Chinatown changes attract new crowds

Mister Jui's dining room. Photo: courtesy Mr. Jui's

If you haven’t been to Chinatown in a few years and all you remember are kitschy tourist shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, you’ve missed a transformation taking place.

Sure, many of the businesses that have made up Chinatown for decades are still there and likely will remain, thanks to strict zoning laws that have prevented the encroachment of office developments. But the mix is slowly changing and attracting people outside of Chinatown who might not have been back in a while.


Artists, culture lovers, and gourmands are being enticed by new galleries, performance spaces and restaurants, and they’re rediscovering longtime gems in the process. Physically, Chinatown is changing, too, with a Central Subway stop on the way in 2019, a Broadway streetscape project underway, and plans to renovate historic Portsmouth Square. “By 2020, Chinatown will look very different,” said Roy Chan, community planning manager with Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC).

That’s not to say it’ll lose its cultural character. “I don’t want it to go the way of parts of the Mission District,” said District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, referencing the displacement of Latino residents in favor of trendy cafes. “We need to proceed deliberately and carefully to preserve Chinatown. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for change, but I don’t start out with a worldview that it’s broken and needs to be fixed. It’s great and could stand improvement.”


Two of the highest-profile new places are Mister Jiu’s at 28 Waverly Place and China Live at 644 Broadway. Mister Jiu’s upscale Chinese restaurant opened in April 2016 to immediate acclaim and long waits for a reservation. It was awarded a Michelin star later in the year.

China Live opened in March amid a flurry of publicity — some good, some less so. Former Betelnut owner George Chen’s ambitious, contemporary emporium of Chinese food has raised eyebrows for delays and that it is opening in stages instead of all at once. But the slick interior and authentic Chinese food is attracting hordes of customers — and job seekers.

Chen said he hopes China Live customers will visit other places in the community when they come, such as the Wok Shop for kitchen items and Red Blossom Tea for high-end teas. “Everybody’s proud of what they’re doing,” he said. “There’s synergy.”

Add to this a smattering of places with a younger vibe cropping up selling bubble tea and snacks, and even Japanese dishes like sushi, poke, katsu, and ramen. And of course, there was the regaled reopening of Sam Wo at 713 Clay Street in October 2015.


In addition to restaurants, community groups such as the CCDC and Chinese Culture Center work together on art installations and projects such as the funky gallery space 41 Ross Alley. “The work that we do is very much about bringing people together and being a voice for the community,” said Jenny Leung, director of communications for the Chinese Culture Center.

The current exhibition, Eat Chinatown, is a tribute to Chinatown’s rich restaurant culture in current photos along with memorabilia and pictures from the past. Also, a light installation called Liminal Space/Crossings by Summer Mei-Ling Lee illuminates Ross Alley from sundown to midnight daily. It’s a metaphor for crossing the ocean; the artist drew on her grandmother’s experience of spending 30 days on a ship to come to the United States.

The center itself, inside the Hilton San Francisco Financial District at 750 Kearny Street, is also well worth a visit for its engaging, intellectually challenging contemporary art exhibitions. Don’t expect a musty gallery full of calligraphy painting and pottery. The current show, Martial Spirit by Justin Hoover, delves into stereotypes about martial arts, and features, among other things, several punching bags adorned with metal studs spelling out provocative sayings.

CCDC has also been supportive of legacy businesses in the community such as Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, VIP Bakery, and Clarion Music. “As China Live and Mister Jiu’s are opening and creating a buzz,” Chan said, “we also wanted to use this moment to uplift the old businesses that have been around a while and have something to offer.”


Clarion Music Center is another local gem. It used to sell instruments and rent space for lessons, but owner Clara Hsu, who previously sold it in 2005, bought it back and plans to transform it into a performing arts hub in addition to continuing to rent out studios for lessons. Her father, a piano manufacturer in Hong Kong, made all of the pianos still in use there today.

The first formal concert will be April 9 with a guitarist and violinist, and Hsu hopes to host opera performances by the end of the year and possibly a Christmas musical. She added: “Twenty or 30 years ago, I had a lot of ideas but I was not able to find people who could support me. But now when I come in here, there’s a totally new generation. I love my neighbors. They’re enthusiastic, they’re younger … I think there is an energy that wants to do something meaningful.”

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Geri Koeppel is a freelance writer in San Francisco with an interest in all things urban. Reach her at [email protected].