10. A Town of Misconceptions 一個鎮的誤解

Posted in Chinatown, neighborhood, Recreation Center with tags , on May 15, 2012 by Curtis Uemura

Dirty, Run down, overcrowded, crime riddled.  Those are just some of the words that I would have used to describe Oakland’s Chinatown a mere four months ago.

But after spending a third of the year here I’ve learned that it is almost none of these things.

“Occupy Oakland hasn’t helped the perception of crime,” Jennie Ong, executive director of the Oakland Chinatown chamber of commerce said.  “[People] think of them as ghettos and maybe once upon a time they were, but they need more places like the Pacific Renaissance Plaza.”

Chinatown may be run down in certain parts, but the newer areas like the Plaza have lent a newfound brightness to the neighborhood.

It is not overcrowded either; in fact it is the polar opposite.  Chinatown is struggling to obtain the necessary crowds it needs to thrive.

When Silver Dragon was still open sometimes my mom would say that she would like to go back there one day, and my dad would say he would too except that Chinatown is so crowded and that parking would be horrible.

Since I didn’t make it to Chinatown very often I naturally adopted this conception too.

But upon arriving and parking here every week I have witnessed first hand that parking is readily available and the neighborhood isn’t as crowded as it was in earlier years.

It’s too bad that I only realized this after Silver Dragon closed down.

When someone mentions anything in Oakland, the first thought always turns to crime, it’s just Oakland’s stigma.

Because of this Chinatown suffers from the same perception of crime, even though it is a pretty safe area.

“We aren’t like a lot of other Chinatowns, other ones are built in the worst part of town,” Ong said.  “This is prime area, this the center of the whole bay area, we are close proximity to the freeway, we’re right by the airport, seaport, and universities.”

At first I thought this was going to be a very difficult and unpleasant experience to cover Chinatown.

The misconceptions and the language barrier were the only things I could think of.

And yes the language barrier was at times a problem; those that did speak English were mostly willing to talk.

Some people, like Darlene Lee recreation leader of the Lincoln Square recreation center, were extremely helpful and were always willing to speak with me, in order to bring Chinatown’s struggles to life.

“We are in a rut,” Lee said.  “People are closing their businesses, and we need to do something.”

I have thoroughly enjoyed covering the people and sights of Chinatown and am now able to dispel the preconceived notions of this place, even by my own family.

I hope to continue to visit this place and see its eventual economic recovery.

“As Chinatown expands it’ll help sustain the whole area,” Ong said.  “[But] if people keep moving out and going other places to do business, its going to be a slow demise.”

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9. A Dying Breed 垂死的品種

Posted in Chinatown, neighborhood, Recreation Center, restaurant, Silver Dragon with tags , , , on May 11, 2012 by Curtis Uemura

The three-story building on the corner of Webster and 9th street sits empty in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown.  As recently as four months ago this was a successful restaurant and cultural institution, but now the only remnant of that is a single round sign that reads Silver Dragon.

Directly across the street is the Pacific Renaissance Plaza that housed what used to be ABC Bakery, another defunct Chinatown favorite.

Kitty–corner on 9th street, the ironically named New Idea restaurant occupies a two-story building, which opened after another iconic restaurant, King Wah, closed and longtime owner Jim Hooi retired.

The more recent closings of these Chinatown staples illustrate how much the neighborhood is struggling right now.  And forms the perfect parallel to what is happening in Chinatown as a whole.

Chinatown is aging, and isn’t getting any new blood to replace the old.  The aging effect is the most noticeable in the residents.

This chart shows the difference in age breakdowns of Chinatown in 2000 and 2010

According to the 2010 U.S. census data, of the more than 2700 residents living in Chinatown 52.1 percent of them are over the age of 60.  Which is due to the numerous amounts of senior living homes in the area.

“We have a lot of senior citizens in the area so we need to have low income housing or senior housing,” said Darlene Lee, recreation leader of the Lincoln Square recreation center.  “And that’s great, but they don’t have enough money to support the area by themselves.”

Individuals have lived in Chinatown their whole life, the only problem is that they are growing older and newer generations aren’t coming in to replace them.

“Younger people usually want to live around people similar to them,” said Jack London Square realtor Forrest Gee.

Since the bulk of residents in Chinatown are seniors the housing panders to that demographic which turns off younger people.

“The models here [in Pacific Renaissance Plaza] are very low amenities,” Gee said.  “Younger people want gyms, or hot tubs or pools but we don’t have that because that’s not important to seniors.”

According to the U.S. census the median age of Oakland’s Chinatown residents have risen from 57.1 to 61.2 in the last 10 years.

The mostly elderly population is hurting the restaurants and businesses economically as the aged residents are less apt to go out for lunch and dinner.

“Chinatown is struggling,” said Jennie Ong, executive director of the Oakland Chinatown chamber of commerce.  “You can tell because vacancy rates are up and before vacancy rates were unheard of in Chinatown.”

They also have less money to go out and support the local establishments.  Not only that but their preference in food has caused once successful restaurants to close due to dwindling clientele.

“For institutions like Silver Dragon and King Wah, it was a combination of the slowing local economy and their unique Cantonese American style comfort food,” director of Oakland Chinatown oral history project Roy Chan said.  “ That more catered to older generations of immigrants and their descendants.”

The younger people that do move into Chinatown often work elsewhere, so they support the establishments around their work, whereas Chinatown serves only as a place to sleep.

The real question is, with the family values so synonymous with Chinatown, why aren’t newer generations following their elders and moving into the neighborhood.

Darlene Lee thinks it has to do with the negative connotations of the word Chinatown.

“People [that] come from somewhere else and have a different lifestyle do have a bad connotation of Chinatown,” Lee said.  “They think it’s more like a ghetto or that we are bumpkins.”

Lee also said that people feel like Chinatown is more a rundown neighborhood and because of that, they feel less inclined to spend their money there than more upscale places.

Not only that but a lot of residential space is being pushed out by housing for the Lake Merritt BART station and housing for Laney College.

Without people both living and working in Chinatown, the restaurants and businesses are forced to depend on tourism to stay afloat.

The only problem with that is that it isn’t a tourist destination.

“Many people don’t even know we have a Chinatown here in Oakland.” Darlene Lee said.  “We also have parking problems, whereas if you go to the mall you don’t have to pay for parking.  It could add up to an extra $10, that’s one less dish you can order.”

When people do make it out to Chinatown, they end up spending money there; the problem is bringing people to the area in the first place.

“What I’ve noticed is when people come here for dancing or tai chi they support Chinatown,” Lee said.  “After they are done they go eat dim sum or lunch then do a little shopping and then go home.”

In order for Chinatown to prosper once again, it must do something to draw in the average person.

As sacrilegious as it sounds, it has to look at what San Francisco’s Chinatown is, and embrace tourism.  Or at least market itself like San Francisco.

“I think we need to market Chinatown, need to market its amenities,” Ong said.  “That’s something the city of Oakland has never done, hopefully with Jean Quan as a mayor she will understand that.”

Also what happens with the area surrounding the Lake Merritt BART station will greatly influence Chinatown’s future.  BART is going ahead with a plan to double Chinatown’s population by creating market rate housing.

“Our only hope is the Lake Merritt BART station and how it’s going to be developed,” Ong said.  “We are looking toward market rate housing and new commerce out there, because when you’re near transportation it’s usually very expensive.”

The neighborhood has shown in the past that it can halt its own decline.

When it started out Chinatown was only four blocks and was really struggling in the 1950s.  But an influx of immigrants brought Chinatown newfound life and turned it into the roughly a 35-block square that it is today.

It adapted, and that’s exactly what it has to do now.

“We don’t need to turn to the past because it was a struggle for everyone growing up,” Lee said.  “In order for Chinatown to really blossom again we have to do something really outrageous.  We have to make it a place that you want to go to, we need to change the whole dynamic of Chinatown.”

8. A Legendary Closing 一個傳奇關閉

Posted in Chinatown, food, neighborhood, restaurant with tags , , on May 1, 2012 by Curtis Uemura

Cross another name off the list of once successful destination restaurants in Chinatown.

Legendary Palace, located on Franklin Street, has been one of the last old school tourist draw restaurants left in Chinatown.

Unfortunately it will join recently closed destination restaurant Silver Dragon and close its doors for good in 2013.

“Legendary will be closing next year,” Darlene Lee, recreation leader of the Lincoln Square recreation center said.  “I heard they’ll be there for another year and that’s it.”

Legendary Palace has been part of the neighborhood since 1917 but will soon be just another former Chinatown staple.

“That’s another big restaurant that’s closing, that’s actually my families property,” Jennie Ong, executive director of the Oakland Chinatown chamber of commerce said.  “So it’s going to hurt, it’s really going to hurt.  That means that Oakland Chinatown won’t be such a destination anymore and Peony would be the only [big restaurant] left.”

No official announcement has been made regarding the date of the actual closing by either Legendary Palace or Chinatown.

Legendary Palace could not be reached for comment.  This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

7. The Eyes of Chinatown 唐人街的眼睛

Posted in Chinatown, neighborhood, Recreation Center with tags , , on April 17, 2012 by Curtis Uemura

With the Occupy Oakland situation distracting most police officers in Oakland, it would be easy for crime to be on the rise, especially in daylight.

But not in Chinatown, as over the course of last month, there were a total of 48 crimes committed, but only 17 of them in daylight hours.

This is what this map represents, the type and time of the crime committed.  As you can see, most of the crimes involve theft.

Many Chinatown natives think that because there are so many people walking to and from their destinations that the amount of eyes is a deterrent to criminals.

However the eyes of Chinatown may be great at prevention but aren’t necessarily so at helping once a crime has started.

As Darlene Lee has said, that is how Chinatown residents are, keep their head down and mind their business.

6. A Day at The Rec Center 在康樂中心的一天

Posted in neighborhood, Recreation Center with tags , , on March 23, 2012 by Curtis Uemura

So instead of the usual food blog I’ve been doing the past couple of weeks, I thought I would try something different.

In the following week I will be posting a feature article on Darlene Lee, who is the recreation leader at Lincoln Square Recreation Center.

To get an idea of what Darlene does at the recreation center and some of the obstacles she faces here’s a short interview I did with her.

To give you a little background on her, Darlene grew up in Chinatown and attended the rec center when she was a little girl.

She lives in the same building as when she was a kid and married her neighbor.

She works everyday and is responsible for everything you can think of at the rec center.

In the interview she touches on how she got started at the center and some interesting stories about the kids she helps.  I apologize for the poor audio quality.

5. A Shooting Star in Chinatown 在唐人街的射擊之星

Posted in Chinatown, food with tags , , , , on March 9, 2012 by Curtis Uemura

Week two of my food adventures in Chinatown found me wandering around by the parking garage in the plaza.

From just the sign, you can tell that the Shooting Star Cafe is unlike other Chinese restaurants.

Amongst the usual signs for Chinese restaurants one in particular caught my eye.  Shooting Star Café was printed on a small sign.

With such a unique name in Chinatown I had to try it.

As soon as you step in to the restaurant the unique vibe is visible.  There’s an ice cream counter on the right, UFO strobe lights hanging from the ceiling and a flat screen TV mounted in the back playing Chinese soap operas.

I was greeted right away and shown a table with a prime view of the TV.

When the menu was placed on my table it was reminiscent of a thick notebook, but the choices were the most perplexing part.

Along with the usual Chinese items like Mongolian beef and sweet and sour chicken, there were very unusual choices like baked seafood spaghetti and macaroni with hot dogs.

It took me at least 20 minutes to decide if I should try the Chinese food or crazy American fusion, pot stickers or garlic fries.

But considering it’s Chinatown I decided on the Chinese food.  I ordered one of my favorite dishes, ma po tofu which is basically tofu in a gravy sauce with chilies, jalapenos and pickled peppers served over rice.

As it was lunchtime, it came as a lunch special with a salad and a cup of soup, but I was also given the choice of white rice or spaghetti.

The ice cream counter and register are surrounded by a vibrant color scheme.

Not feeling adventurous I went with the usual white rice.

The first plates to come out were the salad with some kind of mayonnaise carrot dressing which was not bad, and the restaurants version of minestrone soup, which was pretty unpleasant.

The entrée came out relatively soon after that.  The tofu was soft and the gravy had a very savory spicy flavor.

The dish was exceptionally good, one of the best ma po tofu’s I have had.

The restaurant was very unique not only with ambiance but with the food options and I would definitely go back, maybe even to try the American fusion dishes.

The only negative about this place was the service.

A TV in the back of the restaurant plays Chinese soap operas, which are strangely addicting.

When I entered the service was great, I was shown a table right away with a smile and friendly banter.

After I placed my order my food arrived almost instantly but with no drink, I had to ask several times for a glass of water.

Also after finishing the soup and salad, which came out first, the plates were not cleared.

Same with the entrée plate, after I was done the plates sat on my table and the check was not brought.

I sat there waiting for the check for 10 minutes before I asked for it.  Even after asking for the check it didn’t come for 15-20 minutes, all while I could see employees on their cell phones, and eating ice cream.

The tasty mapo tofu lunch special that comes with a salad and a cup of soup.

One employee was actually talking on his phone while serving food and drinks.

The service was a definite turn off but the uniqueness and quality of the food is enough for me to look the other way.

I am anticipating my next meal there; hopefully the service will have improved enough to be decent.

4. The Local Spot 當地現貨

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 6, 2012 by Curtis Uemura

The Pacific Renaissance Plaza is arguably the center of Oakland’s Chinatown, and in the plaza sits the Asian Branch of the Oakland Public Library.

From the moment you set foot through the door, the important role the library plays to the community is evident.

Instead of dividing books by genres like fiction and mystery, these books are split up by language.  Barely any English is spoken; even the kids don’t speak English to each other.

The only people that seem to speak English are the people working there.

The first thing you notice is how crowded it is.  I had to circle around the library twice before I was able to find an open seat.

The second thing I noticed is how segregated the library is.

Once you enter there are four tables set up in the magazine section and after you walk up a couple steps there are four more tables with signs that say “quiet reading” on them.

This was the first place I took a seat and immediately noticed that I was the youngest person sitting at these tables…the youngest by at least 15 years.

And everyone in this section didn’t have any books; they were all reading the newspaper or magazines.

The interactions were minimal, the only time people looked up was when someone they knew left, at which point they would offer a head nod before going back to reading.

This was not a social gathering spot at all for them; it was about reading and killing time.

But once you cross the line to the back half of the library, it could not be more opposite.

There are no tables in the back, only a set of four single couches.

When I took a seat on one of them I realized I was now the oldest person in this half of the library…the oldest by at least five years.

No one seemed interested in reading anything; there were no books open, no magazines, and no newspapers.

Only kids who looked like they just finished their day at the local middle school and now were at the library to socialize with other school kids.

This is a gathering spot for the kids after school, which is strange because there are other community centers in Chinatown.

It was also pretty loud for a library in this section.  The kids are all talking and yelling and messing around while the other half is deathly quiet.

It’s like there are two different libraries inside the one.  Yet somehow both sections can coexist.

No conflicts arise, no one even asks the kids to keep it down so they are able to read.

It has a very communal feel to it, and despite the glaring differences in sections of the library, that’s the one thing that is the most evident.