When most of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area mention Chinatown, everyone always assumes it is the Chinatown in San Francisco. From the hidden treasures in little shops, to the gigantic Chinese New Year Parade, San Francisco’s Chinatown has both charm, history, and a plethora of entertaining options. Several restaurants have achieved world wide fame, and several residents have become famous as well. But for simplicity, ease of access, and old world charm, I prefer Oakland’s Chinatown.
This sixteen square block area is much smaller, but easily walkable for a morning or afternoon exploration. BART stops about two blocks away, as does the AC Transit bus. Freeway 880 borders the west side of Chinatown. A central hub has emerged in recent years, the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, a multi story complex of
Most of the signage in the area contains English and Cantonese languages. Several businesses that originated before the age of bilingualism only have Chinese characters on neon signs that no longer work. The courtyard in the center of the Plaza is a good place to meet people, or just take a short rest while dining and shopping. One word to the wise, avoid Saturdays, particularly the mornings. This is market day for most locals, and double parking is not only prevalent, it is expected and never ticketed by the police or parking enforcement.
Chinatown has also attracted, much like other Chinatowns across the United States, other Asian residents, such as Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Cambodian. In some cases, some Chinatowns, like Los Angeles, have been transformed several times, going from primarily Chinese, to Korean, then to Vietnamese. Often times, the signage remains. Many businesses will continue to operate under the name on the neon sign. A prime example in San Francisco is the excellent restaurant, operating under its prior business name, the R & G Lounge. Most out of towners would never know this place has great clay pots and maybe the best salt and pepper crab in the area.
Walking tours of Oakland Chinatown are presented by Tour 5, and begin at 10am in front of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza fountain on selected Wednesdays and Saturdays. Call (510) 238-3234, or email at email@example.com.
Interestingly, the arrival of the Chinese to the area coincided with the discovery of gold in 1848 in Sacramento, about 100 miles northeast of Oakland. The Chinese took low paying jobs, building things like Temescal Dam and Lake Chabot Dam. Many became cooks, gardeners, houseboys, and laundrymen. Some made cigars, farmed the fertile East Bay lands, and helped developed the seafood industry in the area. Another little known fact is the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 forced thousands of Chinese to leave San Francisco. And they ended up staying in Oakland.
As Chinatown grew, the complex society of Chinese communities evolved. In the 1920s, the family associations evolved and took control of local business, tongs, civil rights, and ultimately, crime. Chinatown stayed in a relatively provincial mode until World War 2 forced greater integration into Oakland, and created a Chinese middle class. After the war, Chinese were able to buy homes in previously segregated areas of Oakland and the Greater East Bay. Then from relative dormancy of the 60s and 70s, Chinatown’s rebirth was led by immigrants from Southeast Asia.
So, while 8th and Webster Streets are considered the heart of Chinatown, the area is much more, and the people have sprouted out to areas and communities all over the East Bay. But there are no other Chinatowns to speak of, whether in San Jose, Fremont, Palo Alto, or Berkeley. At one time, Solano Avenue in Albany was a likely landing spot for a “new” Chinatown. But as more upscale businesses moved in, rents went up, the boomers took over, and the area became quite heterogeneous and multi-ethnic.
Some of the progress or lack thereof in Chinatown never seems to deter either the locals or the tourists. It is still a big draw for traditional Chinese weddings, birthdays, red egg parties, anniversaries, and funerals. While Oakland does not have the big parade, ala San Francisco, I defy you to get a table for 8 during the Chinese New Year celebration period. And no matter the holiday or time of day, there is always a cafe or restaurant open to serve you. It could be a Chinese bakery, a noodle joint, or a sit down meal.
Many famous people have come from or resided in this small area. These include: Bruce Lee, Amy Tan, Fred Korematsu, Dong Kingman, March Fong-Eu, Ben Fong-Torres, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Not often mentioned is the fact that Chinese and other Asians stayed in this area due to discrimination in the more mainstream areas of Oakland. But what would Chinatown be if we did not see little old Chinese ladies scurrying around, buying groceries, and lighting up a Marlboro on the street corners? Life here, for many immigrants, follows the same lifestyle as the large cities like Hong Kong and Taiwan.
One of my favorite places to stop is the grocery store, any grocery store, since they carry many of the same items. Once you walk past the fresh produce on the sidewalks, enter into a world so different from a traditional American grocery. Many items will not have a price, or a single word of English. Some items will look rather grotesque, or reek of strange and pungent odors. But there is treasure there for everyone, all ages and shapes. The candy and cookie section alone will fill your shopping basket. The kitchen utensil area will make you wonder how you got by all these years with just a spatula and a grater.
My first time in Oakland’s Chinatown was back in the 60s, when I was a freshman at Cal. Some guys I met in the adjacent dormitory on campus asked me if I wanted to go for a late night snack while we were studying. I assumed we would walk down to Telegraph Avenue and have a pizza or hot sandwich. Rather, we drove through the cities of Berkeley, and Oakland, and ended up in Chinatown. We first bought some 2 liter sodas at the Chinese grocery, then headed in to the original location of the Silver Dragon. Believe me, it did not live up to its more elegant name.
Silver Dragon was on the south side of Webster, in a small, narrow wooden building. Up against the walls on both sides were old fashioned booth separated by stained and soiled maroon drapes. At that point, I realized I had never ordered Chinese food on my own, only with my family while growing up. I quickly perused the menu so that I would be ready to order when my turn came up. We were not ordering “family style” since we were a bunch of poor and hungry college students. I finally saw something I recognized, it was roasted peanut duck over rice. Boy, were they impressed that I ordered something so sophisticated and delicious!
As the school year went on, we returned many times. Often, it was after a baseball game or practice over in Alameda. It was great fun, being there with my buddies, heavy workout completed, not a care in the world (at that moment), and lots of food and a 2 liter soda to boot. Life was good. Now if only I could get a date for Saturday night!
But I digress. The Silver Dragon ultimately was demolished, and moved into a sleek three story building across the street. It had full banquet facilities, and full bar, and real restaurant tables, chairs, and decor. Time had taken the old, and made it new. Never again could we bring the 2 liter soda onto the premises. We would return only for weddings and reunions on the upper floors. For us, Chinatown would be forever changed.
Bottom line, the food here is as good as San Francisco, though perhaps not quite as varied. It is certainly less expensive, more easily accessible, and certainly more personal in service and atmosphere. Look at it this way. They buy their ingredients from the same wholesalers across the freeway in the produce district. If anything, it is fresher, having made the 4 block trip in 10 minutes, versus the Bay Bridge trip to San Francisco in one hour. And the area is also safer than San Francisco. You must go!