Oakland's Little Saigon Aims to Bounce Back With Good Food and Pokémon Go

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The owner of Mekong Restaurant holding a plate of Vietnamese food.
The owner of Mekong Restaurant holding a plate of Vietnamese food. (Courtesy of Good Good Eatz)

Oakland’s Eastlake Little Saigon neighborhood will be swarmed by adorable hordes of Bulbasaur and Butterfree this Saturday, accompanied by phone-toting trainers trying to catch ’em all—and perhaps get their COVID vaccination and eat a bowl of delicious pho while they’re at it. 

With Saturday’s event, dubbed Summer Fest, the East Bay-based community org Good Good Eatz is tapping into the power of Pokémon Go to bring foot traffic back to the neighborhood’s restaurants and grocery stores.

“Our mission is to help small food businesses, as well as business and cultural districts in Oakland, pivot into the 21st century,” says Tommy Wong, who runs Good Good Eatz along with co-founder Trinh Banh. “Pokémon Go is still widely played nationally and internationally by a really diverse group of people. It definitely had its heyday when it first started, but it’s still going strong now. And so it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to connect Little Saigon with a way to attract more customers and bring vibrancy back to its streets and parks.” 

With help from Good Good Eatz, the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and San Francisco-based Pokémon Go developer Niantic, Little Saigon’s neighborhood fixtures are turning into temporary PokéStops and PokéGyms—congregation points for players looking for virtual goodies and battles. Participants include popular bo kho (and fusion taco) specialist Pho Vy, banh mi standard Cam Huong and pho joint Mekong Restaurant. 

More orthodox community outreach will be available at Clinton Park, in the heart of the neighborhood. Asian Health Services will provide COVID testing and vaccinations to visitors, and the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment will set up a booth for visitors to sample retro video games.

A list of participating locations for Eastlake Little Saigon Summerfest
A list of participating locations for Eastlake Little Saigon Summerfest (Courtesy of Good Good Eatz)

It was the AAPI advocacy group National CAPACD that connected Wong with the creators of Pokémon Go. “Niantic was reaching out to them because of all the recent AAPI hate crimes with the very generous offer of turning any Asian-owned business in the U.S. or Canada into a PokéStop,” says Wong. 

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In a statement in support of the Stop Asian Hate movement from April, Niantic said it would “explore helping AAPI-owned businesses as part of our Niantic Local Business Recovery Initiative and the funding of programs that focus on keeping local AAPI communities safe and vibrant.”

Niantic has been criticized for the unequal distribution of PokéStops between white and non-white neighborhoods since the app’s launch. A 2016 map of PokéStops in Oakland by the Urban Institute fits the typical pattern: a blizzard of stops and gyms downtown that trails off at the beginning of International Boulevard, where much of Oakland’s Vietnamese community makes their home.

While this Saturday’s PokéStops will be temporary, Wong hopes that businesses will sign up with Niantic to become a permanent part of the game. “We are trying to figure out models to disperse people, to have them wandering around neighborhoods again, to make it feel vibrant, because things have been shuttered, and people have been feeling down. We want to bring a sense of joy back into the district.”

A poster for Eastlake Little Saigon Summerfest
A poster for Eastlake Little Saigon Summerfest (Courtesy of Good Good Eatz)

Eastlake Little Saigon Summer Fest goes down on August 7, 11am–3pm, at Clinton Park (655 International Blvd., Oakland) and participating neighborhood businesses. Details here.