The Experiences that Connect Chinatown

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The Experiences that Connect Chinatown

Melissa Chen

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Tucked on Grant Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown is Hoang Jewelry Co. Outside the narrow door, two small stone lions guard a couple buckets of trinkets.

Inside, 65-year-old Bea Hoang sits behind a glass counter encasing sparkling earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Around her, the front room is packed with an assortment of other items like scrolls, books and vases.

Hoang has a stylish bob and a little makeup dabbed on her weathered face. She straightens her back and lifts her chin as she gazes impassively out the open entryway. The street is bustling with conversation and laughter. But in the store, there is only the sound of silence.

After 30 years of running her gift shop, Hoang is preparing to shut it down. 

After people enter through the Dragon Gate of San Francisco’s Chinatown, they walk down streets lined with shops. These businesses are mostly family-owned and have been operating for years. The inexpensive wares range from mini figurines to calligraphy brushes. The customers? Almost all tourists. Lately, however, business has not been great for some of these souvenir shops. 

This isn’t necessarily because of a  decrease in visitors to Chinatown. According to Hoang, tourists just haven’t been purchasing as much. Instead, they drift in and out of shops.

Business has been so slow for Hoang that she has decided to shut down the store permanently. 

“Profit is not enough for rent,” Hoang said. “That is the case for many businesses.”

A business closing is usually never cause for celebration, but some people may see the gradual dying out of these souvenir stores as better ultimately for the authenticity of Chinatown. It’s true that some of the merchandise is tacky, and though many of the stores have been around for years, they are not part of the original history of Chinatown.

In the middle of the 19th century, an influx of Chinese left the wars, starvation and corruption of their homeland to build a new life for themselves in foreign countries. Some of the first inhabitants of San Francisco’s Chinatown were Chinese Gold Rush miners and railroad laborers. 

America was not as welcoming as they expected; the Chinese worked hard with low pay to just survive; facing discrimination, repression and other struggles. But in the middle of an unfamiliar and often hostile place, they united to form their own prospering community and home: Chinatown.

Gift shops aren’t usually a part of a close community. But some fail to realize that there is authenticity in the  “tacky” tourist shops that do tie them to the traditional Chinatown community. This isn’t something material, but rather a  connection that lies in the experiences of people.  

Hoang moved from Hong Kong to San Francisco in 1979 with her family, who had been in the jewelry business. After a few years working as a dishwasher in Chinatown, she finally saved enough to open a store with a few of her friends from Hong Kong.

“Ever since I was little, I liked doing business,” Hoang said. “I also like jewelry, so this is my dream.”

Her dream represents the “American Dream” that we all know so well, one that  is familiar to an immigrant community like Chinatown. Many immigrants come to the United States seeking a better home, more opportunities, freedom and rights. 

“This is the best place,” Hoang said. “The best place in all of America. This is the place with the most freedom. If you work hard, you are certain to reach your dream. In other countries it’s not like that.”

Chinese culture has many values, such as obedience to parents and respect for elders. The history of Chinatown shows an intersection between the pragmatism of Chinese values and a set of beliefs unique to American immigrants.

“The Chinese attitude is [for kids] to follow the path of their parents,” said Eric Huang, 16, of Palo Alto. “Make money and provide a better life for parents and their family.”

As a second-generation Chinese American, I know that a stable and high standard of living is sought after and usually outweighs passion and dreams. Dreams can’t feed a stomach. Sometimes, though, the dreams aren’t that outrageous. They can be as simple as owning a small jewelry shop. 

“If I didn’t have this dream, I wouldn’t have worked for thirty years,” Hoang said. “I’m old, and I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m retiring. But I can still work. I can’t just go home and wait to die.”

Hoang hopes to find another, more secure position as a jewelry salesperson. When she first came to San Francisco, she didn’t know any English. She says interacting with customers in her own shop has helped her gain a better grasp of the language, which is crucial to her now. 

After our interview she sits and chats animatedly on the phone with her friend in Cantonese. Even in the last days of her 30-year-old business she remains resilient and hopeful in life, firm in her beliefs of hard work and her community, her home. Clearly, this spirit still passes on from the beginnings of Chinatown. And if that is not authentic enough, I don’t know what is.

About the Writer
Photo of Melissa Chen
Melissa Chen, Reporter

Melissa Chen is a rising junior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, CA. Se started understanding journalism when she joined her school newspaper in the...

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