For the last few years, every Chinatown in the nation has been sent reeling by the double whammy of COVID-19 and high-profile attacks on members of the Asian community. This situation motivated multi-award-winning cookbook author and wok-expert Grace Young to launch a campaign to support these neighborhoods, an effort that resulted in a grant to assist some of the East Bay’s most vulnerable residents.
Young grew up near San Francisco’s Chinatown, and has lived in New York City for the past 40 years. Before the pandemic, she said, though she shopped and dined frequently in New York’s Chinatown, she took its mom-and-pop shops for granted. All that changed when she witnessed a score of those treasured spots go out of business as the coronavirus crisis continued.
Realizing that these precious resources could disappear forever, Young sprang into action, producing short films that highlighted the unique businesses and their dedicated owners, giving zoom lectures and countless interviews, raising money, and appealing on social media for people to support Chinatowns across the nation.
“Non-profit agencies in every Chinatown report the same things,” Young said, “less foot traffic, increased vandalism and burglaries. Chinatowns are very quiet at night, because locals are afraid to come out for fear of anti-Asian hate crimes. It’s important to give them as much support as possible.”
Young’s campaign, which began in 2020, attracted attention from both the media and the food world. In 2022, she was named the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year, and she also received the Julia Child award, which comes with $50,000 to be donated to the honoree’s non-profit organization of choice. To help as many communities as possible, Young opted to split the grant up between five Chinatowns: New York, San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu and Oakland.
“From the very beginning of the pandemic, I have been following news reports about Chinatowns,” Young said. “And there have been so many Asian American elders who have been attacked in Oakland, plus vandalism and burglaries. Oakland is one of the oldest Chinatowns too, and I worried about its survival.”
To administer the $10,000 grant, Young contacted Jessica Chen, executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, who recommended they partner with Wa Sung, a 70-year-old community service organization now headed by Karen Dea. The plan, which has a dual goal of providing food vouchers to elderly, food-insecure Chinatown residents and supporting legacy restaurants, allows voucher holders to visit two specific restaurants in Oakland to redeem a $10 meal voucher. In return, the restaurant will earn an additional $5 for every voucher redeemed.
Dea said that she thought carefully before she chose the restaurants that would participate in the program. “I chose New Gold Medal, a 30-year-old family business that makes home-cooked-style Cantonese food,” she said. “And because Grace likes to use healthy ingredients, Nature Vegetarian, which has been serving vegetarian and vegan dishes made from fresh ingredients for 12 years.”
Many of the 650 vouchers, which have no expiration date, were included in goodie bags given out to seniors at a recent event organized by another non-profit, Family Bridges. The rest will be given out at Oakland’s Lunar New Year Bazaar on Jan. 7 and 8.
New Gold Medal still stays open until 3 a.m., impressive in these days when most restaurants (in Chinatowns and elsewhere) across the country have curtailed their business hours. Kanching Lam has worked at Gold Medal for five years and his sister, Gigi Ma, has owned the restaurant for the last 30. Lam reported that a hundred seniors have already redeemed their vouchers. “They usually choose the roast duck or pork to take home. This is a good program!” he said.
“Every Chinatown faces different issues and challenges,” Chen said. “The 2020 census map for zip code 94607 describes it as low-income, with many residents living below the poverty line. We have a lot of senior housing. Many seniors come to Chinatown to enjoy the facilities, such as the Asian branch of the Oakland library and Asian health services.”
Pre-pandemic, there was a full calendar of community events and holiday celebrations. But COVID shut it all down. “When the hate crimes started happening,” Chen said, “not only was the younger generation unable to go visit their elder relatives, but they also called and warned them ‘don’t go downstairs to shop, don’t go outside, I will shop for you. I will send the food for you.’”
It created an epidemic of fear. “But now Oakland Chinatown is a very healthy place, Chen said. “All the seniors wear masks and gloves. We have volunteer patrol teams and many Oakland Police officers volunteer to help us. They park their vehicles here to have a visible presence.”
Chen adds that even COVID has had a bright side. “We used to think we can only do so much,” she said, “but now we know we can help restaurants fight for every opportunity. For example, now most restaurants can sell food online, even though it wasn’t part of the culture before.”
Grace Young’s message is that we should all stop taking Chinatowns for granted. She hopes people will patronize not just its restaurants but also its markets, bakeries, stores and shops.
“I’m always trying to point out that Chinatowns are completely made up of mom-and-pop businesses,” she said. “You don’t see any big chain stores in Chinatowns. Mom-and-pop businesses are an important part of our American culture and used to be considered the backbone of this country. These immigrant enclaves are such an important part of the American story.”
Both Chen and Dea admit they were unfamiliar with Grace Young’s work before she contacted them. They add that this can be attributed to the insularity of each community, something they are glad is changing.
“I’ve been working in Oakland Chinatown for 10 years,” Chen said, “and was always curious how other Chinatowns worked, but I learned that Chinatowns don’t really connect well.”
“When COVID happened,” Chen said, “we looked for resources to connect to other Asian communities. I really appreciate how Grace brought a different perspective to Oakland Chinatown and her efforts to help us and lift us up. We don’t want to only focus on bad news in Oakland. This was really heart-touching good news that we want to share and let people know this is a community for everybody. And I appreciate this because a lot of time, people only think of the Chinatown that they belong to, but even though Grace Young grew up in San Francisco, she was willing to reach out to other Chinatowns and help everybody. This is great. Grace Young has shown us we can work outside our community.”
Dea added her appreciation. “Grace is a chef, and she treats the community like ingredients in her wok,” she said.
“The wok takes all the different flavors of the people, but it is the chef who knows how to control that wok. She has been using it forever. The nice thing is that before this, we didn’t know Grace, but we know her now. She has reached out to us on the West Coast from the East Coast. It shows how the community brings us all together.”