Break-ins set Oakland Chinatown businesses back: ‘Things were slowly getting better, then all of a sudden the doom arrived.’
on April 5, 2023
It was quiet in Oakland Chinatown at 3 a.m. on Thursday, March 23. The last two eateries on Eighth Street — Lounge Chinatown and New Gold Medal Restaurant — were wrapping up business for the day. At a quarter past 3, workers at both restaurants locked glass doors and then iron gates. At Lounge Chinatown, wooden doors added to the security. But it wasn’t enough. Ten minutes later, as the street became darker and quieter, burglars broke into the two restaurants, along with seven nearby stores, causing over $100,000 in damage.
Surveillance cameras at Lounge Chinatown, a Taiwanese restaurant that opened three months ago, captured at least six robbers wearing headlamps and using long-handled pliers to twist the locks. They broke into the restaurant, rummaged through drawers, cut wires to electronic devices and attempted to chisel open the cash register. They also smashed dishes and glassware and stole bottles of wine.
“We used to have a wall of wine, but we found two of the shelves empty,” said Jessica Liu, a Lounge Chinatown worker.
At 7 a.m., workers of Sun Hing Restaurant, a deli known for its barbecued pork, arrived to find the iron gates pried open. Shards of window glass littered the ground, and the store was in disarray.
“We are a very small restaurant, and the store was empty; there were no valuable items at all,” said manager John Zhao. “I don’t know why they bother to break in.”
Zhao estimated the restaurant’s losses to be more than $10,000.
Oakland’s Chinatown has been striving to recover the business that was lost during the pandemic and the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. Over the past three years, the community has established volunteer patrols, held events to attract visitors, and paid extra taxes to become a business improvement district that would enhance the neighborhood’s cleanness, security, and business climate. The latest break-ins have dealt a severe blow to those efforts, leaving businesses and customers worried about being targeted and about the future of Chinatown.
“Things were slowly getting better, then all of a sudden the doom arrived,” said Jessica Chen, executive director of Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.
Chen noted that 10% to 15% of the businesses in Chinatown have closed since the pandemic, and others have reduced their hours. In winter, most stores close at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.
The community had been looking forward to the return of downtown Oakland commuters, but they haven’t returned to pre-pandemic numbers. Organizations have hosted various events such as the Chinese New Year parade and the Lantern Festival street market to attract customers and convince the public that Chinatown is a safe and fun place to visit.
The Chamber held an emergency community meeting on March 24, inviting Capt. Clay Burch of the Oakland Police Department for a briefing. However, on the eve of the meeting, Chen announced that Burch would not be able to attend due to a time conflict.
“In the past two years, we have had at least four or five break-ins. I’ve seen it happen around the same time, usually around 4 a.m. or 4:30 a.m.,” Albert Wong, owner of New Oakland Pharmacy, said at the meeting. “We would like to see the OPD conduct foot patrols at night, set up a police station, and have police cars patrolling Chinatown at night.”
Wong noted that pharmacies are a common target for burglars because of the availability of certain drugs. Over time, Wong has taken measures to increase security, including installing a heavy metal door, an alarm system, and three locks and chains. None prevented burglars from breaking in on March 23.
Given how many stories were burglarized and how long the robbers spent in the stores, along with the many alarms sounding, Wong wondered why police were not on the scene sooner.
Wong does not keep cash in the store or sell narcotics, so the damage to his pharmacy was minimal. After the glass was repaired, he opened for business as usual.
However, Lounge Chinatown had to be closed for the rest of the week because computers and credit card machines were damaged. Lounge Chinatown manager Darlene Wong said the damage totaled about $36,000.
Victimized small business owners were calling on the community to come together to address the crimes. They want more protection from law enforcement and expressed disappointment that OPD was not at the meeting to hear their concerns.
“We want to make our voice heard. We also expect all elected officials to practice their commitment to us, to protect us,” said Victor Kuang, a Chinatown business owner and a member of the Blue Angel volunteer patrol team.
OPD told Oakland North that it usually has two patrol shifts in Chinatown, with seven or eight officers patrolling from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and longer when the department’s schedule allows. Those patrols, the department said, are offered as overtime.
In a March 23 video posted on the department’s Facebook page, Capt. David Elzey said the Chinatown burglaries were among “a little over a dozen” reported citywide that day. “Some of the steps we are taking to hopefully reduce some of the burglary is patrol staff and film teams will be redeployed to these business districts where the burglaries are occurring,” he said.
OPD has also been struggling with budget and staffing shortfalls as well as runaway overtime costs. In December 2020, the city responded by reducing patrols, including in Chinatown. After four months, the City Council passed a resolution to use federal relief funds to reverse some of the service cuts, and Chinatown foot patrols returned.
In the meantime, Chinatown community organizations had formed volunteer patrol teams to protect the neighborhood. In March 2021, Zuolin Ma, president of the East Bay Toishan Association and vice president of the nonprofit Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council, launched the largest of the teams.
When Ma, 77, called on volunteers to form a patrol team, more than 130 people responded, most of them retirees living nearby. At the height of hate crimes against Asians in 2021, more than 30 members were on duty at a time. The team has since scaled down to about a dozen patrollers every day. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week, they circle Chinatown, greeting passersby, checking in with store workers, looking out for parking and dumping violations, and reporting them to 311 for action.
“This is our home, this is our community, we got to deal with these issues,” Ma said. But he also raised concerns about safety and liability issues, as many of the volunteers are in their 70s.
“We’re mostly a deterrent,” said Phillip Ha, the Toishan team patrol captain on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday shifts. Ha said if it’s a neighborhood dispute or a minor incident like harassment, or when people need to be escorted to their cars, the volunteers can help or de-escalate the situation.
However, the patrols have no enforcement power, and the only tools they rely on are whistles and pepper spray. At the EBTA office, a list of “Patrol Team Discipline” is posted on the bulletin board, with the first item reading: “When encountering a crime, don’t fight or arrest; we can only stop the criminal from running away and call the police.”
“I enjoy being here, we get along like family,” said Ha, who is in his 50s and one the team’s youngest members but is dealing with a medical condition that requires dialysis. The name tag around his neck attaches to a piece of paper with messages in Chinese, English, and Vietnamese asking passersby to call an ambulance if he is found unconscious.
Taxes for street sweeps and patrols
The Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council created the Community Ambassadors after Chinatown property owners voted in July 2021 to form a Business Improvement District, agreeing to pay more in taxes in order to create programs tailored to Chinatown’s business and quality of life needs. The special assessment enables the Chinatown Chamber to budget about $800,000 for street safety and cleaning services. Ambassadors are hired by the council to perform two services: street sweeping from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., and four-hour street patrols six days a week.
In late 2022, to boost holiday shopping, Oakland launched an initiative called “Shop Safe Oakland” to support the Business Improvement District and encourage customers to return to Chinatown. Starting with $20,000 from the city, the Improvement Council added another $100,000 to provide overnight security, according to Carol Liao, Improvement Council treasurer.
The Improvement Council fitted a car with sirens and flashing lights and hired two patrolmen to circle in the neighborhood from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“This is a perfect time to visit late-night restaurants, as we remain open during long hours to accommodate your Lunar New Year shopping needs,” the Improvement Council posted on its website, highlighting the heightened security.
The patrol is required to take pictures and record any unusual activity. The picture submission times in the Improvement Council’s patrol portal indicate that the patrol normally circulates Chinatown every hour.
On March 23, the daily activity report recorded that the patrol drove from west to east along Ninth Street from 3:22 a.m. to 3:28 a.m. The next entry was at 4:40 a.m. when the patrol appeared at the intersection of Eighth and Webster streets and then went from east to west along Ninth Street. It did not pass Eighth and Harrison streets, where the stores were burglarized.
When the Community Ambassadors arrived to work at 5 a.m., they found the pavement covered in broken window glass. “We walked around and did some sweeping, and we took pictures of it,” said Sakhone Lasaphangthong, a community ambassador. They also assisted business owners in filing police reports.
Many store owners said that based on past experience, they expected nothing more to happen after police filed their reports. They worried that people will no longer want to shop in Chinatown.
“To be fair, security is much better during the day, and we have fewer gun fights and robberies,” said Zhao, the manager at Sun Hing. “It’s just that at night, our stores become the target.”
“What’s the point of calling the police? What’s the use of the media? The key is to implement laws that can protect us,” Zhao added, frustrated that the safety concerns seem not to be addressed.
Lasaphangthong, who joined the Ambassadors through the Asian Prisoner Support Committee after being released from prison, said it’s not fair to blame police, who are short-staffed and working overtime.
“We as a community should come together and do our part to support each other and support the police to hire the appropriate staff to fill all the vacancies so that they don’t have to be overworked or have to be out-powered by folks that are committing crime,” Lasaphangthong said.
Oakland police told Oakland North in an email that investigators will reach out to victims if any follow-ups are needed or if arrests are made. OPD CrimeWatch records show that while overall crime is down in police district 3X, which includes Chinatown, burglaries have sharply increased during the pandemic. In 2019, that district recorded 27 commercial burglaries, a number that more than doubled in 2020. Last year, there were 50 such reports.
Bur the data only shows cases reported to police. Chen, the Chamber director, questioned the “pretty” Chinatown crime numbers OPD presents monthly.
“There was a month we had 20 burglaries, how is that possibly true? Five cars were broken into last night,” Chen said.
She added that while calling police doesn’t tend to get results, those calls are important because they provide data that legislators can use to increase budgets or change policies.
“You need to use your vote and always speak up for yourself, and for our community,” she said. “Think clearly what laws and which candidate truly speak to you.”
In the afternoon of March 24, Tony Chang, a bilingual police officer based in Chinatown, added a break-in and an attempted break-in to the original seven after hearing from two more shop owners. “They were uncomfortable speaking English, so they waited for me,” he said.
City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents Chinatown, said in a February interview that she supports and appreciates OPD and the community organizations that are volunteering to guard Chinatown. She said her office has been focused on preventing crime through environmental design, such as improving street lighting, increasing the number of cameras, fortifying storefronts through facade improvements, and bringing more activities to parks and recreation centers.. She said her office also worked with OPD to create a Chinatown liaison to serve the community more directly.
The day after the burglaries, Bas held a video conference with the Improvement Council. That night, Improvement Council announced an increase in its night patrols to two vehicles and four patrolmen, though the decision would pose a heavier financial and liability burden.
“We were already spending $15,000 a week on night patrols and community ambassador services,” Liao said, noting that the patrols were intended only for the three-month shopping season.
Evelyn Lee has been a regular visitor to Oakland Chinatown since 1995, bringing her children to street fairs and hoping they would grow up understanding their Chinese heritage. She recalls how lively Chinatown used to be.
“Chinatown was very different. Even in the year 2000, there were so many stores, every block was crowded, not just Eighth Street because now only that street has the vegetable produce markets,” Lee said, during a daytime visit to Chinatown in March. “There were many more restaurants, and each one had its own characteristic.”
Back then, she said, she would go to the movies and then to Chinatown for late-night snacks. On this chilly day, long before nightfall, most shops were closed and pedestrians hurried home.
At 7 p.m., two patrol cars appeared in the deserted neighborhood, circling the blocks with their lights flashing in the twilight.
Top photo: Sun Hing Restaurant, the morning after the break-in. (Zuolin Ma)
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