Within a year of Trinh Banh’s 1980 arrival in California, the seven-year-old Vietnamese refugee found herself in the large and lively multicultural community centered in Oakland Chinatown. Opening a food business was a natural decision for her family, since Banh’s mother, Hanh Chau, had been a successful chef at the family’s quan (bistro-size eatery) in Camau, a village in Vietnam’s deep south. Banh said that few people on lunch break near their location behind Oakland City Hall would recognize the regional Camau delicacies, so they played it safe and catered to the American palate at Phi Loan. But daily life for this family was filled with the more diverse flavors and nourishing relationships of the wider Chinatown community, and it was a world Banh had reason to assume would always be there for her.
By March 2020, Banh had expanded the reach of her community connections through a thriving career in marketing and media. She was at the end of a long project when the shelter-in-place order landed. “I thought I was going to travel for a while,” she said. Instead, she met the moment with a new idea called Good Good Eatz, an initiative forged from both heartbreak and hope, with the motto, “feeding the people who’ve been feeding us, one meal at a time.”
The concept for Good Good Eatz sprang up quite suddenly during a conversation with a recently found friend, visual designer Tommy Wong, whose Civic Design Studio helps communities show their best faces to the public via design and exciting cultural events. Wong also co-founded Chinatown Improvement under fiscal sponsorship of East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), working to elevate the reputation — and the reality — of Oakland Chinatown as a clean, safe, well-maintained place that businesses, children, families and visitors can enjoy.
It’s important to recall that the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco are the oldest such enclaves in the United States, dating back to the California Gold Rush. Like other Chinatowns across the country, these neighborhoods preserve historical, cultural and culinary treasures of Asian immigrant life, bear scars wrought by such periods of discrimination as the Chinese Exclusion Act, WWII internments, and arguably, COVID-19; and contribute richly to their cities’ tax bases as strong centers of urban economic activity.
“Historically, these Chinese businesses have not interacted with the city or received a lot of support.”
“In 2018, Chinatown was the second-largest sales-tax revenue source for a neighborhood of its similar size [in Oakland],” said Wong, who is trying to get Oakland and its residents, developers and visitors to recognize the importance of its Chinatown. “Historically, these Chinese businesses have not interacted with the city or received a lot of support.”
“Our worlds merged as we sought to figure out how to support our community in response to the pandemic,” said Banh about her partnership with Wong.
The two set up Good Good Eatz as a project of Chinatown Improvement with three general aims:
One calls on a network of community-support organizations and donors, like Save Our Chinatowns, to help local restaurants and markets in Oakland’s Chinatown, Fruitvale and Eastlake districts cover costs of making food for shut-ins, shut-outs (unhoused and unemployed) and relief workers.
Another provides encouragement, ideas and technical expertise to help these food entrepreneurs get out their stories more effectively, not only to help them stay in business through the shutdown, but to gain the long-term benefits of better marketing. This effort is powered by an ever-growing group of volunteers and partnerships, such as with the Oakland High School Visual Arts Academy, where photography teacher Jesse Shapiro guides students to photograph merchants’ food.
A third has been to help merchants apply for financial relief.
Anchor of the neighborhood
Yuen Hop Co. at 824 Webster St. is a linchpin of Oakland Chinatown food commerce. Banh describes the 90-year-old business as “THE place to go for noodles and other goods.”
According to Anthony Quan, current proprietor of his family’s business, in earlier years Yuen Hop operated as a tofu and noodle factory, but as demand for a full range of groceries grew with the influx of residents from Southeast Asia, the noodle manufacturing was moved to a different Oakland location.
When the lockdown began, Wong visited Yuen Hop and helped Quan launch a CSA-type food box service to help get essentials out to customers sheltering at home.
“People don’t want to go mingle inside a grocery store,” said Quan, “so I threw together some items I would buy for a weeklong shopping trip.” That meant tofu, noodles, vegetables for stir-fry, fruit and some essential cookies in the 30 boxes he had already assembled, but Quan said he’ll add in more items as he gets feedback.
Orders are placed using Instagram direct message; payment is through Venmo. There’s curbside pickup or the option for no-contact delivery by @dragonflydeliveries. Good Good Eatz encourages donations to get some of these boxes to community elders and others having trouble filling their larders.
Dragonfly’s Dina Suarez, a preschool teacher newly unemployed during the pandemic, came to Good Good Eatz via Wong’s large orbit, stepping up to help get the food out to the people.
“Oakland is the home of the Black Panther Party, where they started their food program to feed hungry children in the community over 50 years ago,” said Suarez. “When the opportunity to be of service to my community emerged, so did my wings. In many communities [the dragonfly] is a symbol of transformation and medicine. I hope to bring that healing in every no-contact delivery that I make.”
The shelter-in-place order should keep Dragonfly aloft, and Quan feels Yuen Hop will remain busy supplying groceries to the many now cooking at home. However, owners whose shops rely on a large restaurant trade experience it differently.
When happy crowds go missing
The sudden quiet has been deafening for Finnie Phung, second-generation owner of her family’s Green Fish Seafood Market at 333 Eighth St. Phung takes pride in the shop’s strong reputation among restaurant buyers for its supply of healthy wild fish, which bide their time in the shop’s 30 tanks. “Seafood” is written on storefront signs in Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and English, so all are welcome to this typically crowded place. Phung describes her store as “happy crowded,” and that happiness has been AWOL since the lockdown began.
Banh repeats what many in the industry know: Seafood is popular on nights out, but few people cook it at home, some out of fear of fishy smells, but often because they are not sure how. Phung — who Banh describes as a great cook — is both adept and informative with her Instagram posts, so the Good Good Eatz team has been coaching her toward making cooking videos.
On last check, Phung, who has three kids to manage on top of the business, had yet to turn the video camera on herself, but it’s easy to imagine a few of her colorful and well-captioned Instagram posts turned into video.
Make good karma
“Cam Anh is the first business we launched with,” said Banh. “We worked quite fast and furious to pivot Anh as the landscape shifted quickly into a contact-less model.”
This small Vietnamese deli at 920 Webster St. is owned by Anh Nguyen, a plucky entrepreneur who also owns Folks’ Art gift shop in Montclair. It takes courage to own and run two entirely different businesses, and even more to live up to the 33-year-long legacy of the beloved Cam Huong, which Nguyen took over in March 2019. She had gone there often to soothe her nostalgia for the flavors of home, and she’s been fortunate that the shop has remained well-patronized by workers on lunch break from Uber, AT&T and Waste Management.
When the shutdown happened, Bahn and Wong encouraged Nguyen to simplify her menu to her six top-selling items (which made a serendipitous occasion to shine a spotlight on her new vegan dishes like the lemongrass tofu banh mi sandwich). Wong showed how to operate contactless pickup and payment/order flow, dropped off PPE supplies to maintain all safety measures and funneled in Save Our Chinatowns funds so Nguyen was ready when the Wa Sung Community Service Club approached her to help provide food relief for nearby homeless communities on Easter Day. Good Good Eatz also showed how to document Cam Anh’s relief work on Instagram.
According to Nguyen, Oakland Chinatown had already gone quiet four weeks ahead of the lockdown. “People think Chinatown is where the virus came from, but that’s wrong. It’s unfair. It’s opposite.” Nguyen recalled how Oakland’s Asian population were watching developments in Wuhan, understood that the contagion was already spreading around the world, and readied themselves, wearing masks about two months before the stay-home order went into effect. “Chinatown has the lowest number of cases,” she added.
“Asians like to keep a low profile, but as a survivor, I realized I could help. I’m a refugee, so I know what it’s like to be locked down,” she said.
On Mother’s Day, Nguyen donated another round of sandwiches to a group serving homeless mothers.
“If we step up, other people will realize they can too. I want to make the community better… make good karma.”
Find your fortune
Good Good Eatz found receptive partners at 261 12th St. in the Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory, where passionate young talent has recently moved into owner-operator position. Founded in 1957 by Calvin Wong, the factory was not the first of its kind in the Bay Area, but it’s the oldest still in operation. Calvin is now retired and in his 90s, but the factory is still operated by the Wong family. Six years ago, when Calvin’s granddaughter, Alicia Wong, was just out of college, she agreed to help her parents save the business. The plan was to integrate Alicia and her husband, Alex Issvoran, and fully pass the baton by 2025. With the young couple now running the factory and growing the business, the result is that these are no longer your ordinary fortune cookies. They’re real eye-poppers.
Alicia, who has a keen ear for customers’ wishes, started dipping the cookies in Belgian dark chocolate and Swiss white chocolate (which can take on any color), adding colored sugar crystals and letting her imagination go wild to produce items for every holiday, season and commemoration. A Warriors “Champions” cookie, for instance, sported team colors, players’ jersey numbers, and an edible Warriors logo. When the young couple built the company’s website in 2016, they created a portal for customers to type in their own fortune cookie messages.
“It’s all extremely labor-intensive,” said Alicia. “No one in their right mind would make them this way.”
Now, with no walk-in customers, weddings and gatherings on hold, suppliers closed down, and everybody cutting back on purchases, the factory has had to furlough six employees. Marketing guidance from Good Good Eatz has helped the young couple take the situation head-on with new ideas like “gratitude cookies,” which customers can offer as thanks to delivery workers, and a quarantine care package with an animal charades game that functions as well over Zoom as each kid acts out the animal printed on the fortune for others to guess. Try to portray a speedy snail, for instance.
“We’re trying everything we can to stay put here because we want to come back,” said Alicia. “A lot of employees are older women who don’t have the luxury of retiring or finding jobs elsewhere because they don’t speak English, they don’t drive. Their husbands work in restaurants and they are laid off, so we’re the only source of income for their families. We have to stay alive for them. It’s really important for me, not only because of the history behind what we have here in Chinatown, behind our products. I want to preserve it for the future.”
“A cookie can encapsulate a message that you can use to share with other people, pique their interest and curiosity or surprise them. There’s so much meaning that you can put in a cookie.”
The higher hurdles
Language was but one barrier for getting a view into Chinatown’s legacy restaurants. Wong described these predominantly southern Chinese, Cantonese-speaking establishments as “an internal community that we and other people are trying to bridge.” Few of these businesses are on Instagram or Facebook, since they are fully engaged instead on the powerfully integrated WeChat app, which dominates in Asia. That leaves them out of the new local no-contact takeout and delivery market for customers not on WeChat.
“In the end, you’re always running into issues of language access, cultural differences, trust… those kinds of things,” said Wong. “And while these businesses are in jeopardy, as are most businesses, there is something to be said for immigrant communities’ resilience.”
But even when the economy reopens, Good Good Eatz will continue working with Chinatown businesses.
“It’s relief, recovery and reinvent,” Banh said.
Goodgoodeatz.com offers a substantial list of Oakland Chinatown’s legacy restaurants (and newer ones as well), all ripe to be supported. Banh suggests Sobo Ramen, where Stella Loi’s flavor-rich bowls make a perfect gateway for people wanting to discover Oakland Chinatown. She says to visit Vien Huong for any of their noodle soups, or Huangcheng Noodle House, which specializes in dishes from the Xian region of China (now hot on the food scene). Chinatownimprovement.org is the place to go to learn more about Tommy Wong’s initiatives. If hunger is not the most immediate motivation, wander over to saveourchinatowns.org to make a donation to support Good Good Eatz’s efforts and learn more about our Chinatowns.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor and publisher of Edible East Bay. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, East Bay Express, SF Chronicle and on KQED radio. She is the author of Touring the Sierra Nevada, published in 2007 by University of Nevada Press.