Last year, a stranger approached Wong Shue-teung, 73, on a pavement in Chinatown in the northern California city of Oakland and pushed him to the ground. “He happened to take a swing at me, and I went down,” Wong recalled. A few weeks ago, just a few blocks away from where he was attacked, the retired insurance salesman bought takeout wonton soup and two local newspapers. He ate and read on the veranda of a mall full of Chinese-owned businesses. “It’s safe,” Wong said, “and during the daytime you can see who is coming.” Wong’s story echoes around the compact, 20-square-block Chinatown, and his purchases, regardless of how small, are helping rekindle a district economy that the Oakland Chamber of Commerce says has shrunk by 15 per cent since 2020, including the loss of two of its anchor restaurants. Merchants and their customers now say Oakland Chinatown is emerging from its most dangerous days at the height of anti-Asian violence fuelled by resentment toward China as a source of Covid-19. San Francisco reports big increase in hate attacks against Asians They say safety has improved since August, when the Oakland Police Department stationed cars and officers in their part of a 446,000-population city where Cantonese immigrants reside to escape higher prices in nearby San Francisco . But it remains a city that analytics firm Neighborhood Scout in January called the 30th most dangerous in America, with 13 violent crimes per 1,000 residents. Many of Chinatown’s 300 shops, restaurants and clinics are gingerly reopening. Some do business at the kerbside, rather than in-store where customers could become violent, and others remain boarded up but let faithful customers know by phone or message that a merchant is actually inside. Public events are regaining popularity, and eateries have extended hours past the cautious 5pm norm of 2021. “In reality, we are safe,” said Carl Chan, president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “It made a huge difference due to the police presence. When the pandemic hit, left and right, people were closing down.” I’d like to move, but my regular customers are here, so it’s best just to be careful Carol Liao, Oakland Chinatown Carol Liao, operator of the Amrol International electric massage chair vendor in Chinatown, allows customers into her one-room shop only if they pre-order something such as one of her US$9,000-plus chairs. Selling two chairs per month keeps her in business. Her store was broken into last year. “We have choices,” she said. “I won’t always open the door if I don’t know the person.” Liao takes kerbside inquiries from passers-by who are curious about her chairs or herbal supplements. A liquor store and a jeweller on her block selectively admit customers from behind boards that went up amid mid-2020 riots and protests over the wrongful death of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of police in the American Midwest. “I’d like to move, but my regular customers are here, so it’s best just to be careful,” Liao said. Travel agent Vivian Chiu’s iron gate remains closed, but she is often on-site and hopes her faithful pre-pandemic customers will return once China reopens its borders . The 65-year-old Taiwanese woman has run her business, Simple Easy JV Travel, since 1986. “They assume I’m not open, so a lot of people disappeared,” Chiu said. “I’m in Chinatown because the main market is China, so I’m just waiting for it to reopen.” Chinatown declined when Covid-19 in 2020 fuelled resentment against China as a source of the disease and fanned a wave of anti-Asian violence in early 2021. And the nationwide spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in January further daunted shoppers. Among the more talked-about incidents was a robbery attempt in August that ended with a bystander being shot and hurt when he tried to save an elderly victim. A man had been murdered in Chinatown just three months earlier, and two more groups of assailants attacked elderly Asians in Chinatown in July. Such random attacks have stopped since police added patrols in August, Chan said. Is the sun setting on San Francisco’s Six Companies? Oakland Police investigated 140 violent Chinatown crimes from March 2020 to February 2021, compared with 113 from March last year through February this year, a department spokesperson said. “It’s been contained compared to last year,” said Sylvia Rampi, general manager of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza Master Association for the 200-plus shopping centre tenants. She has particularly noticed a flow of non-Asian shoppers and diners into the district. A chamber-sponsored Lunar New Year celebration took place in person last month, after taking 2021 off, and a festival at Asian Health Services drew 100 people around the same time after being cancelled last year. Chinatown saw a “flurry of activity” around the Lunar New Year in early February, according to Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas. She attributes the trend to Oakland’s “high vaccination rate”, as well as to the increased policing. Daily Covid-19 cases in California have dropped to a few thousand, down from 100,000-plus at the Omicron peak in January. Merchants are slowly taking down the wood [boards] Damien Yeung, shopping centre association “I just didn’t go outside my door because it was so dangerous,” said a seven-year Chinatown denizen surnamed Wu. The 70-year-old said 2022 has been “much better” than 2021. The city and chamber are helping stimulate businesses now through a US$75,000 grant for repairing windows that rioters broke in 2020. The city is also creating a US$1.6 million business-improvement district, Bas said. She said the district’s operation will allow for street fairs, add landscaping and erase graffiti that has cropped up in much of central Oakland. “Merchants are slowly taking down the wood [boards],” said Damien Yeung, assistant manager of the shopping centre association. Many merchants who prefer to keep the boards in place, or who can’t afford their removal, have allowed mural artists to paint Chinese zodiac animals on their plywood. But it’s not ideal. “If you have the wood up, and you have the mural, the wood is still up [and shoppers] don’t like it,” Yeung explained. Zero-Covid approach puts China at disadvantage to the West, economists warn On a Tuesday in late February, shoppers pushed their way down clustered pavements with giant reusable bags to buy ginger and dried black mushrooms from kerbside vendors, or decorated porcelain from inside shops. They loudly bargained in Cantonese over pricier items. But no one is yet declaring that the daily bustle has returned to its 2019 levels. Homeless people who normally congregate along the side of a nearby freeway occupy storefronts and the shopping centre’s veranda and toilets, deterring some shoppers from going out. Police don’t intervene unless a homeless person is hurting people or property, Rampi said. Fears of further violence, or of getting sick, still keep some people home, and Liao says thieves are still tempted by Chinatown’s largely cash-driven transactions. “The important thing is that, even though safety is better, that doesn’t mean business is better,” the shopkeeper of 30 years said.