GENTRIFIED: Oakland’s Chinatown Seniors Hope to Age in Place

GENTRIFIED: Oakland’s Chinatown Seniors Hope to Age in Place

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Photo: Tiffany, Helen (age 94) and Aimee Eng, in 2014 photo in Oakland. The Engs trace their North American roots to the 1850s. (Photo by Laura McCamy.)

Part 5. Click here to read other stories in this series.
OAKLAND, Calif.--Above the storefronts, seniors gather during the day to play mahjong, socialize, even practice Chinese opera.

“There’s a life here that you would never know,” said Tamiko Wong, executive director of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC).

Part of the glue that holds Oakland’s Chinatown together, according to Wong, is its intergenerational appeal. “On any given day, you’ll see these grandparents picking up their grandchildren,” Wong said. “They’re doing things you can only do when you walk.”

The density of the neighborhood makes it a great place for seniors. “You can age in place more graciously,” she said, “and access the web of services.” Today, though, gentrification is making affordable housing less and less available.

Chinatown’s Family Bridges

At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the main room of the Hong Fook Community-Based Adult Services Center, on the ground floor of the Hotel Oakland senior housing complex, is a hive of noise and activity.

“There’s a lot of socialization here,” said Suk-Chong Cheung, a medical social worker with Family Bridges, which runs the center. “[Seniors] come here, they feel safe.”

Family Bridges was founded in 1968 “in the little basement of the Chinese Baptist church in Chinatown,” according to CEO Corinne Jan. In the beginning, the nonprofit provided referrals to jobs, homes, healthcare and social services. Since then, the organization has expanded to run six centers, including two adult day health care centers and two senior drop-in centers.

Most of the 400 seniors who come to Hong Fook three to five days each week would be in nursing homes without the center’s services. Close to 40 percent of them live alone and three-quarters are Chinese.

“We know them so well that their risk for institutionalization is decreased,” said Jan. “The people who come, that’s their second home. If this hub didn’t exist… they would be alone.”

“A day of adult day health care costs $67; a day in a nursing home costs $250,” Jan noted. “It’s just a no-brainer. The cost shifts plus the quality of life [improvement] is just tremendous.”

‘Chinatown is Not Just Chinatown

Chen (not his real name), 86, comes to Hong Fook three days a week from his home in a nearby affordable housing development, where he lives with his wife and son. The family pays about $500 for their apartment. (Suk-Chong Cheung translated his interview.)

He came to the U.S. from China in 1990 to join his adult children, who immigrated earlier. “When I first arrived in America, I was in a very small town near Los Angeles,” he said. “It was too difficult to live there because no one spoke my language, so I moved to Oakland Chinatown.”

From the time he arrived until age 72, Chen worked as a chef. “I loved this job – I didn’t want to quit, but I’m getting really old,” he said. “When I retired, I just sat at home.”

A health crisis brought him to Hong Fook for care. On the days he doesn’t visit the center, Chen said, “I walk around Chinatown a bit and check with people a little bit.” On sunny days, he likes to sit by the fountain in the plaza of the Renaissance Center and chat with friends.

The best thing about Chinatown is “the convenience that I can talk and buy things in my own language,” said Chen, a monolingual Cantonese speaker.

“Chinatown is not just Chinatown,” Cheung said. “It’s an area that doesn’t just provide housing. There is a cultural dimension.” She added, “The language barrier makes this place a necessity.”
Shared Language

Bringing Up Grandchildren

Yue Lan Yu, 88, also came to the United States in 1990. (Suk-Chong Cheung translated her interview.) “I actually didn’t want to come because I had a very good life in China,” she said. “My son said he wanted me to help to bring up his children.” That didn’t work out as planned; she and her daughter-in-law didn’t get along.

After two years, Yu and her husband were kicked out and she ended up taking care of other people’s children to make a living. “I always want to go back [to China],” she said.

“I did child care for nine years for three different children,” she said. “I’m one year short of [qualifying for] Social Security.” Although Social Security requires workers to contribute to the system for 10 yeas (40 quarters), she was able to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for very low-income seniors.

Yu and her husband, who died last year, were some of the first people to move into Hotel Oakland in 1997, after it was renovated and turned into affordable senior housing. Cheung described the senior residence as “heaven.”

Yu appreciates the convenience of living in Chinatown. “Everybody in the shops speaks my language,” she said. “I can see the doctors in Chinatown.”

She worries about the increase in dirt and crime. She had her purse snatched once and fears getting mugged again, not the least because getting knocked down could lead to serious injury in her frail state.

Still, Yu’s attitude is positive. “The welfare is good in America. I have a place to live and I have SSI,” she said. “I am not a burden to my children.”

Development and Chinatown’s Uncertain Future

Wong, of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, worries about the effect development could have on a culture that is both robust and fragile at the same time. “When people figure out what a gem this is,” she said, “they could buy this up.”

Hong Fook.jpg 
Family Bridges's Hong Fook adult day care center provides elders safe transportation.

Connecting people with affordable housing is ever more challenging. “It’s so competitive, the waiting list is humongous,” Jan said. As seniors live longer, she added, “we still can’t catch up,” despite offering more programs.

The Lake Merritt BART Station Area Plan calls for many new units of market rate housing to be built in Chinatown. This could lead to increased rents for the privately owned units that many low-income residents rely on to stay in the neighborhood.

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) has spent the past five years working with other nonprofits to ensure that the needs of low-income residents were taken into account in the development of the plan.

“We’re going to be making some changes and kicking up some dust around the area, so we might as well put in some things we really want and need,” said APEN Lead Community Organizer Alvina Wong. Those needs include returning to two-way streets, better street lighting, preserving public parks, more affordable housing and more community spaces.

Wong said that the pressures of Oakland’s overheated real estate market are already being felt as downtown Oakland becomes an increasingly popular place to live. “I know a handful of our members who live [in rented condos at City Center] are only able to stay there because of their Section 8 status,” she said, referring federal rental subsidies for lower-income people.

Others pay 60-to-80 percent of their income in rent as they sit on long waitlists for the limited supply of affordable housing, clinging to the neighborhood and trying to stay near their doctors and other services.

“The wait lists for those [affordable] buildings are anywhere from five to 25 years long,” Wong observed.

“It’s not just housing that [seniors] need,” said Cheung. The ability to walk to grocery stores, medical appointments and service providers lifts depression, she said, noting that “those who actually live near Chinatown, they’re a lot more independent.”

Laura McCamy wrote this article for Oakland Local with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP. This story is part of a series on the effect of gentrification on seniors in Oakland.