The New New Chinatowns

For years I’ve been hearing folks talk about gentrifying Chinatowns. This is a real concern in Chinatowns like Oakland’s, where an underutilized BART station (Lake Merritt) is going through a community planning process that can potentially lead to some pretty high buildings, higher population and higher rents and Chinese folks hightailing out.

Oak-rand

Oak-rand

Now, I could spend this whole blog post writing about how to protect Chinatowns, but to be honest, what does that mean? Part of it means keeping rents low (rental protections), keeping Chinatowns for Chinese folks (street signs in Chinese) and making sure the local amenities appeal to Asian folks and not Audi-driving yuppie parents. But what happens when a business closes (Chinatown knickknacks, boba tea cafes, Chinese breakfast restaurants). What do you replace it with? Another Chinatown staple? A Starbucks with Chinese signage? Should we maintain the look, feel and economic pulse of Chinatowns? What if a family business that’s been running for 40 years suddenly closes and sells to 3rd generation Asian Americans? What if a business gets passed on, within the family, to a 2nd generation Chinese kid? What if a Korean American kid takes over a family Chinese restaurant and turns it in a fusion Chinese spot that’s voted one of the top ten new restaurants in the country like Mission Chinese in San Francisco? What if MC opened up in the heart of Chinatown SF? What would the local CBOs and Chinese Chamber say? So that’s the dilemma I’m proposing to you. What does it mean to be Chinatown: Geography? Tenure? The things you sell? And how Chinese do you have to be to be Chinatown: Full Chinese? Chinese American? ABC? Asian? Asian American? Vietnamese/Filipino/Korean American? 2nd/3rd/4th generation? Angel/Ellis Island Asian?

I don’t know the answer to all of this, but I do know that folks like me who hang out in Chinatowns like second homes need to be thinking about this shit cause our generation and younger need a PLAN. To start, I’d like to provide you a few examples of what Chinatowns might look like a few years from now, businesses I’m calling Chinatown 2.0 cause these aren’t your typical paper money shops. These are hybrid old school/new school uses, Asian American type businesses, or just hip (probably gentrifying) uses that we need to pay attention to before Chinatowns become ethnic Disneylands crossed with Portlandia: food trucks, secret dive bars, and two girls/two shirt stores everywhere. I’ll be including a gentrification meter rating between 1-10 that’ll predict how this business will affect the pushing out of Chinese folks from the premises (1 being 中文地狱 and 10 being American Apparel next door to a Anthropologie).

Li Po Lounge, San Francisco California. Made famous by the latest Anthony Bourdain Layover SF episode and Sweater Funk (a sweaty/grimy soul party every Sunday night). How legit is this place? Old school chinese bar up top with Tsing Tao bottles and the soul party downstairs. Gentrification Meter: 4 before Bourdain, 5 post-Bourdain. Its grimey and the hipsters are hidden downstairs.

San Francisco's Li Po Lounge

San Francisco's Li Po Lounge

Fortune Sound Club, Vancouver, British Columbia. I don’t know much about Van City other than I like everything about it. I especially know nothing about the City’s Chinatown if only cause I learned early on you gotta go south to Richmond to get a taste of real Chinese food. So I don’t know why there’s still a Chinatown in the City and who actually lives there. But that didn’t stop me from including the only real CLUB I’ve ever been to in a Chinatown (sorry Grand Star, which comes up next). Gentrification Meter: 6? On one hand, you got Saul Williams coming up in March at Fortune, but on the other hand, are there Chinese folks that actually live here? Any Vancouverites wanna fill me in?

Can you spot an Chinese folks in this crowd? Oh there's one! Two, three.... Three...

Grand Star Jazz Club, Los Angeles, California. So hip, Blacklava sells a shirt for this spot. New York tribute night be damned, this spot is so cool and confusing. On one hand, you have Britney making cameo appearances and on the other hand, step one foot outside and you’re a drunk walk away from a big bowl of steaming jook. Gentrify Meter: 7. Did I mention Britney Spears in the same sentence as jook in the previous sentence???

Still see a lot of Asian American folks here no matter what party is going on.

So what can you do? If you’re Chinese, open up a new business in Ctown, USA. Just be culturally sensitive and if you’re gonna sell food, it damn well better be good. And please, no more vinyl toy shops. The ones in San Jose JTown and Chinatown LA haven’t been customer magnets unless you want 12-yr old kids loitering and playing street fighter on your in-house Super Nintendo. I really wish I could have showed you some viable Chinatown retail businesses that fit this Chinatown 2.0 category, but I really don’t know any. Please send them our way if you do know!

Nari, Will You Be My 아내, 여자 ?

I know you’re married (to this guy), but I thought I’d ask anyway. Just in case. Even though you are apparently much in love with your boy, judging by this love song video you made and put on YouTube:

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Barrio Chino, Panama: I Want to Go to There

I’ve had a lifelong dream to go to Havana, Cuba. Taking that flight from Vancouver or Tijuana and arriving in a city that hasn’t changed much since JFK was still rockin Marilyn Monroe a skinny suit and black tie. I mostly wanted to visit the Chinatown in Havana, and was able to, virtually, through a DVD from Cheuk Kwan of Tissa Films. A documentary called Chinese Restaurants, split into 5 DVDs spanning 5 continents:

DVD 1: Song of the Exile (Israel, South Africa, Turkey)
DVD 2: On the Islands (Mauritius, Trinidad & Tobago, Cuba)
DVD 3: Three Continents (Madagascar, Norway, Canada)
DVD 4: Latin Passions (Peru, Brazil South, Argentina)
DVD 5: Beyond Frontiers (India East, Brazil North, India West)

So when Anthony Bourdain visited Panama’s Barrio Chino and noted that 1/5 Panamanians had Chinese ancestry and the CTown was the oldest in the Americas (take that Canal & Mott!), I thought of a ridiculous Portuguese/Chinese meal I once had and wanted some of that Latin Chinese new new. Simple as that. Take a look at the episode and tell me you wouldn’t want to slurp MSG with Bourdain, himself.

David Chang/Anthony Bourdain vs. The Bay

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I’m a little late to this, but I’ll post it anyway. This comes from a post by foodandwine.com about Anthony Bourdain and David Chang of Momofuku. All you really need to know are the two following quotes:

David Chang on San Francisco restaurants: “There’s only a handful of restaurants that are manipulating food,” and “every restaurant in San Francisco is serving figs on a plate with nothing on it”

Anthony Bourdain referring to Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse) as “Pol Pot in a muumuu” and saying “Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic … I’m suspicious of orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth.”

All I gotta say is I respect all the above chefs, and love the food at Chez Panisse, all the Momofukus, and even Les Halles (to a certain degree). But damn, hating on an entire city’s cuisine? WTF? I knew you were a DOUCHE Chang, but you really are a bigtime douche. You, with your backpack running out of Momofuku Milk Bar that one time I was eating your delicious cookies and needed to shit so bad cause it was so rich with yummyness. I shoulda stepped up to you for what you said about SF, except I was busy desecrating your bathroom (as well as my other two friends messing up the Ssam Bar bathroom, don’t worry, I won’t out you, *cough* cheezu *cough* JiP).

And to Bourdain. You can do no wrong after you said you were gonna move your family to Da Nang, the most gangsta of all of Viet Nam (IMHO), so I’ll give you a free pass for hating on Berkeley cuisine. Just this one time.