OAKLAND, CA (KGO) — When Roy Chan walks through Auckland’s Chinatown, he sees more than food markets, restaurants and herbal shops, he sees memories.
“My father lived here as a bachelor in the 1950s. He was a butcher,” said Chan, project director for the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC).
Chan said his father, Albert Chan, didn’t feel like he belonged when he immigrated to the United States until he moved to Oakland’s Chinatown.
“He was able to practice his culture here and feel connected,” Chan explained.
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These are the kinds of stories Chan helps capture with the Oakland Chinatown Oral History project, which began in 2006 to document the personal history of Chinatown residents and important sites such as the Asia Branch Library and Madison Square Park (now Wilma Chan). park) where residents gather to practice tai chi.
“Oakland’s Chinatown is almost as old as San Francisco’s Chinatown. It has been in this place for 150 years. As such, an oral history project is a great way to get a really deep understanding of the area. We also want to make businesses more visible,” Chan said. .
The project includes an online map of Chinatown that highlights the history of many businesses.
It includes locations such as the Yuen Hop Noodle Company at 824 Webster Street, a family owned grocery store.
Since 1931, four generations of the Quan family have been preparing fresh noodles at this place.
Unlike San Francisco’s Chinatown, which caters to tourists, Oakland’s Chinatown is primarily made up of working-class immigrants. Most of the shops only have signs in Chinese.
“A lot of people speak English,” said Chan, who encourages visitors to enter the stores and talk to the owners.
“This is an opportunity to dig deeper and see what the area has to offer,” he explains.
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A few blocks later, at 1002 Webster, Chan walks into Draline Tong Herbs, one of several herbal stores in the area.
Owner Henry Lau smiles as he says in English that he opened the herbal shop 43 years ago.
“I’m a Chinatown antiques dealer,” he said as he opened one of the many wooden cabinets behind the counter that held dried fruits, herbs and mushrooms that can help cure all sorts of illnesses.
Chan asks what he recommends for lowering cholesterol, and Lau points to dried cranberries that can be used to make soup.
“He’s definitely the guardian of the area’s culture,” Chan says.
On his way back to 7th Street, Chan stops at 723 Webster Street, where Imperial Soup is located.
A chalkboard written in Chinese shows some of the menu items, but owner Jack Chen is happy to explain the benefits of his food in English.
Imperial Soup specializes in herbal soups that are steamed for four or more hours to extract the nutrients into the broth.
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“It is easier for your body to absorb. You won’t find a soup like this anywhere else in the United States,” Chen said. “Our mothers used to make this soup for us.”
Chan is carrying a black-and-white photograph of the building, taken in the 1950s when it was the Great China restaurant.
“My family owned this restaurant from 1943 to 1961, and it was here that my childhood blossomed,” said Flo Oi Wong, a self-proclaimed “restaurant kid” who worked at her family’s restaurant after school.
“I see the restaurant as my belly,” explains Wong, who is now an established artist.
When she was a child, someone gave her a Brownie camera, which she used to take pictures of people and places around Chinatown. In the 1980s, she began painting Chinatown life from these photographs.
One of her photographs shows her mother, her father and herself.
“In real life, I had very little time with either because our family was very large. And so I drew this drawing to spend time with my parents,” said Wong.
Her sister Nellie Wong became a writer. Some of her poems reflect her childhood.
Some deal with her desire to be more American.
“At times I felt like I wasn’t really American because of the racism and sexism. Chinatown was the only world I knew even though we were part of Oakland. My heart is there,” she explains.
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Chan points to the complicated history of Chinatown.
“Many people think that Chinatown is just a place where Chinese people gather because they enjoy being together, but the origin of Chinatown was that they were not allowed to live anywhere else in the city,” Chan said.
In 1882, Congress approved the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted Chinese immigration to the United States.
For this reason, the Wong sisters said that their mother cannot immigrate to the United States to be with their father because spouses are not allowed to enter the country.
She had to pretend to be her husband’s sister in order to come to the United States.
“For a long time my mother had a dual identity. It affected us children because we could call our father, but we have to call our mother aunt,” said Flo Wong.
At least Chinatown was a welcoming place.
“I am attached to Chinatown. I’m tied to Auckland. Now I live in the suburbs, but I will come back as many times as I can, because when I go out, my soul is full, ”said Wong.
If you would like to learn more about the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project, visit chinatownmemories.org.
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