This past Sunday morning, nearly 400 volunteers gathered in Oakland Chinatown, brooms and paint rollers in hand, to help clean up the neighborhood — to sweep up the broken glass and street litter and to scrub or paint over the graffiti. It was a large undertaking. Chinatown had been hit especially hard by the looting and civil unrest that erupted during the first few nights of protests that swept through Oakland in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
But this wasn’t just a straightforward neighborhood beautification event. Many of the volunteers wore striking black-and-gold T-shirts that proclaimed “Asian x Black x Unity.” Tarika Lewis, who became the first female member of the Black Panther Party during the late 1960s, had co-designed those shirts, and she was on hand at Sunday’s cleanup event too, holding forth on the history of Black-owned businesses in Oakland — and the way land grabbers and government policies eventually dismantled many of those businesses — to a rapt crowd of mostly Asian-American volunteers.
In other words, this was a gathering that had been organized to clean up the mess left behind by looting that took place adjacent to the recent protests, but it was also explicitly in favor of those protests: It was in solidarity with the broader movement against anti-Black police brutality and racial injustice. And as such, it marked a bit of a shift in Chinatown — or at least the beginning of a shift. The relationship between the Black and Chinese-American communities in this country has been fraught at times, to say the least. In the Bay Area, for instance, a series of widely publicized incidents in 2010, in which older Chinese immigrants were assaulted by Black teenagers, stoked anger and anti-Black sentiment within the local Chinese community. And while Oakland has been a center of protests against anti-Black police violence going back well over a decade, business owners in Chinatown haven’t often spoken up in support of those movements.
Sunday’s event was meant to help change that. The volunteer effort was co-organized by OCA East Bay, which runs these “Pick It Up” events in Oakland Chinatown every month, and Good Good Eatz, a new initiative that has been supporting the neighborhood’s restaurants and markets through the coronavirus crisis. Trinh Banh and Tommy Wong, the co-founders of Good Good Eatz, say that their core mission is helping to bring Chinatown merchants “to the 21st century,” as Banh puts it, in terms of marketing their businesses and bringing them up to speed on issues that are important to younger customers. During the pandemic, that’s included efforts like helping restaurants to set up Instagram pages or launch new programs like a CSA box service and promoting them heavily on social media. But it also includes starting a dialogue with older, previously skeptical Chinatown business owners about things like Black Lives Matter — especially in light of the ongoing protests.
“We see this as a moment to inject a new discourse into a broad community that has traditionally been kind of closed off to changing their old notions of race, identity, and safety,” Wong tells Eater SF.
In spite of the large turnout at Sunday’s event, both Banh and Wong concede that bridging that gap is going to be a long process, and that it would be inaccurate to say that the majority of Chinatown business owners feel any sense of personal connection to the protests — especially during this time when Chinatown businesses are already in a precarious position, having suffered tremendous financial losses due to the coronavirus crisis. “The focus for them is pretty narrow on the business — how do I not get my window knocked down?” Banh says. “Everyone’s in their own silo worried about their own thing.”
Still, there is a growing number of Chinatown food-business owners who are speaking out in support of the protests. Finnie Phung, co-owner of Green Fish Seafood Market (formerly E & F Market) on Eighth Street, says she grew up in Oakland and feels she has a better understanding of the challenges facing the Black community than more recent Asian immigrants — and beyond that, she says, her shop has a lot of Black customers, especially during the local crab season.
Phung says she sees the recent George Floyd protests as a matter of fundamental human rights. So when, shortly after Sunday’s cleanup event, a drive-by protest that passed through Chinatown, and as the cars passed by her shop, Phung wanted to show that she stood in solidarity with the movement. “I hold my arm high up in the air with my fist,” Phung says, “and all the protesters drive by and honk at me, and they cheer with me, and I cheer back with them.”
Phung’s monolingual immigrant Chinese workers, on the other hand, didn’t understand why she made that gesture, Phung says. She explains that for them, the protests have mostly been a source of fear and confusion: “They hear all these things going on — the shouting, screaming, protesting. And because they don’t speak the language, they’re very afraid.”
Alicia Wong runs the Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory — a 60-year-old company that now specializes in custom fortune cookies — along with her parents and her husband, Alex Issvoran. Wong immigrated from China when she was a kid, but like Phung, she grew up in Oakland — and, in fact, attended elementary and middle schools that were predominantly Black. Wong says that background gives her a “dual perspective” that’s neither fully Chinese nor fully American. In that way, she says that she understands why a lot of the older Chinatown community members have a hard time supporting the protests: They might not speak much English, and so their interactions with the Black community are limited. “Everything they see is from the news,” Wong says.
For their part, Wong and Issvoran say they support the protests even though their own business wound up suffering damage: A window dating back to when the fortune cookie factory opened 60 years ago was broken on the first Friday night of intense protests. “We stand together in solidarity with the movement,” Issvoran says. “A window smashed is no big deal in the big picture of what’s going on in America right now.”
Wong says the recent protests have forced her to reflect on her own relationship with systemic racism: “A lot of people, myself included, have grown up thinking just because I’m not racist — I’m not going out and hurting people; I have Black friends — it’s okay. What this movement has made me realize is that being not racist is not enough; we need to be anti-racist.”
As a tangible sign of their support, Wong and Issvoran have developed a series of special Black Lives Matter–themed fortune cookies with custom messages on the “fortunes” inside — the default options will feature famous quotes from Black civil rights leaders. A percentage of the proceeds from each of these cookies will be donated to the NAACP and the Innocence Project.
Even with these new voices of support, the founders of Good Good Eatz recognize that there’s much work to be done before this notion of Asian and Black unity can become a reality in Oakland Chinatown’s food community. “How do you start a conversation with an immigrant business owner about systemic racism?” Tommy Wong says. “It’s very difficult. The first step is trust.”
That trust is something that Good Good Eatz has been slowly building up through its work in Chinatown, not necessarily through the conversations they’ve been having with business owners about things like Black Lives Matter — though those have been important — but through the steady work the group has done to support those businesses through the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Events like Sunday’s unity-themed Chinatown cleanup may also open up the lines of communication, even if it’s only out of purely practical considerations. Wong notes that many of the volunteers who came were younger millennials, who tend to be more socially conscious — more supportive of movements like the current protests against anti-Black police brutality. That fact won’t be lost on Chinatown’s older immigrant business owners, who know they need to connect with that younger generation.
Anthony Quan, who runs the Yuen Hop Co. grocery store, a 90-year-old Chinatown institution known for its fresh noodles, is perhaps a typical case. Quan says he wouldn’t go so far as to say that he identifies with the protests himself, but he does “respect” them. And while he wasn’t in town during Sunday’s cleanup event, he says he would have come out to support it if he’d been around, in large part out of his respect for Tommy Wong. And ultimately, Quan says, he thinks the work that Good Good Eatz is doing to build solidarity is a good thing: “It’s just good that it’s recognized that we as a minority should stand together and support other minorities.”
Lewis, the Black Panther Party member who works now as a visual artist, musician, and teacher, says she would love to see further collaborations and cultural exchanges between the Black and Asian-American communities in Oakland. “I think that if we know about each other’s histories — not what it’s reduced to like a paragraph in the schools — I think our opinions and our actions and how we see each other can be changed,” she says. “I think we have more in common than we have differences.”
Which isn’t to say that the path to true solidarity will be an easy one. Alicia Wong, of the Fortune Cookie Factory, says she’s recently been trying to talk to her own mother about the protests and why she should support them, but it’s difficult to get her to understand.
“She doesn’t like the police,” Wong says. “That’s as far as it goes.”