SAN FRANCISCO — The oldest Chinatown in the United States is starting to resemble a ghost town. Swinging red lanterns hung above the pagodas are reminiscent of tumbleweed. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism has dramatically declined, leaving beloved businesses questioning their future.
San Francisco’s Chinatown, a historic neighborhood that has been a shining beacon for immigrants and the American Dream, has faced racial discrimination, repressive legislation, a massive earthquake and now a pandemic — one of the greatest tests of this resilient neighborhood’s more than century-long existence.
It is in this situation that Orlando Kuan finds himself, on a metal folding chair next to a crowded table of pastries outside his storefront on a Sunday afternoon, frequently known to be the busiest day for business. Grant Avenue, a once-bustling street in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is empty of tourists. Only the most loyal locals are left to patronize their favorite family-owned businesses.
Eastern Bakery, a cornerstone of the neighborhood, first opened its doors in 1924, making it the oldest bakery in Chinatown. But business has slowed to a crawl. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, typically one of the busiest times of year, the bakery logged a 70 percent drop in sales, according to Kuan. Still, he continues to personally greet customers — who once included President Bill Clinton — marveling at his table of famous lotus mooncakes and coffee crunch cake, a traditional recipe that is a big seller to this day.
In early March, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a shelter-in-place order, which restricted nonessential travel, affecting 40 million Californians. In July he called for statewide closures for dine-in restaurants, bars, movie theaters and family entertainment centers like bowling alleys, mini-golf and arcades. Now, Portsmouth Square, Chinatown’s living room, is desolate of the usual pack of Chinatown residents who come to the park to mingle, practice tai chi and play checkers.
According to the San Francisco Travel Association, tourism to the city has been slashed in half, and tourist spending has plunged by nearly 70 percent this year.
“As early as January 2020, we were already starting to see an impact. This was during a period when Chinatown generates a bulk of revenue. There was a one-third drop in attendance for the Lunar New Year parade, which was economically devastating,” said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “This was definitely behind the racist rhetoric around the coronavirus.”
Yeung is referring to the racial and economic impact on the Asian American community following President Trump’s use of xenophobic language in an effort to blame China for the spread of the virus. “Thank you all for being here, and we continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus,” the president said to a pool of reporters in March.
Businesses such as Eastern Bakery are not the only ones struggling. Man Hing, a Chinese Arts and Crafts store, also based on Grant Avenue, is going out of business. After 54 years of operation, owner Eddie Au explains that the pandemic is not the only reason for his departure. “The economy isn’t good, and Chinatown will take three to four years to recover,” Au said. Eighty percent of his customers are tourists originating from Europe and Mexico, he said. With the economy collapsing, Au saw his opportunity to close up shop and retire.
Chinatown Alleyway Tours, a program from the Chinatown Community Development Center, has gotten innovative. The youth-led and -designed program consists of a historical tour of the Chinatown neighborhood and alleyways, and it featured groups as large as 15 to 20 people.
Lisa Yu, senior community organizer at Chinatown Community Development Center, said, “Our in-person tours stopped in March, but we plan to do Minecraft virtual tours next year.” The virtual tours, built and designed by the high school youth leaders, are still in production and are being tested internally.
To empower the community and keep spirit alive, the neighborhood has had to creatively adapt to a changed world. The Chinese Culture Center, for example, partnered with 100 Days of Action, Project Artivism and the Chinatown Visitor Information Center in an initiative called Art for Essential Workers to liven up the area, with murals painted by Asian American artists on boarded-up storefronts.
“Chinatown is such a rich community, living, breathing, and depending on tourists. It’s an economic engine tied to tourism — for people afar,” said Jenny Leung, the executive director of the Chinese Culture Center.
Still, the challenges have not let up. This month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed rolled back the reopening of indoor dining because of a spike in coronavirus cases. The changes affected a variety of businesses and have kept the future of tourism in the city foggy. Among those hit hardest are banquet restaurants in Chinatown, which rely on the indoor dining experience.
Banquet restaurants like R & G Lounge on Kearny Street celebrate Cantonese cuisine in a formal setting. Designed to bring families together, the dining rooms are generally crammed with round marble tables to encourage family-style meals. At this restaurant on a recent evening, for example, guests were served a 9-inch baked cod dish and a simmering pot of winter melon soup next to the salt and pepper Dungeness crab, suitable for a party of eight. These banquet restaurants offer an intimate experience over a comforting meal, and frequent visitors say that without them, Chinatown wouldn’t be the same.
By one untraditional metric of business, which might be dubbed the fortune cookie index, the slump has been severe. On an average day, Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory would produce 5,000 to 8,000 fortune cookies, co-owner Kevin Chan said. After two months of reopening, they are making an estimated 3,000 a day or fewer.
The cookie factory is tucked in Ross Alley, historically a notorious center for brothels and gambling dens, where the usual snaking line of tourists has disappeared. Chan’s mother, fellow owner Nancy Tom Chan, is still folding the individual fortune cookies there with her son. The landmark business is celebrating its 58th anniversary with its biggest economic challenge to date.
“Tourism is the goose that lays the golden egg for San Francisco, whether it’s service jobs or a convention for visitors,” said Aaron Peskin (D), who represents District 3 in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, that San Francisco, despite its challenges … has relied on.”