Country’s oldest Chinatown fights for its life in San Francisco amid coronavirus pandemic

Orlando and Elaine Kuan, owners of Eastern Bakery in San Francisco, sell their famous mooncakes and pastries outside their storefront on Nov. 8, 2020.Washington Post photo by Jada Chin

The oldest Chinatown in the United States is starting to resemble a ghost town. Red lanterns swinging above the pagodas are reminiscent of tumbleweed. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism has declined drastically, leaving beloved businesses questioning their future.

San Francisco’s Chinatown, a historic neighborhood that has been a 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 where 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 devoid 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, and it became 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% 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.

In early March, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a stay-home 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 such as bowling alleys, mini-golf facilities and arcades. Now, Portsmouth Square, Chinatown’s living room, is devoid 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% 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 impact on the Asian American community after President Donald Trump’s use of xenophobic language in an effort to place blame on 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 to stay afloat. Man Hing, a Chinese Arts and Crafts store, also based on Grant Avenue, is going out of business. Owner Eddie Au said that the pandemic is not the only reason for closing after 54 years at the shop. “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 or 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 consisted of a historical tour of the Chinatown neighborhood and alleyways, and it featured groups as large as 15 to 20 people.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post – Jada Chin