“I take it for granted that you can have” 100 years of family history in one neighborhood, said Tiffany Eng, who is now raising her family just a few blocks from where her father and grandfather grew up. The Eng family traces its roots in North America to a two-year-old girl, the lone survivor of a fire a gold mining camp in the 1850s. By 1906, the Engs had moved to San Francisco. When most of Chinatown burned in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake the family, like much of San Francisco’s Chinese community, boarded a ferry and landed in Oakland Chinatown.

Raymond Eng on the campaign trail.  Photo courtesy of Tiffany Eng

Raymond Eng on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Eng.

Raymond Eng, the grandson of the little girl from the gold camp, became the first Asian elected to the city council in Oakland in 1967. “What my grandfather did was leave a legacy,” said Tiffany’s sister, Aimee Eng, “of service and philanthropy.” Aimee Eng is following in her grandfather’s footsteps: she’s planning a run for City Council in District 2 this fall.

Unlike the first three neighborhoods profiled in this series (Swan’s Marketplace, 40th and Webster and San Pablo and Alcatraz), Chinatown has a continuously vibrant Oakland neighborhood for almost as long as Oakland has been a city. As early as 1870, Chinese businesses were clustering in the area around 8th and Webster. “Chinatown is the oldest and still thriving community of residents and businesses, having an identity that goes back over a century,” said Roy Chan, Project Director for the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project.

Tiffany, Helen and Aimee Eng, photographed at the Alice Street Bakery Cafe.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Tiffany, Helen and Aimee Eng, photographed at the Alice Street Bakery Cafe. Photo by Laura McCamy.

Raymond Eng’s sister Helen, born in Chinatown in 1919, remembers growing up in a neighborhood where “everybody knew each other.” Auntie Helen, as she is referred to by family members and friends, remembered her youth in Chinatown on a recent visit to the neighborhood. A natural athlete, she resented that the recreation facilities were “only built for boys’ games.” She remembered picking shrimp for 10 cents a pound and helping her mother sew jeans for Montgomery Ward.  She spoke wistfully of school dances across the bay. “When we were small, we were kind of angry that we were living in Oakland,” she said, because San Francisco had better social opportunities for teens.

“There’s a lot of history in my parents’ generation,” said Corinne Jan, CEO of Chinatown nonprofit Family Bridges, which works with low-income immigrants. Jan’s mother and Auntie Helen were god-sisters and grew up on the same street. “I’m sure she and my mother made a lot of trouble. Both tomboys.”

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan also traces her roots back to Oakland’s Chinatown. “My great-grandfather and his three sons, including my grandfather, came to Oakland and stayed,” she said. “There’s all these little tiny ties and history.”

The mayor noted that Chinatown used to be much larger before the freeway was laid down in its center. “Almost every Chinatown on the west coast had a freeway put through it,” she noted.

“Development really hurt the community” in the past, said Chan. “Chinatown continues to be vibrant. It finds a way to survive.”

Chinatown is in a prime location bordering downtown Oakland.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Chinatown is in a prime location bordering downtown Oakland. Photo by Laura McCamy

If the development envisioned in the Lake Merritt BART Station Area Plan is completed, even bigger changes may be in store for the neighborhood. The plan, which covers an area stretching from Laney College to Broadway, bordered by the edge of downtown to the north and the freeway to the south, encompasses Chinatown. For over four years, the Chinatown community has been engaged in a deep soul searching as it plans its future. The Station Area Plan is scheduled to be finalized by summer 2014.

“I think the big issue right now is making sure the plan has a concrete mechanism for making sure it provides community benefits for this neighborhood,” said Julia Liou, Program Planning and Development Director for Asian Health Services. “We have done so much and worked so hard to keep our community engaged. Urban planning is often a foreign concept.” She added, “They want to see positive things happen. Everyone does.”

“I think it’s a very formidable group of advocates in Chinatown,” Chan said. “It’s still very necessary for us to have a presence.”

The Lake Merritt BART Station itself is wrapped up in Chinatown’s history. Outside the commercial zone of the neighborhood, the station sits on three blocks in the middle of residential Chinatown.

Chinatown photo courtesy of Tiffany Eng.

Chinatown photo courtesy of Tiffany Eng.

The Chinatown Oral History Project turned its attention to the history of those blocks on 2008 because “they were once part of Chinatown, prior to [being taken by] eminent domain,” said Chan. The project recorded the stories of former residents of the site who were displaced by the construction, as well as current users who fought for space to practice Tai Chi in Madison Square Park, which was relocated by the station construction. “We thought it was really important to document what life was like on those blocks before displacement,” said Chan, “as a way to kind of advocate for Chinatown’s needs for those blocks.”

The Buddhist Church of Oakland sits across the street from Madison Square Park.  Photo by Laura McCamy

The Buddhist Church of Oakland sits across the street from Madison Square Park. Photo by Laura McCamy.

Mayor Quan supports the density the current plan, which calls for high rise transit-oriented developments (TOD) on top of Lake Merritt BART Station. “We should allow some market-rate housing,” she said. “It’s the one part of the city I can say that about.”

Noting that Chinatown “is very dense with affordable housing,” the mayor said, “We need to have more mixes of income.”

Robert Raburn, BART Board Director for District 4, which includes the Lake Merritt station, sees the area as the “poster child for transit-oriented development.”

“I go back to climate change,” Raburn said. “If we don’t accommodate the additional one million jobs and two or three million people in the Bay Area at transit-oriented developments, they’ll live out in the Oaklys and Tracys and Stocktons, out on the periphery. We have to build greater density around transit.”

Raburn pointed out that development on the blocks owned by BART won’t lead to displacement because there are no homes currently in that space. “We have to create the density to sustain the nearby businesses,” he added.

Jennie Ong, executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce agreed: “We need a stronger consumer force down here.” She would like to see “market-rate [housing] since, in this general area of Chinatown, over 30% are already low [income] housing.”

Chinatown merchant.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Chinatown merchant. Photo by Laura McCamy.

“We do have a wonderful cultural identity down here but we still need customers who can come down here and spend money to keep our businesses alive,” Ong said. “The economic vitality is an important element in sustaining this unique character.”

At one time, when discriminatory laws and attitudes kept Oakland’s Chinese residents from buying property elsewhere, Oakland’s Chinatown was a mixed-income neighborhood. After restrictions were lifted, many middle-class residents moved out. “It mirrored white flight from inner cities,” said Ener Chiu, Senior Project Manager for the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (and Tiffany Eng’s husband).


Chinatown remains one of Oakland’s liveliest neighborhoods.  Elders still return for class reunions at Lincoln Elementary, the first public school in Oakland to admit Chinese students. The Asian Branch Library, with materials in many languages, is the busiest branch in the Oakland Library system. The Lincoln Square Recreation Center and Playground, next to Lincoln Elementary, is the busiest rec center in the city.

The biggest worry for Gilbert Gong, Recreation Center Director at Lincoln, is the demands that additional residents will put on the neighborhood’s straining infrastructure. “It’s going to have a major impact,” he said, noting that his center’s facilities were in use continuously throughout the day.

Increased density around Lake Merritt BART is not the only proposed development that may impact Chinatown. If 10,000 planned units of housing are built at Alameda Point, vehicle traffic in and out of the Webster tube could increase substantially.

“We really feel like there need to be clear mitigations from the [Alameda Point] project here in Chinatown,” said Liou. “We are really the front and back door for Alameda because of the Webster tube.”

Cars wait for pedestrian scramble on Webster Street.  Photo by Laura McCamy

Cars wait for pedestrian scramble on Webster Street. Photo by Laura McCamy.

Before the scramble crosswalks were installed on Webster, “Oakland Chinatown had the highest number of pedestrian and vehicle conflicts in the city of Oakland,” said Liou. “We’re at the crossroads of the freeway and downtown traffic and City of Alameda traffic. That makes for a lot of congestion.”

Liou provided demographic statistics for the project area that show a population that is 70 percent Asian, mostly Chinese, 86 percent renters,with a median income of $21,520. She hopes that Chinatown can create a model for protecting historic residents while embracing development.

“The cultural fabric of Chinatown is not going to be the same when you have people living in glass and steel towers,” said Chiu. “We think place-making happens more organically,” he said. “How do we keep the Chinese character [of the neighborhood] viable in this rapidly changing time?”

3 Reasons to visit Chinatown ASAP: http://bit.ly/1fAIuMQ

Digital history map of Chinatown.

Oral history videos.

One Response

  1. Naomi Schiff

    Thank you for this article! I hope that strengthening cultural resources and bringing in thoughtful new development will keep Oakland’s Chinatown a great place to live and work. We need to make sure that our small businesses can thrive–economic engines that they are–and that the neighborhood can continue to house a full range of residents of all ages and income levels.


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