Peony Seafood Restaurant in Oakland Chinatown closed on March 9.
Peony Seafood Restaurant in Oakland Chinatown closed on March 9. Photo: Sarah Han

Business at restaurants in Oakland Chinatown has been upended since February when racially-motivated fear of the new coronavirus dissuaded tourists and locals alike from visiting the area. In response to the drastic dip in revenue, owners slashed working hours, laid off staff, shut their doors and requested lower rent in a scramble to just break even. Now, after Gov. Gavin Newsom asked that restaurants reduce capacity by half and set tables farther apart to comply with social distancing standards, the future of Chinatown restaurants seems even bleaker.

Finnie Fung, the owner of Green Fish Market on Eighth Street, said it’s tough to be Chinese in America right now.

“When people look at this community, they think  ‘Oh my gosh, don’t come to Chinatown,’” Fung said. “But you know, though the virus started to spread from China, that doesn’t mean this is China. This is Chinatown.”

“It hurts,” she said. “I wish people were just a little bit more educated.”

Oakland Chinatown emerged during the California Gold Rush, at a time when Chinese migrants faced fierce discrimination in the U.S. Since then the area has grown into a bustling commercial and cultural hub in downtown Oakland, featuring Chinese and Asian places of worship, art centers, nonprofits, specialty stores and restaurants. But these days, that bustle has come to a halt.

“It used to be packed all the way, people lining up,” said Ron Mac, a server at Sakura Bistro in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, a restaurant that is celebrating its three year anniversary this month. On Thursday, just four people sat eating at the sushi bar at an hour the Japanese restaurant is usually bustling with customers ordering happy hour specials. “It’s like a ghost town.”

Buffet Fortuna in Oakland Chinatown has been temporarily closed.
Buffet Fortuna in Oakland Chinatown has been temporarily closed. Photo: Sarah Han

Next to Sakura Bistro are the dark windows of Peony Seafood Restaurant, a longstanding banquet hall for dim sum and Cantonese cooking. Peony temporarily shut its doors last week. “Sorry for any inconvenience,” reads a sign announcing its closure until the end of March. Peony’s general manager declined to comment on the closure, including whether the restaurant still planned to reopen.

Buffet Fortuna, a large Chinese restaurant on Broadway offering all-you-can-eat fare, temporarily closed too. The owner of the restaurant could not be reached for comment, but an employee at Buffet Fortuna’s second location in San Leandro told Nosh that the Oakland restaurant closed around March 2, as business had declined.

“Business was slow,” confirmed Navi Sath, a server at Fortuna’s next-door neighbor, Cambodian restaurant Battambang. As for Battambang, it now generates just a few hundred dollars — on a good day.

Glenn Yep, a manager at T&K Café, a Chinese restaurant on Eighth Street, said by phone that he is considering closing his business.

“I’m hoping we can survive through it, but I’m expecting to lose money every month,” he said. “If we lose too much, it’s better to close.”

A sign explaining the temporary closure at Buffet Fortuna.
A sign posted on the door at Buffet Fortuna said the closure is temporary until further notice. Photo: Sarah Han

Yep said business at T&K has declined “easily” by 50% since concerns of the coronavirus emerged in February. He reduced working hours and asked the landlord for a reduction in rent.

Kim Lam, the owner of Golden Peacock on Webster Street, said by phone that his business, too, has decreased by 50% since the beginning of February. “We will probably stick around for another three or four weeks,” he said. “Hopefully it will get better.”

Rang Dong, a Vietnamese restaurant on Webster Street, is also suffering. Owner Thang Bui said his customer base has declined by 30% and he cut workers’ hours. “If it gets worse, we’ll cut more,” he said. “We live with hope” and take it “day by day.”

Even Shan Dong, a Chinese restaurant known in the Bay Area for its noodles and dumplings, has seen business decline by 10%, according to manager Charles Hung. Hung believes Shan Dong’s ability to draw customers from outside of Oakland gives it an edge. Nevertheless, “if we begin to not make any more profit and are actually losing money, I’m honestly not sure what we will do,” he said, adding “it’s kind of hard to think about.”

Writer and expert on Chinese food Carolyn Phillips worries about the financial hit restaurant owners in Chinatown must bear. She is also concerned about their workers, many of whom have worked in particular restaurants or specialized in a single dish for their entire lives. “How are they going to survive?” she asked.

The closure of restaurants in Chinatown stands to hurt other local businesses who rely on their customer and worker foot traffic and supply raw ingredients.

The closure of restaurants in Chinatown stands to hurt other local businesses who rely on their customer and worker foot traffic and supply raw ingredients.

Calvin Ton, the owner of The Sweet Booth, a boba and smoothie shop in the same plaza as Peony, said that the first blow to his business was the coronavirus and the second was the closure of Peony. “I don’t think [Peony’s closure] is good for the market,” he said.

Fung supplied wild fish to Peony through her Green Fish Market. The restaurant’s closure resulted in markdowns on seafood at the grocery store in an effort to get customers to buy the restaurant’s supply. Shortspine thornyhead fish is down to $17 per pound from $20 or $25 per pound.

Green Fish Market also benefits from restaurant workers shopping at her market after finishing their shifts. “They will still come out and need groceries because they need to eat to survive, but they will probably buy less than usual,” Fung said.

“We are connected, so of course you want everyone to do well. We want all the restaurants to do well,” said Fung.

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Amalya Dubrovsky

Freelancer Amalya Dubrovsky grew up in Berkeley and studies at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is a lifelong fan of the East Bay food scene and loves to write about it for Nosh. Follow her...