How San Francisco's Chinatown is planning to lure locals back for the holidays

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- San Francisco's Chinatown is oftentimes a bustling place during the holidays, a place for tourists and locals like to buy unique gifts and for some, eat Chinese food instead of the traditional turkey.

But this Thanksgiving and Christmas are set to look much different during the coronavirus pandemic, forcing merchants and community leaders to pivot their messaging and strategies.


Small business owner Steven Lee owns the famed Sam Wo restaurant doesn't need a reminder of how challenging operating a restaurant is during a pandemic.

"We're down probably 80%," says Lee as he stands along Wentworth Place, an alley of San Francisco's Chinatown. It's the site of his new bar and nightclub, slated to open right before the holidays. It's a risk he's willing to take because Lee still believes in the power of locals from across the Bay Area, not just relying on tourists for revenue.

Business in Chinatown was already suffering and down 35% before the start of the pandemic. Once COVID broke out many merchants took a 90% hit or more. Many shuttered permanently.

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A recent survey from retail analyst Accenture, almost every aspect of the holiday shopping season -- from how much people spend to what people decide to buy -- is likely going to be impacted by the coronavirus.

"I did a physical walk-through of Grant Avenue and I counted there were only 25 stores open including a bank and originally we had about 200 stores," says Nancy Yu, Vice Chair of the Chinatown Merchants United Group.

That decline is also directly related to the xenophobia toward Asian Americans. More than 3,000 reported incidents of racism across the country have been gathered by the STOP API Hate online portal in just six months.

The Chinatown Merchants United Group believes education and doubling down on the neighborhood's history will bring customers back.

"The reason it's boarded up is because since the pandemic we have a lot of graffiti and people started tearing it off so it's really messy."

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A Zodiac wall along Jack Kerouac Alley has been a Chinatown landmark erected by Nancy and her husband the past several years. The goal is to bring it back in December for the Year of the Ox and use it as a place where guests can safely gather outdoors...and even take a selfie or two for social media.

"In Chinatown, there's a lot of history and we want to see people come back for the culture," says Edward Siu, chairman of the same merchant's group.

While the future of the Lunar New Year parade and festivals are still up in the air, there are plans to make the celebrations and history available online. So when it is safe to return, tourists and locals will. Steven Lee reflects on the past as he shows off photos that will be framed and line the walls of Lion's Den soon.

"Having an entertainment place like we did back in the '40s and '50s...people used to come to Chinatown dressed up in tuxedos and we'd have movie stars come!"

All these efforts are just part of a plan for Chinatown to survive and one day flourish.

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