By William Gee Wong
“How to break through the stone wall of silence that concealed the mysteries of Oakland Chinatown and at the same time steer clear of the hatchets of the highbinder tongs – this was the problem that confronted me as I entered the settlement of queer Oriental shops and homes, nestling in the very heart of Oakland’s downtown section.”
This was the first paragraph of a full-page feature story, headlined “Mysteries of Oakland’s Chinatown,” and written by George C. Harrison, in the Oakland Tribune Magazine of June 22, 1924.
Ah, the mysteries of Chinatown!
I am wondering, some 90 years later, whether Oakland’s Chinatown is still as “mysterious” to folks who are unfamiliar with one of the city’s busiest and oldest neighborhoods, as it apparently was to George C. Harrison.
Even though I grew up and spent the first 20 years of my life in Chinatown, I can actually fathom the neighborhood’s mysteriousness for people who don’t share my perspective. I am no longer a Chinatown “insider,” but some 50 years later, I frequent my old home base on a fairly regular basis, and am fascinated by its yin-yang sensibility — the same old place vs. an ever-evolving profile.
Of course, Chinatown isn’t what it was when I was growing up there in the 1940s and 1950s, nor is it what it was when my China-born father, a teenager, first set foot on the 700-block of Webster Street in 1912; nor is it what it was when the first Chinese fortune-seekers, lured by the California Gold Rush, settled near there in the early 1850s, when Oakland became a city.
During my formative years, Chinatown was like an invisible bubble starting to burst. The year I was born, 1941, was two years before the heinous Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. The act was passed in 1882 by Congress to exclude Chinese laborers in what remains one of most racist pieces of legislation that our nation’s esteemed lawmakers ever fashioned.
I remember Chinatown in the 1940s and 1950s to be a reasonably self-contained, complex, cozy community centered at 8th and Webster Streets, which was its epicenter dating back to the 1870s. (Other Chinese settlements were in different parts of “downtown” and “uptown” Oakland, starting in the early 1850s.)
There were a bunch of families like mine – two parents with a handful of kids – that ran small businesses like restaurants, laundries, and grocery stores. Almost all the parents came from the Pearl River Delta region in southeastern China (or the “greater Hong Kong area”) — that is, rural and impoverished Cantonese. Most of the kids were born in Oakland or came here when they were very young.
We kids hung out on the streets of Chinatown and helped at our parents’ businesses. We went to Lincoln Elementary School and, afterwards, a Chinese school in the neighborhood. Initially, we spoke our parents’ village dialect and learned English at Lincoln and on the streets. This is what I mean by “bubble.” Or sometimes I call it a cocoon, or a clearly defined “village” surrounded by a sometimes-hostile white city.
Our parents didn’t have the same duality of experiences. They were mostly stuck in Chinatown, preferred to speak their Chinese dialects (with a dose of accented, but serviceable English when dealing with non-Chinese), and almost never hung out with non-Chinese people.
Most in my parents’ generation chose to avoid dealing with the white mainstream establishment – unless they absolutely had to for business reasons — for fear of inviting official scrutiny. That is because many, perhaps most, of my parents’ contemporaries came into the U.S. under false papers, clever schemes devised to skirt the exclusion act’s restrictions.
Many of us kids carried two last names – that of our father’s true surname, the other his false “paper” name. That didn’t confuse us; we knew inside Chinatown we were one name, another one when dealing with the white mainstream institutions.
The World War II years, ironically, were good for Chinatown. Shipyards cropped up nearby, and workers recruited to build America’s war machine streamed into Chinatown for cheap eats, haircuts, and gambling.
My parents opened a restaurant, The Great China, on Webster Street between 7th and 8th Streets, in 1944, and it thrived during the later war years. That propelled our struggling family fortunes into the beginnings of middle-class status. That was the case for other Chinatown families as well.
Once the war ended, however, Chinatown’s fortunes, along with Oakland’s, began a slow, steady decline. Our restaurant closed in 1961, when my father took ill and died. Chinatown was practically comatose in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
It was during this early post-war period that Chinatown’s geographical integrity, especially its residential portion, was chopped up by construction of the Nimitz Freeway, and later by BART, Laney College and, on the fringes, the Oakland Museum of California. (Full disclosure: I played a small role in a planning effort to explore strategies to revive community use of the BART blocks, plus other possible options.)
Chinatown started coming alive again in the late 1960s, after Congress liberalized immigration laws, and got healthier still in the mid- to late 1970s, after the end of the Vietnam War when Southeast Asians, among them ethnic Chinese, started repopulating Chinatown and other parts of Oakland.
When I returned to Oakland in 1972, I noticed a more vibrant Chinatown than when I left for public service and education overseas and elsewhere in the United States eight years earlier. As an Oakland Tribune columnist in the 1980s and 1990s, I wrote frequently about Chinatown, even while knowing that it wasn’t the same place I knew 40 years earlier.
Retired now from old print journalism, I like to go to Chinatown for food, shopping, and events. I feel like I am home even though my Chinese language skills are now pathetic. At the same time, I feel like a tourist, primarily because of the language barrier and the natural turnover of residents and businesses.
Parts of today’s Chinatown remain intensely Cantonese in terms of language and culture. One obvious change from the old days is the Asian diversification of Chinatown.
In the first half of the 20th century, Chinatown was primarily Chinese, with a significant portion of Japanese and Filipino. Since the revival beginning in the 1970s, Chinatown now expresses more Chinese and Asian languages and dialects (Mandarin and Vietnamese being the most prominent), and English too, of course (although many restaurants feature Chinese language menus in their windows).
The cultural offerings are also wider ranging. For instance, the cuisines – once strictly Cantonese and some American – reflect different Chinese regions (Shan Dong, Guilen, Sichuan, Hunan) and other Asian areas (Vietnamese, Cambodian). The bustling Asian Branch of the Oakland Public Library offers books and other materials in multiple Asian languages.
The other day, I tried the new Guilen Noodles shop on 10th Street, and bought some dumplings at the new Tian Jin takeout window on Franklin Street. Neither is old school Cantonese.
Chinatown’s fortunes continue to ebb and flow. Their healthier stage developed over the past 30 or 40 years, but they’ve been negatively impacted by larger outside forces like the general economic roller coaster and local conditions such as nearby protests (Occupy Oakland) and a gnawing concern over both the perception and reality of street crime coming in from other parts of the city.
The truth is Chinatown is still the go-to place for lower income elderly non-English speaking immigrants whose better educated, bilingual or multilingual children most likely live in other parts of Oakland or the wealthier suburbs. Weekend family gatherings – for church, for dim sum, for shopping – give Chinatown a livelier personality than quiet weeknights.
No longer completely politically or socially isolated, different interest groups coexist, sometimes tensely, inside Chinatown. For decades now, for example, business leaders and social service, nonprofit agency officials have alternately collaborated and clashed over issues such as land use, building codes and long-term strategic plans.
In my father’s day and even in my youth, those kinds of tensions didn’t exist. (The tensions that did exist then were usually between tongs and other associations and the police department, as well as among the associations themselves.)
What is Chinatown’s future? Business leaders have long been worried about stiff competition from suburban Asian malls that cater to a Mandarin-speaking, better educated and wealthier portion of Chinese America, a trend that began several decades ago. The kinds of businesses that now occupy Chinatown are much broader than they were in my youth but, in recent years, some high-profile businesses have closed to be replaced by expanding social services such as the nationally recognized Asian Health Services.
I’m going to remain stubbornly optimistic about Chinatown’s viability because it has endured for about a century and a half – a teeny sliver of the dynamic Chinese diaspora worldwide — and should be able to sustain itself, despite the natural ups and downs of geopolitics and global economics, and unpredictable and politically charged immigration policies and real-life immigration patterns.
Though it might remain “mysterious” to some, it will still be where I shop for good, reasonably priced food and where I can absorb contemporary Chinese American and Asian American cultural offerings.
William Gee Wong is a retired Oakland Tribune columnist who is working on a family memoir centered on his father.
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