For a century and a half, San Francisco’s Chinatown, the nation’s oldest, has sheltered waves of immigrants. It’s the birthplace of Chinese America, and to some extent, the broader Asian America.
Now, Chinatown faces powerful economic and demographic challenges as the city undergoes an unprecedented boom in tech jobs.
Rising rent elsewhere in the city has entrepreneurs eyeing Chinatown for offices, entertainment and housing. A $1.6 billion subway set to open in 2019 could provide an economic boost, but it also brings development pressures in a neighborhood coveted for its location.
At the same time, many Chinese Americans have scattered across the Bay Area, reducing Chinatown’s customer base.
“It is the last frontier, when you think about it,” said Bertrand Pellegrin, a brand specialist with the firm b. on brand who is interested in helping preserve the neighborhood. “It is one of the last central places downtown that has not been completely gentrified and overdeveloped.”
Some civic leaders say traditional values and zoning regulations should protect the neighbourhood of 15,000 to 18,000 people against too much development.
Others say younger generations of property owners may take the money from the rising land values and run.
“The battle has always been to limit growth,” said Howard Wong, a founder of a group opposed to the subway construction. “A huge transit development will make that situation worse.”
Chinatown leaders don’t agree on what the district should be, other than a gateway for immigrants and destination for tourists.
Take 1920c, a co-sharing business launched in April which offers work space to freelancers and to socially conscious startups. The influential Chinatown Community Development Center protested the business. Gen Fujioka, the center’s policy director, said the neighborhood “is not intended for tech offices.”
The company’s co-founder Jenny Chan, a 25-year-old who moved from Hong Kong 15 years ago, objected to the idea that she is callously gentrifying the neighborhood.
“They accused me of not fitting into the fabric of Chinatown,” Chan said. “But my sign downstairs is in Chinese.”
Longtime merchant Betty Louie said Chan is exactly what Chinatown needs: young professionals who and can inject vibrancy to the place.
“I want our ABCs to come back and be proud of their roots,” said Louie, using the shorthand for American-born Chinese. “Really, for some of them, this is their Chinese village.”
That’s why she recruited well-known San Francisco chef Brandon Jew to set up a new restaurant in Chinatown. Likewise, Chinatown real estate broker Pius Lee has championed restaurateur George Chen, who is opening a food hall and high-end restaurant where a popular dim sum palace once stood.
Chen noted the coming subway factored into his decision.