Ranch. And the chamber opposes requiring developers to build affordable housing, because Chan believes any added costs that result from such requirements will ultimately get passed on to the buyer, making a new home more expensive for younger, middle-class, first-time homebuyers. (One of the community benefits the chamber has pushed for in talks with developers is that local workers be hired to do the actual contracting, Chan said.)

In the end, the chamber has endorsed nearly every market-rate project that developers have brought to the table in and around Chinatown — including significant market-rate housing projects at the intersection of Webster and 12th streets, at Broadway and 8th Street, and at 7th and Harrison streets. Another redevelopment project, at 524 8th Street in Old Oakland, will convert an SRO (single-room occupancy hotel) that currently houses mostly low-income, Chinese-speaking residents into studio apartments intended for "a student with mom and dad paying, or a tech tenant who can't afford three-grand a month in San Francisco," as the developer told the San Francisco Business Times.

Chan said he could recall only one development that the chamber took a neutral position on: the luxury apartment tower that had been slated to be built on a city-owned parcel on East 12th Street near Lake Merritt, not far outside of Chinatown. The deal fell through earlier this year after the Express revealed that the sale of the property violated a state affordable housing law.


What Ong and Chan talk a lot about is the need for new blood. Compared to other neighborhoods in Oakland, Chinatown has a disproportionately high percentage of businesses that have been around for decades — restaurants, for instance, that have done little to brush off the dust, whether in terms of menu or decor. And so many of these businesses have struggled to adapt to the changing demographics of the neighborhood. They may have poorly translated menus and staff with limited English proficiency. They tend to compete more on price than on quality or innovation. And slowly, Ong and Chan say, some of the businesses that have failed to adapt have simply called it quits.

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