Murals and minimal graffiti: VPD and business leaders tour San Francisco Chinatown

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VPD and B.C. business leaders tour San Francisco Chinatown
San Francisco has revitalized its Chinatown by doing a few simple things. Vancouver is hoping to learn from its experience. And as Kristen Robinson tells us, that could include cleaning up graffiti and changing its relationship with police. Kristen Robinson has more. – Sep 7, 2022

While it is much larger than Vancouver’s Chinatown and not next door to a challenging neighbourhood like the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver police and business leaders are hoping to learn from San Francisco’s Chinatown, which has few signs of street disorder or graffiti.

During a tour on August 30, the Vancouver delegates saw a community of seniors and families where merchants have a close relationship with the San Francisco Police Department.

Click to play video: 'Vancouver business leaders and VPD officers to tour San Francisco Chinatown'
Vancouver business leaders and VPD officers to tour San Francisco Chinatown

Traditional flute music, murals, lantern-lined streets, beautified laneways and beat cops are some of the scenes greeting visitors to the oldest Chinatown in North America.

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“In the 16-block radius, we have 35,000 people that live here,” Officer William Ma with the San Francisco Police Department said as he led the group along Grant Avenue.

Tane Chan, 84, has been running her legacy business, The Wok Shop, in Chinatown since 1969.

“I’m so proud of it because it retains everything, it retains the culture, it’s a living vibrant community,” Chan told Global News in an interview.

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There are about 15,000 SRO or single-room occupancy units in San Francisco’s Chinatown, many of them home to low-income seniors.

“They feel safe because there’s a lot of people, it’s not empty,” Chan said.

San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center has been fending off real estate speculators since 1977, according to executive director Malcolm Yeung.

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Nineteen of the non-profit’s 37 affordable housing properties are in and around Chinatown and Yeung sees housing as a platform to engage residents.

“Residents and stakeholders and community members need to drive where the community goes,” Yeung told Global News.

Read more: Vancouver delegation to tour San Francisco’s Chinatown to learn how it’s being revitalized

“They can’t do that unless they have support and tools to express their voice.”

Yeung said the realization that Chinatown needed to be kept affordable started in the 1960s civil rights era – when student activists fought to maintain the neighbourhood as an immigrant gateway amid wholesale redevelopment of the city.

Today he said many businesses are fueled by the residential base.

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The social fabric runs deep with police working to bond with merchants.

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“There’s a stigma among the Asian population that they don’t want to call 911 when things happen,” Ma told Global News.

“They kind of just want to keep it to themselves but that’s what we’re trying to change.”

Read more: Plagued by public safety concerns, Chinatown business owners plead for government help

Shirley Yu has owned Sweetheart Florist in Ross Alley for 25 years and receives regular visits from Ma and the other officers with San Francisco’s Chinatown Squad.

“He always asks do you have any problems, someone bother you?” Yu explained.

“When we have some problems, you call them and they come immediately.”

“I would say now the Chinatown community … has a bigger voice than we’ve had before,” Ma said.

Yu’s neighbour across the lane, Kevin Chan, recently celebrated 60 years of rolling out fortune cookies the family-owned Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

“Twenty or 30 years ago this place is prostitution, gangs, sewing factory, it was tough to do business — very tough,” he said.

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But Chinatown, Chan said, persevered.

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“People had to contribute,” he said.

“Each and every one has to contribute and care, care about community. It’s all about caring.”

While meeting with the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Vancouver Police Department Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow told the group Vancouver is very proud of its Chinatown, but admitted “there [are] areas that we need to fix.”

Vandalism is prevalent in Vancouver’s Chinatown, but graffiti in San Francisco is almost as hard to spot as the Golden Gate Bridge through the fog.

“You guys keep it off,” said William Hung with the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation during a meeting with San Francisco Public Works’ staff.

Read more: Vancouver street artists craft mural for Chinatown business that challenged graffiti taggers

The faster crews remove graffiti, the more likely the taggers will eventually get tired and find somewhere else to leave their monikers, San Francisco Public Works assistant superintendent Jonathan Vaing said.

“These guys want their signature or whatever, they want it on there for a long time, so it’s like a challenge for them to keep coming.”

The City of San Francisco also holds annual ‘wipeouts’ in various neighbourhoods, including Chinatown, where graffiti is removed en masse on private property in order to help merchants maintain it.

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“We’ve had efforts where we’re going to get all the graffiti off the rollup doors ’cause that’s a big issue in Chinatown,” San Francisco Public Works manager Ian Schneider explained.

Ma said it’s a privilege to be able to serve and protect in the most historic Chinatown in the U.S..

“When I walk through these streets, that weight of the history and significance of what I’m doing and who I’m representing, it bears upon me and I don’t take it lightly, and I don’t take it for granted,” he said.

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