Why Stockton Street is the beating heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown

People out grocery shopping on Stockton Street in Chinatown
People out grocery shopping on Stockton Street in Chinatown, San Francisco on Friday, May 31, 2024.Craig Lee/The Examiner

Stockton Street is a vibe, one hard to experience anywhere else in The City.

It feels entirely disconnected from the nearby Financial District, with its crush of metropolitan high-rises and office workers just a few blocks down the hill.

On Stockton, the smells of Chinese barbecue, fresh fish, and dried Ginseng hangs in the air. Cantonese is the first, and sometimes only, language you hear. Residents, many elderly, push carts brimming with bok choy and bitter melon along sidewalks, while slow-roasted pork and duck hang from hooks in small storefronts.

To many advocates, the Stockton Street corridor is a beacon of San Francisco Chinatown’s past, present, and future.

Four years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinatown has been dogged by a sharp dip in tourism and the exodus of downtown office workers, which continue to sting the historic neighborhood.

But through it all, Chinatown’s heart continues beating, which is why many organizers and community leaders remain bullish on its long-term future.

Stockton Street, the neighborhood’s bustling multi-block thoroughfare lined with more than 100 mom-and-pop grocery stores, restaurants, herbal shops, family associations, churches, and housing complexes, has fared better through the pandemic than its more famous counterpart, the adjacent Grant Avenue.

“Stockton Street is truly the core of the neighborhood,” said Rosa Chen, policy director at the Chinatown Community Development Center. “It’s where most of the residents are located. It’s where most of the residential needs are.”

Roast duck hanging in the front window of New Golden Daisy at 1041 Stockton Street in Chinatown, San Francisco on Friday, May 31, 2024.Craig Lee/The Examiner
Produce market on Stockton Street in Chinatown, San Francisco on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.Craig Lee/The Examiner

The area — whose boundaries are loosely defined by Stockton Street between Sacramento Street and Columbus Avenue — is centrally located around most of Chinatown’s 13,000 residents, many of whom are either longtime residents, new immigrants, low-income, elderly, or a mix of the four, CCDC organizers said.

The street is bordered by buildings whose top floors are crammed with dozens of affordable housing units while the bottom levels serve as storefronts.

Muni lines, which Chen said 90% of Chinatown residents use as their primary transportation, crisscross Stockton. The street is also home to Chinese-language banks and pharmacies, and is within walking distance to the Chinese Hospital, which has provided vital medical services to the neighborhood’s residents for 125 years.

Huiquing Kuang immigrated to the U.S. two years ago and lives in a Chinatown SRO with her husband and two young children. To her, Stockton Street feels like home.

“It has everything we need,” said Kuang through an interpreter. “Stockton Street is really important for us to fit in. It’s easier for us to adapt to life here.”

That symbiotic relationship between residents and businesses is one that organizers say will sustain the neighborhood into the future.

A tale of two streets

The difference between Stockton and Grant — separated only by a block — is stark.

While Stockton is filled with locals, Grant caters primarily to tourists with its famous Dragon Gate, paper lanterns and rows of shops selling San Francisco-themed trinkets. Along Grant, you’ll hear far more English speakers and European accents and see far more non-Chinese people.

Even as domestic tourism has rebounded, Grant Avenue’s future remains murky as many of its businesses were decimated by pandemic travel restrictions. Edward Siu, who runs a Chinatown-based travel agency, said international tourists, who accounted for most pre-pandemic visitors to the neighborhood, are still significantly lagging.

“I’m worried about Grant,” Siu said. “‘I’m seeing tours right now, especially to Chinatown, are way behind compared to before the pandemic.”

“Usually, we have a lot of tourists from Asia. But right now, you don’t see them.”

According to Siu, president of the Chinatown Merchants Association, Stockton Street’s business is roughly 70% of pre-pandemic levels, as opposed to Grant Avenue, which is between 15% and 20%.Grant Avenue in Chinatown

Grant Avenue in Chinatown, San Francisco on Friday, May 31, 2024.Craig Lee/The Examiner

Mandy Jiang, owner of S&M Ginseng, a herb and grocery store on the corner of Stockton and Washington Streets, said with so many people stuck in their homes and left to cook for themselves, her business actually did better at the immediate onset of the pandemic than it had before the virus struck.

“A lot of people like to cook at home, so they came in to buy ingredients and then brought it home to cook,” Jiang said through Siu, who interpreted. “Less people were going out to eat.”

Co-owners Siu Yuen Chung (right) and Mandy Jiang of S & M Ginseng Inc. at 1000 Stockton Street in Chinatown, San Francisco on Friday, May 31, 2024.Craig Lee/The Examiner

Like most stores along Stockton, nearly all of S&M Ginseng’s signage is in Chinese.

“I think that makes a difference,” Chen noted. “With a neighborhood like Chinatown, we have a corridor that is purely focused on residents. It really helps to ensure that we also make residents feel like this is the neighborhood they want to live in because they feel like they’re part of that neighborhood, they’re cared for and people understand that they are the main target for the usage.”

Thriving, but challenges remain

That’s not to say businesses along Stockton aren’t dealing with challenges. Many Stockton Street business owners expressed frustration over broader economic realities, like inflation, lower consumer buying power, and rising rents.

The latter is why the popular Hing Lung restaurant, a fixture on Stockton for the last 40 years and best known for its crispy and tender Cantonese-style deli meats, moved out of the neighborhood in April.

Mei Zhu, owner of Mei’s Groceries at 1037 Stockton Street in Chinatown, San Francisco on Friday, May 31, 2024. Zhu opened her grocery store in 2013.Craig Lee/The Examiner

Mei Zhu, owner of Mei’s Groceries, said through an interpreter that it was “very tough” to bounce back from the pandemic. While many Chinatown residents continued to shop, she said, San Franciscans living in other neighborhoods, like Sunset and Richmond districts, who would frequent the area, haven’t returned. She blamed the lack of parking in Chinatown, a situation she said was made worse by some former curbside spaces that The City has repainted into loading-only yellow zones.

Stacey Xian, owner of New Golden Daisy deli, a few doors down from Zhu, said 2024 has been the worst economic year since the pandemic. She said the free meals distributed by the food bank and local nonprofits to low-income Chinatown families have hurt her bottom line.

Many business owners also complained that illegal street vendors selling poultry, fish, and vegetables directly in front of their stores were taking customers from them. They said the number of vendors had increased since the pandemic.

Still, according to city data, Chinatown sales revenue has almost completely bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinatown sales tax amounted to roughly $940,000 in the last quarter of 2023, down approximately 5% to the same period in 2019.

But Siu disputed the accuracy of those numbers, citing the high number of vacancies that remain in the neighborhood.

“The economy in Chinatown is getting weak,” Siu surmised.

Optimism for Chinatown’s future

Chinatowns across the nation are facing extinction or hollowing out due to soaring rents that threaten to displace longtime residents and immigrants.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, populations in some of the country’s densest Chinatowns have declined between 1990 and 2020, including New York City, which lost 24% of its residents, Washington D.C., 41%, and Philadelphia, 15%. San Francisco lost 6%.

People out grocery shopping on Stockton Street at Jackson Street in Chinatown, San Francisco on Friday, May 31, 2024.Craig Lee/The Examiner

But CCDC organizers are confident that San Francisco Chinatown’s vibrancy, one of the oldest in the U.S., will endure largely due to streets like Stockton.

“Stockton Street really holds the community together,” Chen said. “And even into the future, I think the way that it’s so residents-serving will constantly continue to serve the residents that live there so that we can ensure that they want to stay and continue living here.”

Source: https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/the-city/the-heart-of-san-francisco-chinatown-is-also-its-beacon-of-hope/article_6d7ff5a6-2501-11ef-a3b1-afaea645fb93.html

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