Monday, August 22, 2011

walking tour: Chinatown

Pacific Renaissance Plaza

Saturday was another great Oakland walking tour. This time it was Chinatown, an area of Oakland I don't know that much about. We met at the fountain in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, which is a fitting spot as it's where the Asian library branch is, as well as the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Annalee Allen was filling in for the regular guide, but we were fortunate to also have along a very knowledgeable Chinatown resident, Mr. Wong. And in a bit of good timing, Roy Chan, the director of the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project was there to tell us about the premiere of the latest installment in that. (More on that here.) Note that it's the Asian library branch and Asian Cultural Center, not Chinese, because Chinatown is really more of a pan-Asian area. The library has collections in 8 different languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Tagalog and Laotian) but residents represent even more backgrounds than that.

Oakland's Chinatown has a personal connection for mayor Jean Quan, and so a special version of the walk was done to celebrate her inauguration back in January. Like thousands of others, her great-grandfather and his family came to Oakland following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Her father attended Lincoln Elementary School. While the school is still largely Asian American, back then it was because of segregation.

vegis at Chinatown market

As we walked along Webster and a variety of markets, bakeries and other stores, the vibrancy of Chinatown became quickly apparent. There's a lot of people living, working and shopping there, and a ton of energy. We passed the well-known Silver Dragon restaurant, which was designed by past Oakland city councilmember Henry Chang.

The current center of Oakland's Chinatown is at 8th Street and Webster, but it hasn't always been there. Chinese first came to Oakland in the 1850s and settled in shrimp camps along the estuary. Many of them came to work on the transcontinental railroad, dams, and other infrastructure projects. Between moves, fires and forced relocation because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinatown moved 7 more times by 1880. Because of immigration restrictions, early Chinatown was largely a bachelor society.

Chinese Methodist Church

A source of help to fight discrimination and language barriers were various churches in the area. Although the current building is more recent, the Chinese Community United Methodist Church dates back to 1887, and has been at its current location since 1905.

We walked past the remarkable Asian Resource Center building (formerly Lyons storage) over to Harrison Square, one of the original 7 town square parks in Oakland. While I was growing up, it had historical railroad equipment because the transcontinental railroad ran along what is now 7th Street. Now it features Pioneer Hall and a community center.

From there we walked up to another of the original town square parks, Lincoln Square. It was originally called Oakland Square, but renamed to honor president Lincoln. The park at Lincoln Square is a bustling place, with a community center, basketball courts, and the distinctive Chinese junk ship play structure.

junk ship play structure

It was originally a project of the Wa Sung Community Service Club, built back in 1969. That structure was "loved to death", and replaced with a more modern structure in 2003.

The park also serves as the playground for nearby Lincoln Elementary School. Not only did Jean Quan's father attend Lincoln, our guest guide Mr. Wong had attended it as a child, in an earlier building on the same location.

The tour didn't go as far as Madison Square, which is the place for Tai Chi in the mornings. People do lots of other activities there, like badminton, fan dancing, sword dancing, and even line dancing.

There's a ton more to learn about Oakland's Chinatown. You can explore on your own (as I did a while back with yourwaitress), or go on the city-sponsored walking tour (which is free!). An upcoming chance to explore the area and have some fun is the Chinatown StreetFest 2011, August 27-28. Check out any of the 10,000 Steps markers you come across for a bit more history.

Lots more pictures:
Oakland Chinatown walking tour

More resources:

P.S. For those of you who were still with us to the end and wondered about the brass fire hydrant near EBMUD headquarters, Oakland Magazine did a short piece about it. (Follow that link and scroll down until you see the picture of the fire hydrant.) It's a little bit of history, too.

P.P.S. For whoever was wondering about Alice Street among Franklin, Jefferson, Clay, etc., it was named for the sister of one of Oakland's founders, Horace Carpentier. He was also the first mayor of Oakland.

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