A few StreetFest attendees lounge on 9th street in Chinatown. Credit: Ricky Rodas

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Last Friday, a group of volunteers closed off one block of 9th Street between Franklin and Webster in Oakland Chinatown. They set out clean chairs and tables and invited the public to enjoy the space—which is normally crowded with cars—as an outdoor dining area. Nearby restaurants offered take out.

Yu Chen, a Chinatown resident, and his friend Kaneesia were heading to UC Dessert on Franklin Street when they happened upon the festivities. Chen and Kaneesia were the first to arrive, though they hadn’t known the street takeover was happening.

The pair lounged at a table while they laughed and sipped on refreshing milk teas. “It’s nice to have a place where you can have outdoor dining,” Chen said.

The street takeover was organized by the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce as part of their inaugural StreetFest Fridays event. OCCC hopes the StreetFest series will bring some much needed business to Chinatown, which has suffered a downturn because of the pandemic. The event series is also an extension of the city’s Flex Streets Initiative, which aims to open up more public space for residents and businesses by closing off roads to auto traffic.

The event was held from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m so that businesses could stay open longer. Currently, many Chinatown businesses close their doors at around 3:00 p.m due to lack of foot traffic.

According to Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan, deciding to host an outdoor event in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t an easy decision. “We had a major conflict, debating whether or not we should do this,” Chan said in an interview with The Oaklandside. “There’s a lot on the line. Hopefully it will work out.”

StreetFest Fridays is one of a handful of emergency efforts to keep Chinatown’s small businesses afloat.

Charlie, a Chinese grocer at nearby Hoan Cau Company store, is open to any attempt to bring customers back. “Anything you can do to bring the customers into Chinatown, it’s a good idea,” he said, adding that OCCC should aim to attract younger folks who want to eat out, since most residents are older Chinese people.

Friends Alicia and Grace came out to StreetFest because they had been quarantining and hadn’t seen each other in weeks. Alicia was enjoying a half roasted duck she bought from Yung Kee Restaurant on Webster Street. “This is the perfect place to hang out with friends,” Grace said.

Alicia, who grew up in Chinatown, said it’s important for them to support Chinatown restaurants. “Food is the fabric of any culture, you can call it the heart and soul,” she said. “The restaurants here make Chinatown a special place.”

Since the pandemic began, very few Oakland residents have visited the neighborhood. This has hurt restaurants like Ming’s Tasty Restaurant, which rely on patrons from other parts of the city for steady income. Sunny Huang, Ming’s co-owner, was relieved to see more visitors in Chinatown.

“I’m very sad because before, Chinatown was good,” she said. Sunny and her husband opened the restaurant about a year and a half ago, and specialize in Hong Kong-style dim sum.

Her husband, who grew up in Hong Kong, spends hours preparing the bite-sized delicacies, and Sunny thinks the work has paid off. “I think my dim sum is the best here in Chinatown. Once we opened the restaurant, people kept coming back.” Now, Sunny said, those visitors will need to be brought back if the restaurant is to survive the pandemic.

Friday was a slow start, but she hopes more people will visit Ming’s and the shops around her. Sunny, who lives in San Leandro, said Chinatown has become a second home to her because she can speak her native language and be around other Chinese people. Most of all, she misses seeing customers dining in her restaurant and telling her how much they enjoyed the food. “I really like this place. I really hope life will go back to like before,” she said.

The next StreetFest will take place this Friday, August 14.

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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.