Oakland Chinatown faces ‘double epidemic’ of violence, COVID

Tony Fong never expected the pandemic to last so long. When Fong closed his 7,000-square-foot buffet Fortuna — an Oakland Chinatown staple for Chinese New Year celebrations, baby showers and birthday parties — in March 2020, he thought it might take a month or two to get back to business. Huh. He told the workers not to turn away, because “soon they will be back to work again.”

Today, the closed banquet hall is just one example of what happened in Oakland’s Chinatown during the pandemic. Ten percent of the neighborhood’s 300 businesses have closed since the lockdown began, according to the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the victim of a triple pandemic affecting Chinatowns from San Francisco to New York.

The pandemic has cut tourist traffic and banquet bookings, once the lifeblood of restaurants such as Buffet Fortuna and Oakland’s Penny Seafood, the last remaining traditional banquet hall in the neighborhood that still makes dim sum by hand. Peony’s general manager Ming Zhu says hundreds of banquet bookings for Chinese New Year and family celebrations were canceled in the first few months.

Large-scale hate crimes targeting Asian Americans are keeping fearful patrons at home and forcing restaurants and businesses to close early, so employees can find a safe home. City officials said that according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at CSU San Bernardino, and anti-Asian hate crime reports in San Francisco increased by 567 percent last year alone, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by about 150 in 2020. percentage increased.

And inflation only adds to the woes. With prices of ingredients and supplies doubling, restaurant owners have no choice but to raise menu prices and risk turning more customers away.

Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, has called it “a dual pandemic”.

Grace Young — an award-winning cookbook author and documentarian whose fierce advocacy for the country’s Chinatown was awarded the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award in June — calls it unraveling the threads that bind these communities together. Huh.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – JULY 19: Locals walk past the closed Buffet Fortuna on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. Without being able to do take-out during the pandemic, this 7000-square-foot buffet had no way of sustaining its business. (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area Newsgroup)

Young spent most of his childhood on the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown with his father, a wine salesman, who met his customers every day. It was an intimate community, where everyone knew each other. “As Chinatowns across America lose mom-and-pop restaurants, bakeries, stores, and food markets,” she says, “this part of the culture and heritage for the community could be lost forever.”

Many Oakland Chinatown eateries that survived the pandemic by offering take-out have not resumed dine-in service today. And banquets, which are vital to both the culture and the restaurant’s survival, are in peril.

Profit margins for Chinese restaurants have always been “razor thin,” says Young. “They’re not expecting to sell 10 bowls of wonton noodle soup. They have to sell 150 or 200 rupees to earn a substantial amount. But the volume just isn’t there. ,

Neighborhood grandmothers and grandfathers once filled tables at Oakland’s tiny Big Dish restaurant, says manager Queen Guan at Mandarin. They took breakfast and talked for hours over a cup of tea. A return to that daily routine, she says, “feels far, far away, which has no end. Ninety percent of our customers are neighbors. Now some have stopped coming. their children buy stuff for them; They don’t come out themselves.”

There is an element of fear in the sentiments expressed by Chinatown’s patrons and business owners. People no longer swing through Chinatown after work to get a small amount for dinner or to pick up groceries at the ever bustling food markets. As night falls, the roads become deserted.

Oakland, California - July 19: A Restaurant In Oakland Chinatown Closes Its Door At Dusk As A Result Of Both Decreased Traffic As Well As A Safety Risk To Employees On Tuesday, July 19, 2022 In Oakland, Calif.  (Wangyuxuan Xu/Bay Area Newsgroup)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – JULY 19: A restaurant in Oakland Chinatown closes its doors in the evening as a result of both decreased foot traffic as well as a safety risk to employees on Tuesday, July 19, 2022 in Oakland, Calif. (WangYuxuan Xu/Bay Area Newsgroup)

“In the past, people were in the streets at night playing basketball in Lincoln Square Park,” said middle schooler Ben Guan, who moved to Oakland in 2019. “not anymore.”

The fear is not unfounded, says Chan, who was attacked on a sidewalk in broad daylight last year and believes the dangerous hate crime figures are severely under-reported.

Part of Fong’s decision to permanently close Oakland Buffet Fortuna—he still has a restaurant in San Leandro—was the realization that there was “no prospect” for the restaurant amid the public safety conditions of Chinatown.

“There is a way to prevent viruses as well as with vaccines and such,” he says. “But if public safety remains so poor, there is no hope for Chinatown.”

Meanwhile, some community and business leaders have stepped in to make Oakland Chinatown feel safe. The Blue Angels Patrol, a volunteer group of residents, business owners and workers, patrols the streets of Chinatown to prevent crimes and act as a bridge between non-English speaking residents and the police.

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