Meals that were prepared at Far East Cafe are brought to Ping Yuen, a public housing building in San Francisco's Chinatown, where employees of a Chinatown nonprofit and volunteers help distribute meals to residents on May 5, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
To prepare meals for her family these days, San Francisco Chinatown resident Tina Yu keeps a careful watch outside of her single room occupancy unit, or SRO, on Stockton Street. Yu monitors how many of her neighbors are in the building’s communal kitchen at one time: If there are more than two people inside, she will hold off cooking and wait.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Yu would usually wait in a long line in order to use the communal kitchen, but with the city’s social distancing orders in place – and shelter-in-place orders extended through the end of May – queuing in tight hallways and cooking shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors is no longer a safe or viable option.
Yu, who shares the SRO with her husband and two young daughters, is one of roughly 13,000 residents in Chinatown who live in SROs. The one-room housing units are typically 80 square feet and make up about half of the neighborhood's entire housing stock. As one of the last remaining affordable housing options in San Francisco, they are largely occupied by many senior residents and new Chinese immigrant families. There are no private kitchens or bathrooms. Despite being one of the densest residential neighborhoods in the nation, San Francisco Chinatown has been largely successful in managing the coronavirus outbreak – but residents say cooking and eating at home often still feels like a daily gamble.
One form of relief has come in the form of Feed + Fuel Chinatown, a free cooked-meal program organized by the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a nonprofit affordable housing organization. CCDC owns about 465 SRO units in the neighborhood, and its leaders realized early on that food security was a key vulnerability that needed to be addressed immediately.
“About a week in [of the shelter-in-place order], we started hearing reports from SRO families that we’ve been working with, that they were starting to see a significant uptick in kitchen usage,” said Malcolm Yeung, CCDC’s executive director. He added that many SRO residents work in Chinatown’s restaurants – a common starter job for new Chinese immigrants – and because they recently lost their employment, they weren’t able to bring extra meals home from work. So cooking at home in risky communal kitchens became even more of a necessity.
Yeung said that although food programs that serve Chinatown are helpful, they utilize a food pantry model, which provides groceries that still need to be cooked. And so, by early March, CCDC sprung into action in an attempt to decrease kitchen usage. They pivoted their employees from their usual affordable housing work and came up with a strategy to feed their most vulnerable clients: about 300 elderly residents that live in nine of CCDC’s SRO buildings.
It was a huge logistical effort, according to Yeung, and it required partnering with San Francisco’s Self-Help for the Elderly, redeploying about 60 CCDC staff members and relying on about 100 volunteers to package meals and deliver them straight to the doorsteps of each senior resident’s SRO unit.
Kitty Fong, a CCDC community organizer, said the transition to prioritizing a food program – a whole new line of work for the organization – was tricky at first, but now the daily weekday process has become a smooth assembly line. Fong said elderly residents eagerly express enthusiasm and gratitude for their daily meals.
“Whenever I get into the building, they rush out and welcome us, like, ‘Oh, you're here, we've been waiting!’ They are just really welcoming, but at the same time, you'll have to remind them: ‘OK, but please keep social distancing!’ ” Fong said.
Helping Chinatown’s Anchor Businesses Stay Afloat
After implementing the senior resident meal program successfully, CCDC looked at other ways of expanding the program to feed even more Chinatown SRO residents. As part of San Francisco’s SRO Families United Collaborative, CCDC has a direct relationship with more than 350 Chinatown families who have children under the age of 18. Through fundraising and the support of philanthropic dollars, CCDC raised enough money to set up a takeout meal program, where SRO families can pick up two cooked meals – lunch and dinner – for each member of their families.
The program also has an additional benefit: CCDC reopened the doors of New Asia, one of Chinatown’s last two remaining large community banquet restaurants, and paid the restaurant’s owner to rehire some of his staff members to cook about 700 takeout meals for SRO families each day.
These days, New Asia looks like a shell of what it used to be: yellow tablecloths drape its table and furniture, and the lights remain mostly off until SRO families begin arriving by around 11:30 a.m. to pick up their boxed meals. Instead of its usual hectic environment, where waiters hustle in and out through its doors and cooks stir fry dishes on flaming hot woks, the kitchen is now a quiet assembly line. Last Friday afternoon, seven staff members scooped white rice, broccoli and chicken into takeout boxes, which were then placed into white “thank you” takeout bags that lined the tables at the restaurant’s entrance.
While restaurants in other communities have relied on a similar model to keep business going during the pandemic – by feeding vulnerable populations and health care workers, for example – Yeung said saving Chinatown restaurants was a deeply personal mission of the CCDC’s.
He explained that many of the restaurants were hit especially hard, even before shelter-in-place orders took place, because of misplaced blame and xenophobic attitudes towards the neighborhood. The potential permanent closures of key Chinatown businesses like New Asia would also mean a threat to traditions that are central to the Bay Area Chinese American community.
“One of the unique cultural characteristics about Chinatown are the frequent number of banquets that we host, especially during the Chinese New Year’s period,” Yeung said.
Because New Asia is one of the only large restaurants in the city that can host so many parties at once – and at reasonable prices – Yeung said New Asia plays a critical role in keeping cultural practices alive in Chinatown.
“It was particularly important to make sure that unique facilities like New Asia were able to survive this pandemic,” Yeung said.
During an average Chinese New Year celebration season – the restaurant's busiest time of year – New Asia is normally packed and serves up to 10 full banquet tables each night of the week, said owner Hong So.
But this past Chinese New Year, which took place just as anxieties about the coronavirus were starting to ramp up in the Bay Area, New Asia suffered an 80% to 90% decline in revenue compared to a typical New Year season. According to So, New Asia has regained about 30% to 40% of that total revenue thanks to the meal program. Even though that's not anywhere near where the restaurant is used to being financially this time of year, So said there is an added value in being able to serve Chinatown in a new way.
“Chinese people have this unique characteristic that when people have shared difficulties, we want to help the community," So said. "Especially the SRO tenants.”
In addition to the New Asia takeout program for families, Feed + Fuel Chinatown also manages the meal deliveries to Chinese elderly who live in public housing buildings through the SF New Deal program. In a similar revival, another banquet restaurant, the Far East Cafe, and Capital Restaurant, are cooking meals for an additional 300 Chinatown seniors.
CCDC also wanted to reach Chinatown seniors who live in privately owned SROs and recently launched a new meal voucher program that leverages the staff and kitchens of 15 additional Chinatown legacy restaurants, businesses that have been around for at least 30 years.
In all, Yeung estimated that the number of meals that CCDC helps manage and coordinate through the program’s different components adds up to more than 2,000 meals each day.
It’s been a huge and sudden shift for the housing organization.
“Basically, we went from zero meals as an organization to [this],” Yeung said. “We’re feeding the most vulnerable, we’re activating restaurants, but I think the most important thing we’re trying to do is just reduce the chances of transmission. That’s why we embarked on this effort.”
Others agree that it’s a worthy cause. CCDC has raised more than $50,000, which Facebook is matching with another $30,000. Yeung said it’s heartening to see the community’s response to CCDC’s efforts.
“We've raised more money in the two-week period from individual donations than I think we ever have in the history of the organization.”
For SRO Parents, a Free Meal Is Also a Respite
As SRO residents stood on blue masking tape markers measured 6 feet apart outside New Asia, volunteers and staff ensured safety precautions: They each wore masks and gloves and some even procured face shields. Their work includes checking in residents, counting out the meals for each resident and diverting away other Chinatown residents and passersby who don’t qualify to receive a share of the meals.
Many of the volunteers running the program are also SRO residents – in particular, mothers of young children who have been trained by CCDC to help organize and manage the needs of different SRO families.
One such person is Yanyu Lin, who said CCDC’s takeout meals have the additional benefit of relieving the stress of stay-at-home parenting inside an SRO. Lin, who lives with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, recently lost her job at a laundromat. She said among her chief concerns about the pandemic is the mental toll it’s taking on her daughter.
“Though I’m out of work right now, there is a lot for me to do and prepare at home with my child who has to still attend classes," Lin said. "The meals from this program take one less worry off my plate so that I can tend to my daughter and her academics."
Bonnie Zhao, a stay-at-home mom who lives in an SRO unit with her husband and 8-year-old son, agreed. Like many SRO buildings, Zhao’s has the added challenge of not even having a communal kitchen – simple meals only can be quickly assembled inside her family's room. But Zhao said that with her son staying at home from school, there isn’t much time for her to do even that while taking care of him. Zhao said the anxiety of living in a cramped building with her neighbors has started affecting her son.
"My biggest fear is if someone in the building became infected and spread it to the rest of us," Zhao said. "Even now, my son hasn’t left the room."
Tina Yu, who also volunteers each day for the takeout program, added that because it’s been so difficult to manage both her daughters’ school and play times in such a small room, CCDC’s meals provide a much needed peace of mind.
“It lessens the frequency of using the communal kitchen facilities, and I don’t have to worry about lunch," Yu said. "In fact, I can eat a little bit of this meal and save some of it for breakfast the next day.”
For now, Yu said it’s fulfilling to lend a hand to a program she directly benefits from. “Because I feel like I can relate to these families’ concerns, being able to help others is a joyful thing," she said.
Yu’s husband works at night as a janitor, and she's worried that her husband many contract the coronavirus and bring it back to their SRO home. “If he becomes infected, I’d have no idea where we’d go," she said. "My biggest hope is that one day we can move out."
Yeung admits that despite all the extensive and thorough efforts that CCDC and other Chinatown community members have made to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the neighborhood, the fear never dissipates.
"We're holding our breaths,” Yeung said. “I'm just waiting for, preparing for the moment that there is an outbreak ... I hope it's not inevitable, but I think we need to keep preparing as if it was."