A Big Comeback for S.F. Chinatown?

It was hit early and hard by COVID-19, but as the Year of the Ox comes into view, there is reason to feel optimistic...

San Francisco’s Chinatown had a catastrophic Year of the Rat.

Better known to those of us only familiar with the Gregorian calendar as the abomination called 2020, the past 365 days came down on Chinatown like a ton of bricks, making headlines around the world.

“The country’s oldest Chinatown is fighting for its life,” reads a November headline from the Washington Post. The international press had a similar take, as The Guardian noted that COVID-19 had turned the neighborhood into a “ghost town.”

In January and February of last year — well before San Francisco’s mid-March shelter-in-place order — Grant Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood saw a significant drop in visitors. Banquet halls, accustomed to raking in profits in the runup to the Lunar New Year, were dealing with a flood of cancelled reservations and empty tables.

In addition to facing the same challenges all local businesses have, Chinatown has also had to grapple with a rise in sinophobia. Fueled in large part by our former president, anti-Asian sentiments have not only driven customers away from the neighborhood — it is also suspected to have led to acts of violence and vandalism around the city.

Indeed, on the eve of the second Lunar New Year of the COVID-19 era, reasons for optimism have been few and far between, while causes for despair have been easy to come by. Then came the news that the century-old Far East Cafe planned to close for good at the start of 2021. 

The restaurant’s owner Bill Lee made the announcement in mid December. As COVID cases were surging and Bay Area hospitals were stretched dangerously thin, it looked as if Far East Cafe was in for a repeat of the previous January and February, when it had to call off 200 reservations and lost about $100,000 in revenue.

However, as we transition into the Year of the Ox, there are glimmers of hope to be glimpsed through the Dragon’s Gate. After the passage of a $1.9 million Chinatown stimulus package and a remarkable drop in COVID-19 case counts, Far East has announced it will not close after all, and the return of outdoor dining has drawn hungry patrons back to restaurants throughout the city. Just as it did in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Great Influenza of 1918, and Y2K dot-com bust, San Francisco will recover from this pandemic. And that includes Chinatown.

“Of all of the communities that are going to rebound first in the city and County of San Francisco, Chinatown is at the top of that list,” Chinatown’s district supervisor Aaron Peskin told a crowd at a Lunar New Year celebration last week. 

SF Weekly recently visited Chinatown as locals prepared to mark the Year of the Ox, and we found the desperate depictions of Chinatown to be overblown. Lunar New Year is certainly the neighborhood’s busiest time of the year — a year that has been anything but normal, and businesses have suffered mightily. 

But the streets were bustling, shops were doing brisk business, people stood in long (socially distanced) lines for matcha and baked goods, and the joyous sound of firecrackers were ubiquitous.

“Money” is flowing, thanks to an innovative $1.9 million Chinatown food voucher program. The neighborhood’s longest surviving restaurants will literally keep Chinatown alive. 

Take-Out Innovators

In some ways, the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco were particularly well positioned to weather this pandemic. Historically speaking, when it comes to meeting customer needs with convenient and delicious culinary innovations, Chinatown restaurateurs have proven to be visionaries.

Often cited as the oldest Chinatown in the United States, San Francisco’s Chinatown has long played a critical role in the evolution of Chinese-American food, and deserves a great deal of credit when it comes to pioneering the concept of take-out itself.

“Take-out orders go way back to when Chinatown was first created, back in the mid-1800s,” says Kathy Chin Leong, journalist and author of an extensively researched new coffee table photograph book San Francisco’s Chinatown. “There’s vintage photographs of Chinese holding bamboo poles with baskets on each side, and they’re delivering dishes.”

“The term ‘chop suey’ was invented in San Francisco Chinatown,” adds Sam Wo, restaurant co-owner Steven Lee. The dish is believed to have been invented at Chinatown’s first Chinese restaurant, Macao and Woosung, where a group of Gold Rush-era miners demanded to be served after closing time. The owner merely slapped together leftovers from other customers’ uncleaned plates and slathered it in soy sauce.

The miners returned and kept ordering this surprise hit. Little did they know that “chop suey” was Cantonese for “odds and ends.”  

Fueling a Recovery

Chinatown’s latest culinary innovation was not created in a kitchen, however. It’s a food relief program called Feed + Fuel that was cooked up by the SF New Deal and the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), and is now bolstered by the $1.9 million appropriation from City Hall.

That re-launched program currently provides free restaurant meal vouchers for 3,000 underemployed Chinatown households, all while keeping restaurants in business and paying their employees.

“Feed + Fuel actually dates back to roughly the beginning of the pandemic,” says CCDC executive director Malcolm Yeung. “That was the first phase. We’re now in the second phase.”

Yeung clarifies this point for a reason: There was never supposed to be a second phase to the program, which wound down in July after serving 122,000 meals to single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and public housing residents. That early phase was half take-out based and half delivery based. It was discontinued over the summer when case counts were declining and the outdoor dining scene was invigorated by all the new parklets.

“It happened to coincide with the moment we ran out of funding,” Yeung says. “But we knew that there might be a moment that we would have to relaunch the program.”

That moment came with the surge of new COVID-19 cases in November and December. The abrupt closure of outdoor dining sent restaurants into a tailspin, especially those that had invested significant capital in building out parklets.

Feed + Fuel provides bright red voucher tickets with the words “Redeemable for one meal.” The ticket holder can redeem the meal at whichever participating restaurant they choose. But this targeted aid is only available to Chinatown residents, and only at Chinatown restaurants.

Far East Cafe is one of the few restaurants offering meals to community residents in the Feed & Fuel Chinatown New Deal Program on February 12, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Chris Victorio | Special to SFMC).

“We’re limiting the participation to SRO residents only,” Yeung explains. “That’s specifically to get to the population that does not have private kitchens or bathrooms, to try to minimize kitchen use as much as possible during this current surge.”

The program is intended to keep people out of shared kitchens, and within the immediate vicinity of Chinatown. “We’ve also limited the restaurants to just the Chinatown geography,” he says, noting the safety considerations of keeping an older population as close to home as possible.

The vouchers have put money in the hands of some restaurants that were hanging by a thread — many of them are legendary Chinese food destinations that created the character of modern San Francisco Chinatown.

In anticipation of a brighter 2021, we visited a number of these legacy restaurants and food businesses in Chinatown. Though these aren’t necessarily the oldest restaurants in Chinatown, they are establishments that have been serving the community for 30 years or more, and were nominated for the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry for making “a significant impact on the history or culture of their neighborhood.”

“Chinatown is a legacy neighborhood that is full of legacy businesses,” Peskin tells SF Weekly. “A handful of them have been formally recognized by the city, but you can’t walk 10 feet in Chinatown and not find a legacy business. It’s a legacy neighborhood not only for the city, but for the entire country.”

Far East Cafe
631 Grant Ave.
415-982-3245
far-east-cafe.com

Late last year, instead of sharing plans to mark its 100th anniversary with a celebratory Lunar New Year bash in its historic banquet hall, Far East Cafe announced they would be permanently shutting, effective Dec. 31, 2020. 

But happily, two months on from its projected closure, Far East Cafe is still open for business, seating patrons outside in its luxe set of parklets. The Feed + Fuel program deserves credit for the restaurant’s ultimate survival. Though its capacity to serve customers outside is also crucial, and on that point, Far East Cafe is unique; it is currently the only legacy Chinatown restaurant operating a parklet. 

Although the restaurant can’t currently provide the private booth and velvet curtain experience for which it is known, Far East Cafe is certainly one of the premier outdoor dining destinations in Chinatown, with white tablecloths, paper lanterns, and wait staff dressed to the nines in their signature suits and vests (and masks, of course).

Far East Cafe often serves as a banquet hall, an old staple of Chinatown fine dining, only three of which remain in the neighborhood. Peskin’s legislative aide Calvin Yan, himself Chinatown native, spoke to us about the enduring legacy of banquet halls.

Weddings, the Lunar New Year, the birth of a son or daughter — all of these are reasons to celebrate with a large banquet.

“Food is such an important part of this neighborhood,” Yan says. “In Chinatown, typically a lot of these places are booked a year in advance. There’s a set schedule among the family associations, they know exactly what day they’re going to be there, so all of the places are booked. It starts two or three weeks before Lunar New Years and goes all the way through May. Every single weekend, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”

New Asia Restaurant
772 Pacific Ave.
415-391-6666
new-asian-restaurant.com

New Asia Restaurant is not really a restaurant right now. The sprawling, two-level dim sum spot and traditional banquet hall has been transformed into a giant indoor produce market.

The chandeliers and multi-color strip lights remain, but the floor is now lined with grocery shelves arranged in aisles. Shoppers stock up on instant and dried seaweed, freezers full of fish balls, and boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. The karaoke stage is now an openly-visible stock room stacked with toilet paper and paper towels.

“When he had to shut down the restaurant at the beginning of the pandemic, he realized that everyone had switched to cooking at home,” Yan says, translating Cantonese-to-English for New Asia owner Hon Keung So. “The only way to survive was to provide produce and groceries. That’s why he pivoted really quickly, given that he had almost zero business coming in to order food.

“He moved everything upstairs, and then invested in a bunch of shelves and refrigerators and turned it over really quickly.” Yan says, continuing to translate. “He pivoted really quickly thanks to a lot of friends he has in the community that support this restaurant, to get infrastructure in place.”

Though it was never intended to be a produce market, New Asia does offer some advantages in that department. “This is one of the biggest spaces of Chinatown, so it allows people to socially distance a little better than some of the other stores,” So says.

New Asia does hope to come back as the luxury two-floor restaurant that it was, though the future is unclear. The city bought the building in 2017 and hopes to build affordable housing on top of where the restaurant is now. If that plan is executed, the restaurant would likely be displaced during construction, though it could ultimately return. 

Sam Wo Restaurant
713 Clay St.
415-989-8898
samworestaurant.com

Clay Street’s Sam Wo restaurant is known for its jook rice porridge and rice noodle soups. However, it is better known for famed former employee Edsel Ford Fung — known as “the world’s rudest waiter.”

Chinatown business owner Steven Lee remembers his friends turning him on to Sam Wo Restaurant in college. “This couple came back and said, ‘We went to this crazy-ass Chinese restaurant and this crazy waiter wrote down what I wanted and then he kept kissing my girlfriend.” 

Little did Lee know that he would own that restaurant decades later.

“Edsel was known for telling people they were too fat, that they were ugly,” San Francisco’s Chinatown author Kathy Chin Long remembers. “When people asked for forks or chopsticks, he yelled at them. He was just absolutely mortifying.”

Fung, who died in 1984, was actually the restaurant owners’ son, which helped him get away with all this. “He was kind of the black sheep,” Lee says. “His brother and sisters went to Cal and Stanford. He was supposed to go too, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay at the restaurant. And his parents used to call him the ‘dumb waiter’ for not going to school.”

The original location was at 813 Washington St., and did in fact serve food with the vintage elevator contraption known as a dumbwaiter.  That dumbwaiter did not make the trip when Lee reopened Sam Wo on Clay Street in 2015, but the iconic Sam Wo Restaurant neon sign did. 

“We did save the sign,” Lee points out. “We told the people that owned the old building that we wanted the sign.”

But who was Sam Wo? “There is no Sam Wo,” Lee tells us. “‘Sam Wo’ means ‘Three Harmony’”

Yuet Lee 
1300 Stockton St.
415-982-6020
sanfranciscoyuetlee.com

Another late-night dining destination in normal times, Yue Lee restaurant was so renowned for its Hong Kong-style Cantonese food that you’ll see pictures of celebrities Jacques Pépin, Guy Fieri, and Jackie Chan on the restaurant walls — all of them standing with former owner Sam Yu. 

These days, the restaurant is seeing a steady stream of customers come, but nearly all of them are Feed + Fuel voucher holders. While those vouchers entitle customers to any meal on the menu, the legacy restaurant’s new co-owner Wo Jie Zhen tells us (through Yan’s interpretation) that these customers’ tastes are more modest. “The locals typically eat something more simple, like fried rice and noodles,” Yan says.

Steven Lee says this late-night Chinese food dining, known as siu yeh used to be more common. “Before, [these restaurants] all used to be open until four in the morning,” he tells us. “Then, later on in the ’90s, they changed the street cleaning to two o’clock in the morning. So if you wanted to come from the nightclub in South of Market and have a bite to eat for six or seven dollars, you would get that, but then you’d get a ticket for sixty dollars.”

AA Bakery & Cafe
1068 Stockton St.
415-981-0123
aa-bakery.com 

Even during COVID-19, there’s a line going out the door on weekends at AA Cafe & Bakery, as Chinese New Year celebrants wait for their sticky steam cakes, egg tarts, and sesame bowls, all made from scratch with specialized types of flour.

“We use four or five different [pieces of] equipment to make one kind of dessert,” owner Henry Chen tells SF Weekly. “We use the steamer, the oven, the fire, they all work together. That’s why people love it.”

So how many pastries has this very busy bakery sold in the lead-up to Lunar New Year celebrations?

“We don’t know how many we’ve sold,” Chan says. “We don’t count. We’re too busy.”

Vip Coffee & Cake Shop
671 Broadway
415-981-0123 

Vip Coffee & Cake Shop is more of a diner than a bakery. While the restaurant does have shelves of BBQ pork buns and rolls, the place specializes in a food genre known as Hong Kong Comfort, which may strike some American diners as highly unusual.

Filet mignon or New York steak might be served over rice or spaghetti, and slathered in melted cheese and tomato sauce that seems more Chef Boyardee than Hong Kong. Fried eggs are served over hot dogs, macaroni, and what we call succotash.

These unconventional food mashups spring from the colonial-era British influence on Hong Kong cuisine, but have also taken new shapes as they have evolved over the years in San Francisco Chinatown.

“Westerners started eating in this neighborhood and Chinese cooks didn’t want to scare folks off,” Yan explains. “They tried to make things that were familiar to Westerners.”

icafe Bakery
133 Waverly Pl.
415-0391-8088
icafebakery.com

Long before Apple products were sold with a ubiquitous lowercase ‘i’ on their name, Hanna Zhang’s Waverly Place bakery icafe has been Chinatown’s go-to destination for radish cakes and fried sweet pastries with peanuts and sesame seeds inside.

The cafe is especially popular around Chinese New Year. Zhang’s signature delicacy this year is a treat she calls “Sesame Ball Happy Cracker,” a sweet pastry with sugar and sesame seeds inside.

“The name translates to a plentiful, packed prosperous year,“ Yan says, interpreting for Zhang. Another popular item is her walnut cookie, as she says through Yan: “Walnut always symbolizes health.” 

The Chinatown of Tomorrow

Businesses open and close all the time in San Francisco. In the last year, you’ve heard a lot about businesses closing, and not so much about new businesses opening. Steven Lee is putting the final touches on his new venue, The Lion’s Den, which will be Chinatown’s first live music nightclub in 45 years.

“In the ’40s and ’50s, Chinatown had a lot of nightclubs, Forbidden City, Chinese Sky Room,” Lee says. “Chinatown was a show place. It was known for nightlife, and Chinatown was booming.”

Lee hopes to bring the boom back with his Lion’s Den’s now-completed, retro luxury interior of golden mirrors, velvet wallpaper, and a speakeasy-style secret door from the upstairs cocktail lounge to the downstairs live music venue. The interior was created by the designer of the breathtaking lotus chandelier aesthetic at Mr. Jiu’s, who just happens to be Mrs. Jiu (rather, chef Brandon Jew’s wife, Anna Lee Jew). 

“I gave up all my investments in South of Market to focus on Chinatown,” he says, noting that a 1984 zoning law that forbade live entertainment in the neighborhood after 10 p.m. was repealed in December 2019, allowing live music until 2 a.m. again.

Ox on Parade at Civic Center on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Weekly)

“Now on Grant Avenue, you can take one of those empty storefronts and maybe open a little wine bar,” Lee says. “Have maybe a bass player or guitar player in there. Maybe nightlife will come back here again. There’s a younger new generation of people coming over to take over the political climate in Chinatown.”

Could San Francisco Chinatown lead the local post-COVID economic boom we’ve dreamt of these last 12 months? The neighborhood has done it before.

Back in 1900, Chinatown was unfairly blamed when the bubonic plague arrived in San Francisco. The neighborhood was completely roped off and its residents were forbidden to leave. Chinatown was also entirely destroyed by the fires that came after the 1906 earthquake.

“This is a remarkably resilient community that’s survived racism, fires, earthquakes, pandemics,” Peskin observes. “The entire northeast corner of the city is, outside of Mission Dolores, the first settled part of San Francisco. It’s the part of the city that was ‘The City’ long before the earthquake and fire of 115 years ago, it was literally a phoenix that rose from the ashes.”

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