Larry Jin Lee: Lost Chinatown Businesses

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The pandemic has taken a terrible toll on the small businesses that often define the character of a neighborhood. One of those is Chinatown. Larry Jin Lee has this Perspective.

One of the indelible scars of this drawn out pandemic will certainly be the devastating impact on businesses in the wonderfully iconic neighborhoods of our beautiful city. I grew up on the border of Chinatown and North Beach and I’ve witnessed both neighborhoods undergo multiple transitions, but none as drastic as this.

On a recent trip to Chinatown, I was stunned to see how COVID has decimated so many businesses. I recall how subdued businesses were after the Loma Prieta earthquake, but this pales in comparison. So many boarded up storefronts, empty outdoor parklets. The ever-familiar window scenes of roast duck and pork are scarce. The bustling dim sum parlors have closed their doors. What has happened to the Chinatown I’ve known?

I have long since moved away from Chinatown but as the old cliché goes, you can’t take the Chinatown out of the boy. However, I realize we lose more than just stores as we see longstanding businesses disappear from Chinatown’s landscape. This was where my great grandfather and grandfather lived when they first arrived to this country because they were forced to stay within its boundaries. For recent immigrants, Chinatown still serves as the center of their lives, a refuge from the rest of the city, which is more difficult for them to navigate.

I feel a loss of the comforting memories of familiar scenes that anchor me to the past. There’s the bakery where my parents bought my favorite coffee crunch cake and custard tarts for my birthdays, the restaurant where I would get the best fried chicken wings, or the store where I purchased my first wok. These memories of Chinatown provide me and my children’s generation a sense of continuity and connection to the journey of their forebears. The power of this history binds us together.

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Although I am not ready to write Chinatown’s obituary, I know some businesses won’t recover from this. Nonetheless, I have faith in the resilience of Chinese Americans. We’re a sturdy lot, not unaccustomed to catastrophe, enduring Angel Island and the Exclusion Act. With the advent of the new year of the ox comes a renewed hope for harmony and prosperity. I’m sure the neighborhood will rise again.

With a Perspective, I’m Larry Jin Lee.

Larry Jin Lee is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.