Last Friday, a group of volunteers closed off one block of Ninth Street between Franklin and Webster in Oakland Chinatown. They set out clean chairs and tables and invited the public to enjoy the space — which is normally crowded with cars — as an outdoor dining area. Nearby restaurants offered takeout.
Yu Chen, a Chinatown resident, and his friend Kaneesia were heading to UC Dessert on Franklin Street when they happened upon the festivities. Chen and Kaneesia were the first to arrive, though they hadn’t known the street takeover was happening.
The pair lounged at a table while they laughed and sipped on refreshing milk teas. “It’s nice to have a place where you can have outdoor dining,” Chen said.
The street takeover was organized by the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce as part of its inaugural StreetFest Fridays event. OCCC hopes the StreetFest series will bring some much-needed business to Chinatown, which has suffered a downturn because of the pandemic. The event series is also an extension of the city’s Flex Streets Initiative, which aims to open up more public space for residents and businesses by closing off roads to auto traffic.
StreetFest Fridays are held from 4-8 p.m so that businesses can stay open longer. Usually, Chinatown businesses close their doors at around 3 p.m. due to lack of foot traffic.
According to Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan, deciding to host an outdoor event in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t an easy decision. “We had a major conflict, debating whether or not we should do this,” Chan said in an interview with The Oaklandside. “There’s a lot on the line. Hopefully, it will work out.”
StreetFest Fridays is one of a handful of emergency efforts to keep Chinatown’s small businesses afloat.
Charlie, a Chinese grocer at nearby Hoan Cau Company store, is open to any attempt to bring customers back. “Anything you can do to bring the customers into Chinatown, it’s a good idea,” he said, adding that OCCC should aim to attract younger folks who want to eat out, since most residents are older Chinese people.
Friends Alicia and Grace came out to StreetFest because they had been quarantining and hadn’t seen each other in weeks. Alicia was enjoying a half roasted duck she bought from Yung Kee Restaurant on Webster Street. “This is the perfect place to hang out with friends,” Grace said.
Alicia, who grew up in Chinatown, said it’s important for them to support Chinatown restaurants. “Food is the fabric of any culture, you can call it the heart and soul,” she said. “The restaurants here make Chinatown a special place.”
Since the pandemic began, very few Oakland residents have visited the neighborhood. This has hurt restaurants like Ming’s Tasty Restaurant, which rely on patrons from other parts of the city for steady income. Sunny Huang, Ming’s co-owner, was relieved to see more visitors in Chinatown.
“I’m very sad because before, Chinatown was good,” she said. Huang and her husband opened the restaurant about a year and a half ago, and specialize in Hong Kong-style dim sum.
Her husband, who grew up in Hong Kong, spends hours preparing the bite-sized delicacies, and Huang thinks the work has paid off. “I think my dim sum is the best here in Chinatown. Once we opened the restaurant, people kept coming back.” Now, Huang said, those visitors will need to be brought back if the restaurant is to survive the pandemic.
Friday was a slow start, but she hopes more people will visit Ming’s and the shops around her. Huang, who lives in San Leandro, said Chinatown has become a second home to her because she can speak her native language and be around other Chinese people. Most of all, she misses seeing customers dining in her restaurant and telling her how much they enjoyed the food. “I really like this place. I really hope life will go back to like before,” she said.