Oakland Chinatown insider shares the neighborhood's fascinating history

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Friday, February 3, 2023
Secret history of Oakland's Chinatown
Long-time residents of Oakland's Chinatown share their stories for a project that aims to preserve the community's history.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- When Roy Chan walks around Oakland Chinatown he sees more than produce markets, restaurants and herb stores, he sees memories.

"My dad lived here as a bachelor in the 1950s. He was a butcher," said Chan, a project director for the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC).

Chan said his father, Albert Chan, did not feel like he belonged anywhere when he immigrated to the United States until he moved to Oakland Chinatown.

"He was able to practice his culture here and to feel connected," explained Chan.

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It's these types of stories that Chan is helping capture as part of the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project, an endeavor that began in 2006 to document the personal history of Chinatown residents and important locations like the Asian Branch Library and Madison Square Park (now Wilma Chan Park) where residents gather to practice Tai Chi.

"Oakland Chinatown is almost as old as San Francisco Chinatown. It's been in this location for 150 years. So the oral history project is a great way to really understand deeply the neighborhood. We also want to make the businesses more visible," said Chan.

The project includes an online map of Chinatown that highlights the history of many businesses.

It includes places like Yuen Hop Noodle Company at 824 Webster Street, a family-run grocery store.

Since 1931, four generations of the Quan family have been making freshly-made noodles at the site.

Unlike San Francisco Chinatown which caters to tourists, Oakland's Chinatown is mostly comprised of working-class immigrants. Most stores only have signage in Chinese.

"Many people speak English," said Chan, who encourages visitors to enter the stores and talk to the owners.

"It's an opportunity to dig deeper and understand what the offerings are in the area," he explains.

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A few blocks down, at 1002 Webster, Chan walks into Draline Tong Herbs, one of several medical herb stores in the area.

Owner Henry Lau smiles as he expresses in English that he opened the medicinal herb store 43 years ago.

"I'm an antique in Chinatown," he said as he opened one of the many wood cabinets behind the counter that store dried fruits, herbs and mushrooms that can help treat all kinds of ailments.

Chan asks what he recommends for lower his cholesterol and Lau points at dried cranberries that can be made into a soup.

"He is definitely a culture keeper of the neighborhood," expresses Chan.

Heading back towards 7th Street, Chan stops at 723 Webster Street, the home of Imperial Soup.

A chalkboard written in Chinese displays some of the menu items but owner Jack Chen is happy to explain the benefits of his food in English.

Imperial Soup specializes in herbal soups that are steamed for four hours or more to extract the nutrients into the broth.

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"It's easier to digest by your body. You cannot find this type of soup anywhere in the United States," said Chen. "Our moms would cook this soup for us."

Chan is carrying a black and white picture of the building taken in the 1950s, when it was the Great China Restaurant.

"My family owned that restaurant from 1943 to 1961 and that was where my childhood blossomed," said Flo Oy Wong, a self-described "restaurant kid" who worked at her family's restaurant after school.

"I see the restaurant as my womb," explains Wong, who is now a recognized artist.

When she was a child, somebody gave her a Brownie camera which she used to take photos of people and places around Chinatown. In the 1980s she began to make drawings of life in Chinatown from those photos.

One of her photographs is of her mother, her father and herself.

"In real life, I had very little time with either because our family was so big. And so I did this drawing to give myself time with my parents," said Wong.

Her sister, Nellie Wong, is now an author. Several of her poems reflect her childhood.

Some deal with her desire to be more American.

"At times, I felt like I was really not an American because of racism and sexism. Chinatown was the only world I knew, even though we were a part of Oakland. My heart is there," she explains.

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Chan points out the difficult history of Chinatown.

"A lot of people think that Chinatown is just a place for Chinese to gather because they like to be together, but the origins of Chinatown was because they were not allowed to live anywhere else in the city," said Chan.

In 1882, Congress approved the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration to the United States.

For that reason, the Wong sisters said their mother could not immigrate to the United States to be with their father because spouses were not permitted to enter the country.

She had to pretend to be her husband's sister to come to the United States.

"For the longest time, my mother had a dual identity. It affected us, the children, because we could call our father, but we have to call our mother auntie," said Flo Wong.

Chinatown at least was a welcoming place.

"I'm tethered to Chinatown. I'm tethered to Oakland. I live in the suburbs now, but I'll come back as much as I can because when I come out my soul is fed," said Wong.

If you want to learn more about the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project, visit the website chinatownmemories.org.

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