SAN FRANCISCO — The oldest Chinatown in the United States is starting to resemble a ghost town. Swinging red lanterns hung above the pagodas are reminiscent of tumbleweed. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism has dramatically declined, leaving beloved businesses questioning their future.
San Francisco’s Chinatown, a historic neighborhood that has been a shining beacon for immigrants and the American Dream, has faced racial discrimination, repressive legislation, a massive earthquake and now a pandemic — one of the greatest tests of this resilient neighborhood’s more than century-long existence.
It is in this situation that Orlando Kuan finds himself, on a metal folding chair next to a crowded table of pastries outside his storefront on a Sunday afternoon, frequently known to be the busiest day for business. Grant Avenue, a once-bustling street in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is empty of tourists. Only the most loyal locals are left to patronize their favorite family-owned businesses.
Eastern Bakery, a cornerstone of the neighborhood, first opened its doors in 1924, making it the oldest bakery in Chinatown. But business has slowed to a crawl. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, typically one of the busiest times of year, the bakery logged a 70 percent drop in sales, according to Kuan. Still, he continues to personally greet customers — who once included President Bill Clinton — marveling at his table of famous lotus mooncakes and coffee crunch cake, a traditional recipe that is a big seller to this day.
In early March, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a shelter-in-place order, which restricted nonessential travel, affecting 40 million Californians. In July he called for statewide closures for dine-in restaurants, bars, movie theaters and family entertainment centers like bowling alleys, mini-golf and arcades. Now, Portsmouth Square, Chinatown’s living room, is desolate of the usual pack of Chinatown residents who come to the park to mingle, practice tai chi and play checkers.
According to the San Francisco Travel Association, tourism to the city has been slashed in half, and tourist spending has plunged by nearly 70 percent this year.
“As early as January 2020, we were already starting to see an impact. This was during a period when Chinatown generates a bulk of revenue. There was a one-third drop in attendance for the Lunar New Year parade, which was economically devastating,” said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “This was definitely behind the racist rhetoric around the coronavirus.”