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Hands, one bearing a ring, organize moon cakes on a tray.

Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival breathes life into Eastlake park

on September 18, 2019

On Saturday, families gathered in Clinton Park to attend the Little Saigon Mid-Autumn Festival and Night Market. Visitors sampled treats from local businesses, like sticky rice, egg rolls, and crispy miniature pancakes topped with shrimp. Kids bounced in two enormous, inflatable bouncy castles. A local motorcycle club popped wheelies over on East 6th Street. And everyone snacked on mooncakes, the bean paste-filled pastries that are a Mid-Autumn Festival hallmark.

Mid-Autumn Festival events took place across the Bay Area this week, from a parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown, to the Bay Area Korean Chuseok Festival. (You can still catch Đêm Hội Trăng Rằm in San Jose this Friday.) “Traditionally, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a way for kids and families to celebrate the harvest moon,” said Jennifer Tran, executive director of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a festival that unites many different cultures. You have a space for kids to be kids, and adults to remember their traditions, and for non-Asian people to be exposed traditions as well.” The Vietnamese festival, also known as Tết Trung Thu, celebrates the full moon and the arrival of fall with lanterns and mooncake. 

But for Tran, who organized the festival, the event was an opportunity to “activate a neglected neighborhood” by transforming a normally sleepy park into a bustling celebration of Eastlake and its residents. Clinton Park, where the festival took place, is a grassy expanse at the intersection of East 12thStreet and 7th Avenue. The park, which includes a playground, some palm trees and a Vietnamese American community center that closes at 3 p.m., is usually pretty quiet. On Saturday, though, the sound of kids singing karaoke could be heard from blocks away.

As executive director, Tran advocates for local businessowners and assists with projects and grant applications. She says the Eastlake neighborhood, which is home to much of Oakland’s Vietnamese population, suffers from a “cycle of dis-investment.” According to Tran, there’s no walking beat officer or neighborhood service coordinator here, and too much litter in the street. Tran, who grew up just a few blocks from Clinton Park, remembers walking to school every day. Residents don’t let their kids walk to school anymore, she said.

Earlier this year, a group of Eastlake residents petitioned the City of Oakland to create a Business Improvement District (BID) in Eastlake, and to call the area “Little Saigon.” The name acknowledges the area’s large Vietnamese population. And if the area becomes a BID, property owners will pay additional taxes for neighborhood services. Other districts have used the funding for street cleaning, security and public events.

The day before the festival, Chien Nguyen, who owns the Quickly restaurant on East 12th Street, stood outside his shop, observing Clinton Park just across the street. It was mostly empty, except for a few people sitting on the grass. 

Nguyen has owned this Quickly, a franchise known for its milk tea, for three years. “This park has been underused ever since I’ve been in ownership,” Nguyen said. “I’ve never seen anybody come out here and just throw the football around, throw a baseball or play any type of catch or anything like that.” 

Nguyen visits the park often with his 6-year old daughter. “She likes it because it’s convenient, but there’s not a lot of things to do there,” he said. “She pointed out there’s no monkey bars.”

But on Saturday, the park was packed as Nguyen stood over a grill, roasting beef skewers and ears of corn. The skewers were popular—by around 5 p.m., he’d already sold more than 300. Nguyen partnered with another local business owner to hawk Cambodian street food at the festival. In addition to the beef skewers, Nguyen sold milk tea, lemonade, and chè thái, a Vietnamese fruit cocktail. 

Chefs at the Aliwang Lutu x Snax popup quickly made bánh mì for a long line of customers.

Not far from Nguyen’s grill, Marcus Chan and Kelcey Tern noshed on egg rolls, stuffed chicken wings and spam musubi. Chan laughed as he recounted how many “off-the-grid,” outdoor festivals he’d attended. But of all those events, he said, the Mid-Autumn Festival felt like “the most opportune for grandparents or grandkids to hang around in the most public, probably safe environment possible.”

“I think it’s meaningful,” added Tern, who is from Oakland. “For Asian people, most of us celebrate the autumn coming and the giant moon last night, so they eat moon cake. So I think it’s really representative of this area of Oakland. Because this is the unnamed ‘Viet-town’ of Oakland.” 

The festival was “quintessentially Oakland,” said William Leung, a festival attendee. “There’s a guy doing motorcycle wheelies and there’s local Vietnamese neighborhood people,” he continued, noting an area west of the park where festival organizers had invited Gooniez Bay Area, a local motorcycle club, to show off their skills.

Leung’s friend, Allan Abelido, compared Eastlake to the Little Saigon neighborhood in his hometown of Sacramento. “It’s kind of nice because it’s not gentrified, in a sense,” Leung said. “It’s definitely not a First Friday.” He was referring to the outdoor block parties held in Oakland’s Koreatown-Northgate neighborhood every month. Since a small art gallery founded the event in 2006, First Friday has grown into a corporate-sponsored attraction that draws up to 50,000 attendees on a single evening.

Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunado Bas (District 2) stood under a tent, eating rice pudding with sweet beans, while she waited to speak with a constituent. The councilmember held her office hours at the Mid-Autumn Festival on Saturday. Bas represents the area, which includes the Eastlake, Chinatown, Lake Merritt and San Antonio neighborhoods.

Bas, along with AC Transit, Saigon Printing and other Eastlake businesses, sponsored the festival. “I think it’s important to activate our public spaces,” she said. “For me, part of creating a vibrant community, part of creating community safety, is neighbors getting to know each other.” 

Earlier this year, Bas supported a line in the 2019-2021 city council budget that allocated $125,000 for Business Improvement Districts feasibility studies in both Chinatown and Eastlake. The funding will allow the Eastlake neighborhood to consider costs and possibilities associated with creating the district. They’ll also invest in public artwork and increased security, and consider contracting an independent cleaning service, Tran said.

“Small businesses make up the bulk of our local economy,” Bas said. “They’re also places where people shop locally. And for Chinatown and Eastlake, or Little Saigon in particular, there are Asian communities who come from all over the region who shop here and spend time here. So I think it’s strategic in terms of growing our businesses and growing our communities.”

On Saturday, as the afternoon waned, volunteers strung lights around the park’s perimeter. The festival had started at 2 p.m., but it continued until 9 p.m., long past the time children and families usually leave Clinton Park. Overall, 1,500 people showed up, Tran said in a phone conversation later that week.

“What makes this Little Saigon strip very unique compared to other neighborhoods in Oakland is it already has this identity,” Tran said. “People know that’s where you go for shopping. People know that’s where you go for food. They know that it’s a heavily Southeast Asian immigrant neighborhood, in the last 30 years. It has the makings of a sustained district, but it just hasn’t been named.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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