Masked customers wait in line for the cash register flanked by boxes of produce at the Yuen Hop Market in Chinatown. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Community organizations serving Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood are promoting a new fund to help small business owners there who’ve been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and recent episodes of vandalism. The Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce unveiled The Oakland Chinatown Recovery and Resiliency Fund last week. 

About $40,000 had been raised as of last Thursday, mainly thanks to individual donations from community members according to Jessica Chen, the Chinatown Chamber’s executive director. The Hella Heart Oakland Giving Circle, a donor group that supports Asian and Asian-American women and girls in Oakland, donated $2,500, and the Wa Sung Community Service Club gave $1,000 to the fund. The private insurance company Allstate contributed $1,000.

Chen said the money will be used to support community cleanup efforts in the neighborhood, reimburse merchants for damages sustained during recent protests, and provide marketing support for small businesses hoping to reopen with shelter-in-place laws expected to ease in the coming weeks and months. The organizations listed above will be spearheading these three efforts. 

The Chinatown Chamber of Commerce is unaware of any small businesses in Chinatown that have had to permanently close due to the economic shutdown or damages incurred during the protests. Making sure businesses continue to stay open, said Chen, is the number one priority. “Most merchants, they do have insurance, but do those cover it? We’re not sure. I think this fund is at the right time so we can help them,” she said. 

Community-based organizations involved in promoting the fund and implementing the work include the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, OCA-East Bay, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Oakland Chinatown Improvement Initiative, and Asian Health Services

Chinatown’s small business owners have until July 31 to apply for a portion of the fund. Chamber members will be considered first, but Chen said non-members are encouraged to apply. The application is now available on OCCC’s website, where people can also make contributions. Business owners can contact occcfoundation88@gmail.com for further questions. Some applications have already been handed out to merchants in person, according to Chen. 

The fundraising effort to support Chinatown’s small businesses started off as a Gofundme campaign created by Nadine Marcelo, a concerned citizen. When Marcelo, an immigrant from the Philippines, moved to the Bay Area for graduate school, she found Oakland Chinatown to be a refuge because it reminded her of another Chinatown, the Binondo district in her hometown of Manila. 

“I found this place in Oakland that really blew me away by how close to home it felt,” she told The Oaklandside. Marcelo remembers being given extra portions of food by generous shop owners and frequenting Big Dish Restaurant, her favorite dumpling spot. 

The Oakland transplant was saddened to see Chinatown businesses damaged in the wake of the protests that occurred during the last weekend of May. “It is one of the East Bay’s gems, and I want to help small business owners recover from this,” Marcelo wrote in her Gofundme description. “They work long hours, day in and day out. I cannot imagine how they would be able to recover from COVID and now this destruction.” 

Marcelo launched her campaign on May 30, and when it started to take off, she reached out to the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce to ask if they could handle the distribution of funds. 

Ener Chiu of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, a Chinatown-based support organization involved with the current fundraising effort, said the combined impact of the economic shutdown and xenophobia towards Chinese residents during the pandemic has hit neighborhood businesses hard. 

“A lot of folks became paranoid about coming into Chinatown, and there was a lot of misinformation—some people thought you could get this virus just by being around a lot of Chinese people,” Chiu said. 

In early March, Chiu said, there was a dramatic decline in the number of shoppers visiting the neighborhood. “We were all feeling so helpless, and we thought, ‘How can we help Chinatown businesses recover—clean up the graffiti, clean up the broken glass, but also pivot to the future and think about what the future of Oakland Chinatown is.’” 

New Oakland Pharmacy on 9th St. was looted on Friday, May 29, during a night of civil unrest sparked by the police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, earlier in the week in Minneapolis. The store’s manager, Raymond Cheung, told The Oaklandside that he “wholly supported the movement” and understands why there’s a need to protest. 

“I don’t think I can understand what a Black man or African American goes through every day. I understand that they’re being targeted. For me as an Asian man, we experience some racism; it’s there. To achieve racial equality is important but it’s a difficult, long road,” Cheung said.

The pharmacy, which has been operating for over 30 years, has managed to keep its doors open during the pandemic. The store provides valuable services to the neighborhood’s older residents. Cheung said many elderly Chinese residents go there to pick up their medication, make PG&E payments, drop off mail, and refill their BART Clipper cards. 

Alicia Wong, co-owner of the Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory, believes that the pandemic will change the way neighborhood businesses operate. “We will see a very different Chinatown in the next five to 10 years, more businesses focusing on non-Chinese customers,” Wong said. 

Wong’s grandfather, Calvin Wong, started the business in 1957, and her parents ran the Fortune Cookie Factory until she and her husband, Alex Issvoran, took over operations three years ago. When she was growing up, Wong said, most of the neighborhood businesses catered to Chinese immigrants. Today, with the influx of non-Chinese residents and a global pandemic that’s forced most non-essential businesses to close their doors, longtime Chinatown business owners have had to adjust.

“A lot of them have had to go online for the first time, having to learn how to publicize themselves on the internet and find new avenues of revenue,” said Wong.

Good Good Eatz, a project of Chinatown Improvement, is working with the Oakland Chinatown Relief Fund effort to help business owners make the transition to online sales. “The pandemic has made it clear that unless you pivot into the 21st century, then you will probably not survive,” said Tommy Wong, co-founder of Good Good Eatz. 

Neighborhood cleanups have been another major aspect of the relief efforts in Chinatown. OCA East Bay has been organizing cleanups in Chinatown for the last three years, but recent efforts have brought out more residents. One recent cleanup event mobilized over 300 volunteers. Jessica Ayden Li, OCA East Bay’s president, said she was particularly happy to see younger volunteers from the neighborhood show up to help. 

“A lot of the volunteers that have been coming these past years have been the younger generation,” said Li. “Chinatowns around the country are dying out, and it’s important to preserve our traditions and heritage. One of the things I would like to see is younger generations come in and start businesses.” 

Alicia Wong from Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory doesn’t know what the future holds for the neighborhood she grew up in, but she hopes Chinatown will continue to grow with the older businesses that made it what it is today. “We want our community as a working Chinatown where there are still stores and services that cater to the original Chinese community,” Wong said. “I do want all the businesses who have been here for generations to remain and improve, to continue going.”

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Ricky Rodas

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.