San Francisco’s Chinatown Undergoing Change, but not Without Controversy

For over 150 years, San Francisco’s Chinatown has been a haven for Chinese immigrants coming to the United States to seek a better life, as well as their American-born descendants who strive to stay connected to their Asian heritage. Founded in 1848, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America, as well as the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Featuring two hospitals, a post office, herbal shops, and temples, an array of flower stalls, food stands, and restaurants, it is a true microcosm of Asian culture; it is a place where traditional Chinese languages, customs, and religious practices are preserved. But now, an accelerated tech boom in northern California has put San Francisco’s Chinatown at a crossroads, and cultural tension between established Chinatown residents and a new generation of entrepreneurs, eager to develop business in the district, is at an all-time high.

While housing costs in San Francisco are some of the highest in the nation, rent in the Chinatown district has remained relatively stable. And in recent years, entrepreneurs lured to the area by the booming California tech industry have begun to look to Chinatown as the new “hot spot” to establish offices, entertainment, and apartment complexes in a comparatively affordable environment. A $1.6 billion subway system that is scheduled to open in the area in 2019 is also expected to usher in new commerce opportunities to the Chinatown district. However, some civic leaders and longstanding Chinatown business owners fear that development in Chinatown could potentially eradicate the ancient culture preserved there. Recently, the Chinatown Community Development Center, a community development organization in Northern California that primarily serves the Chinatown district, protested the launch of 1920c, a co-sharing business offering office space to freelance workers. Gen Fujioka, the center’s policy director, stated in an interview with The San Francisco Gate that the business violates zoning laws, and that Chinatown “is not intended for tech offices.” 1920c co-founder Jenny Chan, who immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong as a child, bristles at the criticism and argues that she is respecting the traditional values of the neighborhood while establishing her business. “They accused me of not fitting into the fabric of Chinatown. But my sign downstairs is in Chinese,” she explained to The San Francisco Gate. [See San Francisco’s Chinatown Clings to Roots Amid Tech Boom, by Janie Har, The San Francisco Gate, 25.Jul.2015.]

Some longstanding business owners in Chinatown, however, are welcoming the new era of change. Shop owner Betty Louie is confident that a younger generation of business owners can infuse new life into the neighborhood, while still preserving its cultural core. “I want our ABC’s (short for American-born Chinese) to come back and be proud of their roots. Really, for some of them, this is their Chinese village.” Louie even helped to convince famed San Francisco chef Brandon Jew to open a new restaurant in Chinatown. And Chinatown real estate broker Pius Lee has long been a proponent of popular restauranteur George Chen, who will soon be opening a high-end eatery called China Live to replace a dim sum restaurant known as Gold Mountain that was popular with an older generation of Chinatown residents. Chen is well aware that he is under scrutiny from residents wary of newcomers. “Everyone says, ‘You just took over Gold Mountain. What are you going to do? It’s not going to be a giant Starbucks, is it?’ All we’re doing is adding a little more of a modern flavor.”

When a neighborhood as sacred as San Francisco’s Chinatown begins to accept new influences, tensions between established residents wary of change and younger generations eager to establish new business ventures can run high. But with time, both sides will hopefully learn to trust each other and work towards a common goal: making Chinatown an even more vibrant cultural touchstone for future generations to experience and enjoy.


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