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Oakland Chinatown: A True Community in City's Downtown

By Ilka Hartmann, From The Catholic Voice, December 17, 1970
Photos printed with this article can be found here.


A person driving through Chinatown in Oakland might pass by and hardly notice it. Perhaps he would see that there are a few more signs for Chinese restaurants than in other parts of the city and that there are a few old-fashioned green grocers whose vegetables and fruits are laid out for display in boxes on the sidewalk.


But only a person who walks along the few streets which make up Chinatown can see that every store has a Chinese name on it. Only he can hear the shoppers speak Chinese to store owners and to the children who sit and run everywhere. Only when he stops and looks into the store windows will he see that they are filled with goods alien to non-Chinese eyes.


He will be surprised to see that, unlike Chinatown in San Francisco, there are no gift shops, nothing to attract tourists except for the genuineness of a small ethnic community within a large city.


This community is a four to six-block area in the downtown part of Oakland, four blocks south of the Tribune tower, stretching from Franklin to Harrison and 7th to 9th streets. Webster Street and 8th Street are its heart.


About 1200 people live here. But that population was once 3000. Many houses were destroyed for the construction of three major projects: The Nimitz Freeway, BART and the campus of Peralta College.


People in Chinatown are not rich. The average yearly income of a family is about $3000 Unemployment is high. Workers skilled in Hong Kong cannot get jobs here because they are not members of the unions. They cannot join the unions because they cannot pass the tests administered in English. It is not unusual for eight persons to live in an apartment of two or three rooms.


Yet Chinatown has never been considered by the federal government to be on the poverty level and hardly ever has it received any kind of federal funding.


There are various reasons for this situation: 

Many Chinese who live in Chinatown come directly from Canton province through Hong Kong. Since the lifting of the Exclusion Act in 1965 which permitted only 100 Chinese immigrants per year into the United States (the quota is now 20,000), relatives of people already here can come and join them.


Therefore much of the population still has immigrant status. An immigrant can only receive welfare after he has been here for five years.


Others who are still on immigrant status have been here for long period and would like to apply for welfare assistance but they are afraid they would be deported if they became wards of the state. This, however, is not true.


Many of the older immigrants who have been here long enough to be eligible or even have become citizens are simply too proud to accept welfare from the state. Often they are educated people who cannot work because of problems of licensing. They simply will not accept welfare.


Still others don't know anything about the possibilities of aid from the government because they do not understand English and generally are afraid of anything that has to do with the government.


Schools are primarily qualified for aid on the basis of the number of families connected to them who receive welfare. Many parents do not say if they are on welfare or how much they earn. Pride forbids them, for example, to admit that they work 10 to 12 hours for the wages of eight hours.


All this makes outsiders think that the Chinese community helps itself. "They don't come and knock on the doors of City Hall for help," as a non-Chinese said. Because they are not boycotting or demonstrating it often appears -- from a distance, at least -- that they are not in need.


However, younger and especially American-born Chinese think differently.


"We have to fulfill our obligations. They (the state) don't fulfill their obligations. We are citizens when it comes to taxpaying, but not when it comes to funding," a young Chinese doctor said. "We have not been treated as first class citizens. We have founded many small organizations to help ourselves. They should continue," he went on. "But the bigger problems of housing, education, jobs, health care, etc., cannot be solved by the Chinese community alone," he emphasizes.


It is true. Chinatown is a working, coherent community. There is a community center, which is supported by a Chinese foundation. It has classes in Mandarin and Cantonese for the Chinese who speak only English. In addition, classes for the foreign-born are offered inEnglish by the governmental adult education program.


There is a playground with a huge Chinese junk for children to climb upon or simply to sit in and dream. It was donated by a Chinese service organization. Another group gave a clubhouse.


There is an old people's center where there are always some old men who sit and read the Chinese language paper or who just look out the window at the people passing by. It is conveniently located near the liveliest and most interesting corner of Chinatown -- Webster Street next to the crossing of 8th  Street.The center is supported by donations.


There is the Oakland Chinese Community Council which was formed when people felt they needed an organization to solve some of their problems, especially the needs of new immigrants. The council has a newcomers' service.


Finally, there is the Information and Referral Service, which offers the most direct help to the community. It informs people of such available services as medical benefits, social security, old age programs, food stamps, etc.


It, too, is privately financed. The initiative came from a Chinese woman who first worked as a volunteer and who now has a paid staff position working with other volunteers. Languages used are Chinese and English.


The service has established connections to Chinese people working in all governmental agencies who can give needed information and assistance quickly and with reliability. A volunteer Chinese senior citizen works with them to help with the problems of the old Chinese. Once a week, a Chinese worker from a State Employment agency comes and reports on job openings.


It now seems that the federal government may be willing to give some assistance to Chinatown. For many years leaders of Chinatown asked the Oakland Redevelopment Agency and the City for redevelopment in a portion of their community. Now it appears that development might be realized with the help of a $2 million federal credit for the BART program.


The proposal calls for development of a four- block area west of Chinatown, between Broadway and Webster, 9th and 11th streets. The development for the Chinese would consist of shops, restaurants, a motel, parking garage, 250-300 units of housing and an Asian cultural center with a museum and theater.


If federal funds are received and redevelopment actually begins, this will also mean the beginning of a new phase in the history of Chinatown. For, as long as it has existed, Chinatown has run itself. Redevelopment will represent a new force from the outside.


It will remain to be seen if a real partnership can be established between the Redevelopment Agency and the whole community of Chinatown. The crucial question will be whether the whole community will have a chance to decide what is going to happen to the area to be developed and whether it is going to be in the interest of and meet the needs of the majority of the people of Chinatown.



Author’s Note:  Please excuse the generic "he" still common in 1970.


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