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Oakland’s Chinatown business owners struggle to weather the pandemic

A bustling street corner in Berkeley with various shops, including a jewelry store and a professional services office. Pedestrians cross beneath traffic lights, signs visible. The clear weather bathes the scene in sunlight, casting shadows—an everyday tableau captured by keen Berkeley journalism.

Coach Ed and his football team practice at Verdese Carter Park on Thursday, October 1, 2020 Qinghui Kong/OaklandNorth

 on November 5, 2020

Charles Hong is the second-generation owner of Shandong Restaurant. His father started the business in 1991, and the restaurant has been in Oakland’s Chinatown for almost 30 years now.

“Before COVID I could put around 12 tables and serve 50 people at the same time,” Hong said.

Now, he says he can only accommodate three to four tables because of social distancing rules. But he still needs to hire staff, including chefs and waiters.

“The cost of people dining in is bigger than the money I can make if people are dining in,” Hong said.

Hong’s experience reflects the city’s economy, which has been battered by the pandemic and shutdowns following the police shooting of George Floyd. A study by the Yelp Economic Impact Report, which tracks business closures, found small businesses on the West Coast have been particularly hard-hit. In California alone, there have been almost 20,000 permanent restaurant closures.

Businesses in Chinatown have faced other challenges as well. Some have found it hard to pivot to online services because English is their second language. Many store owners say they have been targets of anti-Asian racism because of Donald Trump’s attempts to brand COVID-19 the “China-virus.”

“Many Asian people, especially Chinese people have been facing a lot of discrimination and abuse,” said Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce “Sometimes [the xenophobic attacks were] verbal and sometimes much more physical.”

And some businesses have suffered losses unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sept. 16, a fire gutted six restaurants and businesses including Gum Wah Restaurant, Great Wall Company and Aloha Market.

Alex Yu, owner of ATY Computers, says that his business has also decreased significantly.

”My business has been down 60 to 70% because most customers are afraid to come out,” Yu said.

Advocates warn that any more closures in Chinatown would be a significant loss to the city. Owners say the decline in foot traffic is hurting the small businesses like tea shops and markets, which usually rely on these customers for business. How small businesses cope could impact the future for a long time to come.

“This would be a significant loss to the cultural and economic landscape of the city,” Chan said. He said people started their own businesses because others in the city refused to do business with them.

Many entrepreneurs in Chinatown do international business and that has made them especially vulnerable.

Wendy Li, 70, is the owner of China Telecom in Oakland’s Chinatown. She also provides Express Mail Service internationally. Li closed her store from March through June. Now, even though she’s nervous about getting COVID-19, the pressure of needing to pay rent has forced her to reopen.

“We are losing at least 30% of our customers but can’t do anything about it,” Li says.

In addition to fewer customers, Li also faces challenges because of the type of service she provides.

“We sent two batches of goods back to China in June, but the Chinese customs house is very strict with the cargo disinfection, especially goods from the U.S. The goods have been checked three times, but they are still on hold now.” Li said.

Perhaps the only bright spot is that a proposed tax increase will not be on the ballot this November. The Oakland Business Tax ordinance, which would tax Oakland restaurants by income, rather than a flat rate, will likely come before voters in 2022.

East Bay Vision Optometry, located in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown, is a family-owned optometry practice on 9th Street that has served patients for over 30 years.

Dr. Rebecca Lee grew up working in her family’s practice as a teenager and has been an optometrist here for three years.

“Interacting with the community felt really important to me,” she said.

Lee said patients can receive services in Cantonese, English or Mandarin, which allows people who don’t feel comfortable speaking English to still receive good care.

She does social media posts for the family business but for many others in Chinatown, that has been more difficult because English is a second or third language.

Lee describes Chinatown as, “a place of comfort,” saying even patients who move to the outskirts of the East Bay come back to Chinatown for shopping and services because it’s such a supportive community.

She says she sees fewer patients because of COVID-19 restrictions, but it is also difficult no longer being able to provide a place where old friends can see each other. Oakland’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in the country, has seen more people visiting stores and restaurants than back in the early days of the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, my grandmother would actually come to the office and just hang out. She and the other older Chinese ladies combined. They would just chat,” Lee said. But Lee believes Chinatown will move forward.

“I would like to think that we are a resilient culture,” Lee said. “I feel like if people can stick up for each other and support each other and continue to support small businesses like this. I think we can overcome this obstacle and future obstacles to come.”

Hetty and Calvin Tong agree. They opened The Sweet Booth dessert shop 28 years ago and they’re known for their delicious green tea ice cream. They remain optimistic about the future.

“We have been through the ups and downs,” Hetty Tong said. “We’re still here.”

Production Staff & Crew

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Qinghui Kong ( 2022 )


Tamera Moore

Tamera Moore ( 2022 )