The reopening of a restaurant space on the top floor of one of San Francisco Chinatown’s most recognizable buildings has come under fire from local activists. Empress by Boon, a 7,500-square-foot modern Cantonese restaurant, is slated to open this spring in the old Empress of China Building at 838 Grant Avenue, right in the heart of Chinatown. But community activists are worried that the upscale restaurant’s arrival is a sign of looming gentrification in Chinatown, the SF Chronicle reports.
Should the opening of a Chinese restaurant helmed by a Chinese chef and located in a building that’s owned by a Chinese-American SF Chinatown local spark those kinds of concerns — especially here in San Francisco, where Chinatown remains a vibrant and distinctly Chinese American neighborhood? In some ways, that’s a hard question to answer.
At issue is a particular pattern that’s emerged in the past few years: As the argument goes, the neighborhood’s historic Chinese banquet halls have shuttered and been replaced, one by one, by a new wave of upscale restaurants that cater to customers who don’t live in the neighborhood. So, Four Seas was replaced by Mister Jiu’s. Gold Mountain was replaced by China Live. And now, the Empress of China.
The trend is alarming enough to local activists at the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) that they’ve filed an appeal to the city’s planning department, calling into question whether the top floors of the Empress of China building should be used as a restaurant at all. The hearing will be held on Wednesday night, the Chron reports.
Concerns about the fate of the Empress of China have been building for years now. A 2015 feature for San Francisco Magazine, “Long Live the Empress” noted that the initial real estate ad mockups for the building positioned it as “an ideal space for creative technology tenants.” And indeed, after the real estate firm of current owner John Yee — an SF Chinatown native — purchased the building in 2016 for $17.25 million, his initial plans were to convert the top floor banquet space into either tech offices or a hotel — a since-discarded plan that was a source of great unease for Chinatown community groups at the time. Among their fears was the loss of yet another community gathering space — one that hosted events for organizations like Chinese for Affirmative Action over the years.
As iconic a landmark as it was, however, the Empress of China itself was never exactly a beacon of affordability in Chinatown, as the massive banquets it hosted during its heyday in the 70s and 80s often cost upwards of $20,000. It, too, became something of a tourist attraction over the years — a place guidebooks would recommend to out-of-towners looking to sip on sugary mai tais while taking in one of the most impressive views in the city.
But seen in another light, a certain anxiety around the news that yet another ritzy restaurant is coming to Chinatown is understandable: Chinatowns around the country — from Boston and Washington D.C. to just across the bridge in Oakland — have battled displacement for years, in the face of rising rents, expensive new real estate development, and pricy new businesses that aren’t really geared toward local clientele. In some cases, those battles have been all but lost — in D.C.’s Chinatown, for instance, where there were only 300 Chinese residents remaining as of 2015, the Washington Post reported, and where there are now only a scant handful of Chinese restaurants left amid a sea of new high-rises and generic chains.
Empress by Boon, for its part, has revealed little about its specific menu plans thus far — other than that the food will be “modern Cantonese” — but the restaurant seems likely to attract a significant contingent of out-of-towners based on the reputation of Michelin-starred chef Ho Chee Boon. His prior gig was as the international executive chef for the Hakkasan restaurant group — known for its sleek, dark interiors and ultra-luxe interpretation of Cantonese cuisine. When contacted by Eater SF, representatives for Empress by Boon said that Boon would not be commenting, though building owner Yee told the Chron he believes the new restaurant will bring jobs and tourist dollars to the neighborhood.
The broader question, though, is this: What responsibility do ambitious new Chinatown restaurants have to not only be a part of the local community, but also to serve food that’s accessible and appealing to Chinatown residents? This is something that all of the recent high-profile Chinatown openings — from Mister Jiu’s through China Live and Eight Tables — have had to wrestle with.
George Chen, chef and owner of the massive, multi-venue China Live complex that opened in 2017, says that if the issue is the loss of big banquet halls, it’s largely a moot point. He says there just isn’t much demand among second- and third-generation Chinese Americans for the massive Chinese banquets that were in fashion during the heyday of Gold Mountain, the restaurant China Live replaced.
That said, Chen acknowledges that China Live is moderately more expensive than other Chinese restaurants in the area (to say nothing of Eight Tables, his exclusive upstairs tasting menu spot where a meal for one runs a cool $225). But he says that he tries to draw in local customers — including by offering a 20 percent discount at China Live’s first-floor Marketplace restaurant to Chinatown residents who show their ID: “Just show me you live in the 22 blocks of Chinatown, and you get 20 percent off,” Chen says.
“Do I have a responsibility? Yes, because we’re in that community,” he adds. “We’re not trying to create a place where rich people can feel like they’re slumming it in Chinatown.”