Chinatown, Gentrification, and A City Under Siege


California Essays
San Francisco's Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown, I’ve found, is at its most lively during the middle of the day.  One afternoon this past February, I took a stroll through the neighborhood’s side streets amid enthusiastic artists selling their wares, exhausted shopkeepers keeping a close watch on the largest grapefruits I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes, and groups of old, animated women gossiping outside tacky tourist shops.  No, I don’t understand one word of Chinese, but the sight of neighborhood friends whispering about the goings-on of the community transcends linguistic boundaries.

A few minutes after entering the neighborhood, I wandered into Chinatown’s post office, clutching a handful of postcards Kevin and I had penned for our family the night before.  Kevin was at a conference all week in a convention hall downtown, and had bet that I’d forget to mail the postcards.  I decided to prove him wrong.  There was no line at the post office when I entered, but I did have to wait, as both of the two clerks on duty were busy helping other patrons.

Both employees spoke to the customers in rapid Chinese, and it was then I noticed all of the advertisements, price posters, and signs featured both English and Chinese, the dollar and the yuan.  The man at the counter directly in front of me, perhaps in his fifties, started loudly arguing with the postal worker.  He waved his arms in the air, and the two exchanged a few brief, words before the angry customer stormed out in a huff.

It occurs to me one can live their entire day-to-day life in Chinatown.  There’s churches and houses of worship for a number of faiths, multiple grocers on each street, and plenty of clothing shops selling outfits for all ages.  Oh, and there’s a post office, of course.

The professional, calm employee, a young man about my age, waves me forward.  He smiles and apologizes for the scene I’d just witnessed.  I shrug, not able to withhold a chuckle or two.  “Oh, don’t worry about it.”

One of San Francisco’s most endearing qualities is its diversity and unique collection of distinct neighborhoods.  The city’s expansive Chinatown, located in the heart of downtown just fifteen minutes from the decidedly bland and touristy Union Square, is the one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the Americas.  Due to the recent influx of massive amounts of tech money, San Francisco is gentrifying at an alarming rate, and much of the city’s charm as a haven for folks from around the world to get their start is disappearing.

But Chinatown is putting up a fight.  Before visiting, I’d read at length about Chinatown’s resistance to yuppie-fication.  I’ve talked before on this blog about my education; I minored in human rights as an undergrad and studied gender studies (a discipline heavily tied to class, race, and immigrant equality) in graduate school.  Therefore, social justice is a passion of mine and has always heavily influenced my travel – not to mention, I also spent the summer after college interning a law firm that specialized in promoting fair housing policies and practices.

I’ll be blunt: it’s important for outsiders to spend time in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Culturally, it’s different from the rest of the city, and yet is so effortlessly a part of San Francisco’s landscape.  In San Francisco, poverty tends to be visible.  I first visited the city with a my family as a pre-teenager, and one of most visceral memories I have is of a homeless man searching through the garbage hoping to find some food.  Both the unbelievably affluent and devastatingly poor call San Francisco home, a divide that is only growing more and more extreme.  In Chinatown, both poverty and wealth aren’t visible.  A first impression may even leave travelers feeling like the neighborhood exists outside of class struggles.

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San Francisco’s Chinatown takes its street art seriously, something I did not understand until I visited the neighborhood myself.  Undoubtedly completed by professional artists, I thought the works effortlessly blended into the chaotic neighborhood.  There are some places in San Francisco one can go to be completely alone.  Pacific Heights, the Presidio, and even the Palace of Fine Arts on weekday morning.  But in Chinatown, I learned there is never a quiet moment.  As I stood in a small alleyway, attempting to photograph one of the works of art featured below, a moped rushed right behind me without warning, frightening me to the point it took me a few moments to compose myself again.  Only in San Francisco can Chinatown and the Presidio, two intrinsically different places, exist within the same city limits.

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Above, I mentioned the first impression visitors tend to have of Chinatown – typically, visitors who are either American-born or of European ancestry (or both).  Context is important, though.

While a visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown offers a peak into one of the city’s last remaining enclaves in the rigged fight against gentrification, this isn’t to say the neighborhood isn’t without its struggles.  Rents are still alarmingly high, forcing large families or groups of friends to share small living spaces, which inevitably leads to lower standards of living – although, this communal approach to social welfare means the neighborhood has significantly lower rates of homelessness than the rest of San Francisco, a statistic visible to anyone who spends a day or two meandering around the city.

The flip side of the coin is most live in cramped living spaces that are often not accessible for those with physical disabilities.  Unemployment and underemployment are a problem, and those who rent from someone outside the community or do not own their apartment often find themselves victim to a “slumlord.”  Historically, there has been some gang violence, although today, Chinatown is overwhelming one of the safest parts of the whole city.

Chinatown’s poverty is worth noting, and my best advice as an outsider is to take half a day to explore the neighborhood, as opposed to simply snapping a picture of the famous red Chinatown gate and leaving.  In many ways, Chinatown’s struggles are a microcosm of San Francisco more generally.   Eat lunch (or grab a fresh fortune cookie made on the spot!) at one of the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants, purchase one-of-a-kind souvenirs from a local artist, and most importantly, observe how self-sufficient the neighborhood is.

I truly cannot emphasize this last point enough.  Talk to people!  Ask them about their neighborhood and local politics.  Put a face to gentrification and class inequality.  I spent nearly a whole day in Chinatown earlier this year, and had a wonderful conversation with an artist who showed me her studio and vast collection of work.  She wasn’t completely fluent in English, and her American-born daughter had to fill in some gaps, but I did love listening to her talk about how much she loves painting and how the city of San Francisco has inspired countless works.  I left with two paintings – one of flowers for my grandmother, and the other of a cat for my sister – and I tried to return the next day, but lo and behold, I simply couldn’t find the store.  Unfortunately, I’m truly terrible with directions.

Despite a few of these well-documented social problems – which, I must mention, are currently being addressed by neighborhood advocates and progressive city officials – Chinatown appears to be persevering at a time when gentrification is wrecking havoc on the city in no-holds-barred fashion.  In 2009, the online news source SFGate published a short but insightful look into the struggles and hopes of neighborhood families – something I would say is essential reading for anyone looking to visit this densely populated but thriving part of town.  Please check out the article here.

You might be wondering, why should we, complete outsiders and tourists, care?  I understand the impulse to get swept away by the aesthetic beauty and intrigue of a locale, believe me, but I do believe we have a duty to understand a place, not simply photograph it.  Don’t allow yourself to get consumed by the touristy front the neighborhood puts up in an effort to appeal to tourists fixated on hopping from sight to sight.  We can’t simply leave the fight against gentrification to those it directly affects.  We all need to be educated about these issues; to understand that the increasing rents aren’t sustainable and it goes against the core values of our society to force a family of four to live in one-room apartment the size of a suburban house’s walk-in closet.

I do try to stay neutral on this website (and trust me, it’s hard), but there’s a difference between neutrality and silence while others suffer.  I’ve spent the past six months deciding how best to address gentrification in San Francisco, and I figured using Chinatown as an example for a problem afflicting the entire Bay Area would be the most poignant.  Obviously, many people can speak about gentrification better than I, but I still think it’s important to draw attention to this urban cancer whenever I can.  Above all else, #vote.  And learn to identify gentrification whenever you travel – and please, please don’t call it “urban development.”

For the past year or so, there’s been talk of how to “make America great again.”  Like most students of human rights, I’m frustrated and heartbroken by this conversation, which seems entirely based on a unsympathetic philosophy of exclusion.  And while I understand the impulse to resort to name-calling and negativity, I feel we must find the strength to resist.  So, I wanted to focus on the positive – again, this is something I’ve wanted to address for some time now, but couldn’t quite figure out how.  After my day spent in Chinatown, I realized our nation’s greatness can be found in a small, inner-city post office, staffed with bilingual employees who cater to an incredibly diverse community of both foreign and American born residents.  Having traveled abroad several times, I’ve come to learn our nation is made great by its diversity, by its place in the world as a safe haven for those in danger or simply in need of a fresh start.  And we can make it better by extending the rights some of us take for granted to all.

But this is also a travel blog, so I’ll end this essay with an insider tip:

All of San Francisco’s famous ethnic enclaves have “Easter eggs” so as to remind visitors they are in a physical, tangible melting pot.  In the overwhelmingly Hispanic Mission District, massive, colorful murals painted in bold Latin American hues evoke the energy and warmth of the region to our south.  All of the fire hydrants in Little Italy are painted to look like the Mediterranean nation’s tri-colored flag.  In Chinatown, the street signs are posted in both English and Mandarin while the street lamps are designed to look like garden pagodas.  The detailing is quite incredible, I must say.

Chinatown, San Francisco

For more information about Chinatown’s battle with gentrification, please check out any of the following resources, all of which proved instrumental in improving my understanding of the problem:

“Families live jammed into Chinatown rooms, with no hope of leaving.” Kam, Katherine. San Francisco Chronicle, 2015

San Francisco’s Chinatown: Resilience in the Face of Poverty and Homelessness. The Elfenworks Foundation. 2015.

“In-depth tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown.” Reynolds, Christopher. San Francisco Chronicle, 2007.

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