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.
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.
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?
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???
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!