In August 2021, Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, stood inside Pacific Renaissance Plaza, a retail center at the heart of Chinatown in Oakland, Calif. There, in response to a spate of highly publicized attacks on Asian American people and businesses, Chan addressed Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D): “The situation is dire. … We want you to bring in the California Highway Patrol.”
Oakland became ground zero for the #StopAsianHate movement after footage of a pedestrian being assaulted went viral in February 2021. As similar robberies and assaults continued across the country, Chan became a fixture in mainstream media news coverage of anti-Asian attacks, championing more policing in response to what many considered hate crimes. Though this solution has been challenged by both Asian and non-Asian racial justice activists, it was embraced by politicians eager to look tough on crime and acts of racial hatred. In response to Chan’s plea, Oakland’s mayor asked for more CHP officers in the city, a request the governor granted.
Reacting to anti-Asian violence with pro-police rhetoric has served two related political projects: maintaining Asian Americans’ model minority status and defending Oakland Chinatown’s business interests. Both have their roots in the 1960s, when local politicians and wealthy community members embraced commercial development as a means of “saving” the East Bay city’s Chinatown from obsolescence. Oakland’s experience in the intervening decades, however, shows how commercial development has failed to serve both Chinatown’s own low-income residents and their noncommercial neighbors.
To understand how this dynamic emerged, we should look more carefully not only at the content of Chan’s August speech but also his choice of venue. Though Pacific Renaissance Plaza looks like any other shopping center, it was once conceived by city planners as the centerpiece of an ambitious redevelopment plan for Chinatown.
Oakland’s Chinatown was established in the 1870s as a place for Chinese laborers to live, shop and work. The neighborhood was most vibrant during the 1940s, when the defense industry elevated many Chinese Americans into jobs they were previously restricted from, creating a new professional class. However, after California repealed discriminatory housing laws in the 1950s, these professionals began leaving Oakland and its Chinatown for the suburbs. Around the same time, construction of Interstate 880 and a public transit system destroyed large sections of Chinatown and neighboring West Oakland, which was predominantly African American.
This trend seemed poised to reverse in 1968, when the Oakland City Council approved a redevelopment plan for Chinatown. The timing was no coincidence. In addition to a shrinking tax base from residents leaving for the suburbs, the city government was also facing an emerging Black Power movement organizing for self-determination and anti-poverty measures.
While many of Oakland’s Black residents were embracing Black Power, Chinatown’s business owners presented an alternative minority politics that sought to disentangle Chinatown from the fate of its non-White neighbors. A group of Chinatown professionals proposed a neighborhood redevelopment plan meant to draw suburban Chinese Americans — and their money — back into the city. Praised by the government for raising $10,000 in seed money from within Chinatown, the plan led the press to laud Chinese Americans as model minorities, citing their “extremely low incidences of juvenile delinquency and welfare cases.”
Such descriptions marked an implicit contrast with Black Americans that Chinatown professionals leaned into, positioning themselves against the redistributive goals of Black Power. “Being Chinese,” one said, “we don’t go out and demand certain things.”
Even with the city government’s support, the Chinatown redevelopment project struggled to raise additional funding. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the project truly took off, after its proponents tapped into an alternative source of capital: wealthy investors from Hong Kong.
Pacific Renaissance Plaza began its life during this period as “Hong Kong U.S.A.,” a shopping mall and condominium complex. Some units were priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the median annual household income for Asian Americans in Chinatown at the time was less than $12,000.
Hong Kong U.S.A.’s luxury character confirmed long-standing fears among Chinatown’s residents and smaller merchants that they would be priced out. From the project’s inception, many had expressed concerns about affordable housing and community business protections that often went ignored by the wealthier professionals spearheading the project.
The resulting battle between the 1970s and 1990s over commercial development initially saw the neighborhood split along class lines. The logic of commercial development steamrolled those who tried to oppose it, however. Rather than questioning the need for developments like Hong Kong U.S.A. or proposing public housing alternatives, residents framed their fight in terms of the right to afford privately owned property.
By the late 1980s, the project was moving forward in its final form as Pacific Renaissance Plaza. Meanwhile, a group of local business owners founded the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, which quickly rose to prominence. The chamber distinguished itself as a representative of local businesses against the foreign corporations funding the plaza, but also positioned itself as pro-commercial development. While the group showed a willingness to support community causes such as including affordable housing in the plaza, it fully embraced the neighborhood’s increasingly retail character.
Pacific Renaissance Plaza opened to the public in 1991 with some significant community wins, including affordable housing, a public library and a cultural center. But the development also ushered in a longer-term trend that undermined the livelihoods of community residents.
Housing affordability became a major issue. Over the next 30 years, Chinatown became too expensive for most working people to call it home, and its small businesses came to rely on outside shoppers to survive. This made them uniquely vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, when so many people opted to stay close to home. Last year’s rise in assaults and robberies was simply the final straw.
The chamber’s concern for the safety of Asian Americans is undoubtedly genuine, but its primarily commercial interests lead it to a narrow set of solutions. Rather than using his influence to demand city funds for social services or housing — changes that could address the root causes of crime — Chan emphasizes policing, an institution that has, historically, protected private property over human life. The fact that many of the suspects in recent crimes were African American men has made some activist organizations concerned about an increased threat of racial profiling of Black people in and around Oakland’s Asian American community. Indeed, by framing the problem as one of criminals vs. law-abiding residents, the chamber continues to play into a racist narrative that frames African Americans as criminal and Asian Americans as “model minority” victims.
Alternatives are possible. Local housing activists have been fighting to ensure that Oakland’s low-income residents can continue to call the city home, including trying to preserve the affordable housing units within Pacific Renaissance Plaza. These same groups have been at the forefront of creating alternatives to policing. Such efforts recognize the shared interests between low-income people across the city and have the power to unite diverse constituencies around common goals. Wealthy business executives once hoped to preserve Chinatown by setting it apart from the rest of Oakland, but activists today are keeping Chinatown safe by keeping their neighbors safe as well.