Like so many other predominantly Chinese neighborhoods across the U.S., Oakland Chinatown has been hit even harder by the COVID-19 crisis — and for a longer period of time — than much of the rest of the country.
Next week, Save Our Chinatowns, a fundraising initiative that benefits small businesses in the Oakland and San Francisco Chinatowns, is kicking off a new project to help support the neighborhood: a stylishly illustrated zine that doubles as a love letter to Oakland Chinatown. Conveniently, it would make a chic gift for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
Priced at $25, the zines will be available in limited quantities starting on Monday, January 25, through the Save Our Chinatowns website. There will also be Lunar New Year red envelopes designed by local artists for sale for $15 for a five-pack. Thanks in part to Oakland-based Irrelevant Press agreeing to print the zines for free, all proceeds will be split between the three Chinatown businesses whose proprietors contributed interviews and recipes to the zine — Yuen Hop Noodle Company, Green Fish Seafood Market, and the banh mi shop Cam Anh.
As Daphne Wu, a Save Our Chinatowns volunteer who wrote and edited the zine, writes in its introduction, the zine is meant to be a celebration of what Oakland Chinatown is: “a living, breathing community serving its residents.” The whole thing is beautifully illustrated by Save Our Chinatowns founder Joyce Tsaih and five other (mostly Bay Area-based) artists.
“This community belongs here — or at least they’ve made themselves belong here,” Wu says of the neighborhood. “We need to continually work hard for it to survive.”
Themed loosely around the phrase “have you eaten yet?” — a common greeting within the Chinese-speaking diaspora — the zine includes a timeline of Oakland Chinatown history; an interview with Oakland District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents the neighborhood; recipes from each of the three fundraiser beneficiaries; and a collection of insider food tips. (Did you know, for instance, that the egg tarts at Napoleon Super Bakery are half off after 4:30 p.m.?)
The recipes from the three beneficiaries of the fundraiser might be worth the cost of the zine all by themselves. It includes the recipe for Cam Anh’s lemongrass tofu, which forms the base for the shop’s tofu banh mi — a sandwich that has a huge cult following among Bay Area vegans going way back to the Cam Huong days, though Nguyen says she’s taken the sandwich even higher heights thanks, in large part, to that exceptionally juicy and flavorful tofu.
And Finnie Phung, who runs Green Fish Seafood Market with her husband, offers up an extensive guide to help readers step up their home hot pot game. For many younger ABCs (American-born Chinese), Phung says, a hot pot meal consists largely of assorted fish balls and other frozen packaged foods. But she wants to introduce a new audience to the “Chinese-Chinese” approach to hot pot, which might consist of live sturgeon, live shrimp and crab, surf clams, a ton of different Asian vegetables, or, during the winter in particular, skin-on goat and neck bones — all items you can buy at Phung’s market.
“I don’t sell turkey for Thanksgiving; I don’t sell prime rib for Christmas,” Phung says. “All those days, it’s nothing but hot pot.”
What the zine really underscores, however, is how difficult the past 10 months have been for small businesses in Chinatown. Phung says that even if her market seems, outwardly, to be doing all right, the shutdown of local restaurants has had a profound impact. It used to be that a restaurant hosting a big banquet might buy 80 live fish from her all in one shot — fish she wouldn’t even have to clean for them, since they’d just be going into the restaurant’s live tanks. She’s lost all of that business. Now, heading into the Lunar New Year holiday, the market has to try to make up all that business through walk-in customers who only buy one or two fish at a time.
“We’re hanging in there,” Phung says. In particular, she’s hopeful that the new outdoor platform that she’s set up on the cub outside the market will help draw in new customers — to create a lively farmers market vibe in the heart of Oakland Chinatown.
Meanwhile, Cam Anh’s Anh Nguyen says she’s legitimately fearful for the future of Chinatown, where, based on her own informal count, nearly half the businesses appear to be shut down at the moment — including the noodle shop and the takeout dim sum spot on either side of her banh mi restaurant. “So we’re alone out here,” she says.
But Nguyen says she’s determined to do whatever she can to ensure that the neighborhood makes a strong recovery. “Chinatown has my heart,” says Nguyen, who arrived in Oakland as a refugee 29 years ago. One of her most vivid memories from those earliest days was a trip to Cam Huong — the same shop she wound up taking over two years ago — for her first taste of banh mi in the U.S. Ever since then, her dream was to run a sandwich shop just like that in Oakland Chinatown, and now that she’s seen that dream come true, Nguyen says, she’s just determined to help the neighborhood pull through this current crisis. It’s why she’s spent much of the pandemic helping prepare meals for the homeless through World Central Kitchen and other local nonprofits.
“Anything that relates to Oakland and our neighborhood, I’m there with you,” Nguyen says. “I can’t save the whole world, but at least I can do something for our community.”