As the era of a storied Oakland Chinatown restaurant comes to an end, a new stage will be ushered in for the community’s access to health care. Silver Dragon, the banquet hall and restaurant at 9th and Webster Streets, is set to close in the coming months. The iconic building, with its formidable gray and red brick exterior and circular turquoise sign (emblazoned with a dragon, of course) will become home to a brand new, state-of-the-art medical clinic run by community organization Asian Health Services.
“We were approached by the owner of Silver Dragon earlier this year,” says Asian Health Services (AHS) spokesman Clarence Wong. “We’re across the street from the Silver Dragon, and we’ve been here a long time and they’ve been here a long time. I think they were happy to sell it to Asian Health.”
“Our building is the pride and joy of Chinatown, and we’re very glad it will be used by a community-focused organization,” agreed Wesley Chee, who owns Silver Dragon with his brother Lester.
Silver Dragon was opened as a café in 1956 by Wesley and Lester’s late father, Wah Quon Chee, and became a full-fledged restaurant and cocktail lounge in 1974. Since then, the establishment has hosted countless weddings, banquets, family dinners, and is a renowned East Bay institution.
It is closing, Chee says, is not a result of pressing financial issues, but more as the result of uncertainty about the restaurant’s future. “It’s not a single factor,” Chee says. “We’re competitive now, but a lot of money needs to be spent to upgrade the building and facilities, and maybe that money won’t be recouped in a reasonable amount of time. That, and it’s just the right move to make for us.” Silver Dragon will close its doors at the end of February, 2012.
As far as Asian Health Services staffers are concerned, the timing is perfect. The organization, which guarantees health care to its clients regardless of income, insurance status, immigration status, or language, received a sizable grant for construction and renovation when President Obama’s health care reform bill passed in 2010, encouraging them to move on a new facility. AHS then took out a loan to buy the Silver Dragon building; it will be raising money in 2012 to repay the funds.
The expansion is expected to end a bottleneck they have in their current space—about 3,000 patients are currently on a waitlist to get a physical because of current space and staff limitations. The new clinic will be able to serve 10,000 patients annually, according to Wong.
The facility, which is slated to open in the Silver Dragon building about a year from now, will have 20 rooms, ten of which will be a dedicated geriatric ward, and ten will be for general family medicine. Wong expects that most of the renovations will take place inside. As far as the building’s exterior goes, AHS will give the facade a fresh coat of paint and new roof tiles, and redesign the main entrance on Webster for improved handicap access.
He hopes that much of the change the clinic brings will be in the form of customer service and relations. “We are doing some innovative things in terms of patient registration,” Wong says. One idea is to eliminate the waiting that patients so often dread at the doctor’s office by installing self-serve computer kiosks for registration. Patients who feel comfortable using them can, and for those with a more complicated registration process, clinicians will help them one-on-one in cubicles in the back. AHS is also toying with the idea of having representatives come out to the waiting room and check patients in with an iPad or other tablet. “We want to take the services directly to the patient when they come in,” says Wong. “That’s going to be a big innovation.”
The clinic project will likely bring 160 new jobs to Oakland—100 or so in construction, and 60 in the new clinic. For nurses and clinicians, the hiring process will be open, but Wong warns that if you want to work at Asian Health Services, you need to be bilingual, if not trilingual. “We do serve over 90 percent limited English speakers,” he says. “We have a concrete need for clinicians who speak more than one language.”
“This is a huge milestone for Asian Health Services to acquire a large enough facility where our patients live, shop and define community,” said Sherry Hirota, the group’s CEO, in a press release. “The new clinic will give us the capacity to care for thousands of patients who, because of language, culture and affordability, cannot go elsewhere. To have the iconic Silver Dragon site turned over to us with the blessing of the Chee family is a special honor.”
The honor is all theirs, Wesley Chee insists. “We are honored to make this our legacy,” he says. “A legacy which will benefit many generations to come.”