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The Last Empress: Chinatown Takes a Stand Against Tech 

Wednesday, Oct 21 2015
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Chong Imports is having a going out of business sale. Banners in the two-story emporium of Chinese jewelry, art, tchotchkes, and souvenirs promise 75 percent discounts. A computer-printed sign posted next to framed Chinese silk needlework warns, "Last Chance For Dying Artworks!!!"

Sales clerks can't say when the longtime Chinatown business will close its doors, but they know the end is coming soon.

"The building is for sale," a saleswoman confides.

The building is 838 Grant Avenue, an imposing, six-story concrete block of Hong Kong brutalism that looms over Portsmouth Square in the heart of Chinatown. Officially called the China Trade Center, it's better known by the name of its most famous former tenant: the Empress of China restaurant, which closed last New Year's Eve after 48 years in business.

Upstairs from Chong Imports, tenants are similarly on edge and out of the loop. The poorly lit third and fourth floors host more than a dozen professional offices: travel agents, accountants, insurance agents, a dentist.

Harvey Louie, a Farmer's Insurance agent who has worked out of Suite 414 for 35 years, can only shrug when asked about his future in the building. "Go ask the owners," he suggests. (Attempts to reach members of the Chong family, who own the building via three corporations, were unsuccessful.)

Calvin Louie, an accountant with offices on the third floor, isn't that worried. He figures that even if the building sells tomorrow, it will take at least two years for the new owners to get the permits to renovate.

"After that," he says, "who knows?"

The fate of 838 Grant Avenue has been uncertain for nearly a year. The decidedly old-school Empress of China, which occupied the 5th and 6th floors, served its final Peking Duck on December 31, 2014, after the Chongs decided to put the property on the market.

The restaurant — a San Francisco institution popular for banquets, proms, and weddings — chose not to operate on a month-to-month lease, but most of the rest of the tenants remain in limbo, chasing rumors of potential sales.

The rumor mill kicked up a notch last week. On August 30, the lawyer representing the current owners of 838 Grant submitted a request for a "Letter of Determination" regarding the building's zoning to the San Francisco Planning Department.

Something of a bureaucratic formality — according to Planning spokeswoman Gina Simi, a letter of determination does not involve any decisions by the department but is simply a "written response" that explains to a landowner what are and are not the permitted uses for a particular property — the request is being interpreted by some in Chinatown as a signal that after a year on the market, a sale is imminent.

The letter sounded an alarm. Last Tuesday, members of various Chinatown community organizations — including the Chinatown Community Development Corporation (CCDC), the Chinatown Progressive Association (CPA), and the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, as well as Supervisors David Campos and Norman Yee (who grew up in Chinatown) — held a press conference outside the iconic building to announce the formation of a new coalition.

It may be too late to save the Empress, but the group vowed to prevent the building from being converted to that working-class neighborhood scourge: offices for tech workers.

"No tech offices in Chinatown" a banner read.

"If tech offices invade Chinatown buildings, there is no way our community-serving merchants can compete with them on rent," Chinese Chamber President Eddie Au said in a statement. "We will be driven out of Chinatown."

The specter of a tech company moving in was first raised last year, when marketing materials for the building portrayed the Empress's banquet hall transformed into an open floor plan office.

"They're showing all these computer systems and techies working in a place that has been important to thousands of families in Chinatown," says Gordon Chin, the former executive director of CCDC. "We cannot afford to have this building turn into a technology center. It will raise rents for everybody."

Rising rents and an influx of affluent new residents — "They all ride bikes," Chin jokes of the newcomers he terms "hipsters" — are an increasing concern for the neighborhood, which has seen the average rent of single room occupancy units rise from $610 in 2013 to $970 this summer, according to a rent survey by CCDC.

SROs have long provided the poor and working class with "gateway housing and housing of last resort," says Shaw San Liu of CPA, but the tech boom across the city has seen SROs converted into "tech dorms" that are rented at much higher rates.

"We see the Empress as very symbolic," Liu says. "It's been marketed as a tech office of some kind, which is very disturbing, given the trends we've seen in Chinatown."

Brett Gladstone, the lawyer representing the Chong family, said by phone that the Planning request simply seeks to "clarify the planning code as it relates to the building."

The Chongs are "looking forward to some discussions with the community," he added.

But that's little comfort to the coalition, which is preparing for battle. Last week, the Chronicle reported a rumor, still unsubstantiated, that the building is already "in contract to an offshore investment group looking to do a tech co-working space."

"If a tech company gets it, we're going to fight," says Chin. "We think we have the zoning on our side. It clearly prioritizes community services."

The fine distinction between zoning for professional services and general offices is familiar ground for another Chinatown newcomer that was previously — and perhaps unfairly — seen as the harbinger of a tech invasion of Chinatown.

When 1920C, a coworking space on the second floor of 950 Grant, opened its doors one block from the Empress last spring, it was welcomed to the neighborhood with a blistering CCDC press conference and formal challenge: 1920C is in a building zoned for professional offices, not administrative offices.

At the time, Planning Commissioner and CCDC deputy director Cindy Wu specifically invoked the Empress as a reason not to let anything tech-like wiggle into the neighborhood's restrictive zoning.

"The precedent this could set for the Empress is part of the reason we need to be so vigilant," she told the Chronicle in April. "That model, if it takes off, will be devastating. There is no way that mom-and-pop retailers can compete with tech."

But the founders of 1920C don't even want to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Empress.

On a recent afternoon, a handful of young professionals worked at desks in 1920C while Wilma Pang, the self-proclaimed "wild card in the District 3 Supervisor race," and Richard Ow, a retired postal worker and member of the city's Aging and Adult Services Commission, hung out in the community/art gallery half of 1920C's spacious quarters.

Ow, who is 85 years old, is a fan of 1920C.

"Once in awhile I get stuck on my cell phone, and Jenny helps me," he says of Jenny Chan, one of the coworking space's co-founders. Ow led a counter-protest in support of 1920C last spring. "CCDC thinks they own Chinatown," he says.

Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, says that she volunteered with CCDC when she was growing up and is "insulted" by the group's protest of her venture.

"We're a small business, not a corporation at all," she says. "We're not some old white dude. We're not a tech company by any means. I'm actually really offended when people tie us in with that issue."

As for the Empress, Chan compares the shared offices of professionals on 838 Grant's third and fourth floors with what she's trying to offer. "Those Chinatown accountants who share office space — that's coworking," she says.

In fact, depending on which way the Empress goes, her open space might be a future home of Chinatown's past. Thanks to the uncertainty of their leases, she says, some of the 838 Grant tenants have actually stopped by to inquire about renting desks.

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About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Bio:
Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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