Underground Chinatown: The Bayview's cheap rents and factory jobs have made it a hub for Chinese immigrants

Underground Chinatown

The Bayview's cheap rents and factory jobs have made it a hub for Chinese immigrants.

By Momo Chang

MENTION BAYVIEW- Hunters Point, and most think of an African American community. But the district is also home to a large Chinese immigrant population that's been putting down roots in the area for decades.

Immigrants to San Francisco from southern China used to head straight for Chinatown. But over the years, overcrowding and long waiting lists at single-room occupancy apartments there have forced families to seek housing elsewhere. Twenty years ago, as areas like the Richmond and the Sunset started to become too expensive, Chinese families began moving en masse to areas along the southeast corridor of the city.

"You see more and more Chinese moving into the Bayview. There's no doubt about that," says Likcon Lam, executive chief editor of Ming Pao, a Chinese daily newspaper.

Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 25 percent of the district's residents, and 12 percent are Chinese, according to 2000 census data. In some parts of the Bayview, like the triangular section bordered by Third Street, Bayshore Avenue, and Silver Street, Chinese make up 40 percent of the population.

When Lam's Hong Kong-based paper was looking for a place last year to lease for its California bureau, the company chose a warehouse on Third Street instead of in Chinatown. Ming Pao produces 25,000 copies of the West Coast edition daily from the Bayview location, technically part of Dogpatch, running off the same printers that another Chinese daily previously used.

The building, once entirely made up of manufacturers, also houses two garment factories: Ben Davis and Clover Garments, staffed by immigrant workers. The occupants of the warehouse reflect two key issues the Chinese in the Bayview face: the need for local news coverage in a region with a burgeoning Chinese population, and a dying industry consisting of majority Chinese, low-income workers.

Fu Di Huang lives with her husband, two sons, and their families – eight people total, including two toddlers – on a quiet hillside street in the Bayview, just blocks from Third Street.

She was laid off from the Ben Davis factory last February, along with 18 other workers. She'd inspected and cut loose threads from 300 pairs of pants a day for three years, and the factory was just a quick bus ride or 30-minute walk from her home.

One of the city's oldest – and only unionized – garment factories, Ben Davis employed 150 people in 2004, according to an industry report. Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) organizer Alex Tom estimates that after this year's layoffs, only 60 workers remain at the factory, and that 90 percent of them are Chinese, the rest Latinas.

Before working at Ben Davis, Huang sewed leather bags at Holland Brothers, now called Mulholland, another factory in the Bayview that's downsized to just 10 workers; most of Mulholland's goods are now made in factories in China, a spokesperson told me. And before that Huang wrapped pot stickers (which were then frozen and sold in stores) in a small Sunset factory – until that business closed.

For an immigrant like Huang who speaks little English, work is hard to come by in a city where manufacturing jobs have all but left. In 1990 there were 20,000 garment jobs in San Francisco; today only 2,000 remain, according to the state's Employment Development Department. Just in the past year, 28 garment factories shut down and 1,000 garment workers were laid off in San Francisco, according to the CPA.

The Bayview was once a hub of the city's garment industry. Last year six factories closed or downsized in the district, leaving 250 workers unemployed, including many who live in surrounding neighborhoods. Most are immigrant Chinese women who speak little English, like Huang.

Huang came to the United States in 1995, from Guangdong, armed with a seventh-grade education and two decades of working a retail job. At 57 she's going back to school through a government-funded retraining program for workers who have lost their jobs due to outsourcing. She laughs sheepishly when she talks about taking classes at City College: "I'm too old to go back to school."

The second floor of her Bayview house is a child's haven, filled with toys in every corner; the fridge is almost entirely covered with snapshots of the new baby. During the interview, she feeds her three-month-old grandson, pats his back, and tries to rock him to sleep.

Many of the Chinese American families that moved to the district are working-class and live with their extended families – sometimes four generations – in the same house.

"At the time [we bought our house], there were cheaper homes here," she tells me in a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese. They bought their modest 1,500-square-foot home for $370,000, in 2002, from another Chinese family that had moved to Sacramento. Before that they rented an apartment for low-income families on Howard Street.

Huang estimates that nine Chinese families live on her block, with an equal number of African Americans and Latinos and very few whites. A house on her street – the same size as hers – recently sold for $560,000, to a family from Shanghai, she said.

She goes grocery shopping in Chinatown once a week and sees many other Chinese waiting in the Bayview for the number 15 bus. Muni's Third Street light rail and the proposed central subway project, once completed, will link Chinatown and the Bayview, making it even easier for residents in the two regions to connect.

She says her family moved to the Bayview because it was the only place left in the city that was still somewhat affordable, though they're struggling to pay the mortgage.

Her husband, 60, also lost his garment job after working at the same factory for eight years: Nova Knits, in SoMa, which laid off 140 workers in the past year. One of Huang's sons works at the post office, and the other recently opened an aquarium shop in Oakland, but both only make enough to support their wives and kids.

She and her husband need to work, she tells me. Her husband now sells meat in a Little Saigon shop. She says they both will accept any zha gong, a Chinese phrase that means "miscellaneous work" and implies taking whatever temporary job is available.

With every major change in a neighborhood's demographics, especially as more immigrants move in, tensions mount. But Huang says she's never had any problems and feels like everyone watches out for each other – African Americans, Asians, Latinos. She remembers a day during her first week in the Bayview, when a panhandler followed her to her home; he kept harassing her until a neighbor told him to go away.

But issues run deeper than language barriers; fundamentally, the economic structure of San Francisco has shifted. The city has been slow to address unemployment issues in working-class communities, especially as manufacturing jobs are moving overseas, Tom says. "It creates these situations where communities of color are fighting over small crumbs."

The CPA is launching a satellite office near the Bayview next year, a multiracial project in collaboration with Poder, a Mission District-based group that organizes Latino families around issues of social justice. They realize that issues affecting low-income immigrants run the gamut from housing to employment to education.

With the Chinese community growing in this region, Tom says, a paper like Ming Pao is welcome. He says he's seen more coverage of the local Chinese community, including stories about garment workers, since the paper came to town, more than a year ago. "It just seems like recently there's been more responsiveness from the Chinese press to cover working-class issues."

The Bayview's cheaper rents and access to the city center were big draws for Ming Pao, which now has 12 reporters and a staff of about 100. "A reporter might travel back and forth several times on the bus to Chinatown or City Hall to cover stories," says Lam, who was previously a TV reporter at KTSF for 11 years. "In terms of transportation, it's pretty convenient."

Huang worries about finding work after she finishes her retraining. "It's so hard to find a job, because I'm already so old."

Her face lights up when her three-year-old granddaughter comes home in the afternoon. Her grandson finally falls asleep in the swinging baby-bed that she's been rocking for the past half hour.

She says she'd like to see her neighborhood become more child friendly. "There are no playgrounds or parks for children around here."

For now she takes her two grandkids to a shopping plaza, pushing one in a stroller and walking hand-in-hand with the other, circling the concrete parking lot.

Thinking out loud, Huang says that once she finishes her classes, she'd like to become a child care worker. Maybe even open a day care facility, she muses, as the cherubic three-year-old girl shows her grandma a plush pumpkin toy. But it's not easy for her to dream such dreams. As a low-wage worker doing zha gong her whole life, she's had little opportunity to think about what she'd like to do.

Momo Chang is a writer and educator based in Oakland.

Cantonese translation assistance provided by Alex Tom.

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