SAN FRANCISCO — The fish and crab tanks at the back of the wood-paneled restaurant are empty, and chairs are stacked here and there. Bill Lee, the owner of the Far East Café in San Francisco’s Chinatown, surveyed the empty second-floor banquet hall that during any other Lunar New Year would be packed with hundreds of customers.
“I keep losing money,” Mr. Lee said of his century-old restaurant, a former Cantonese social club and speakeasy. “If it continues this way, I’d rather to close down.”
As the Year of the Ox began on Friday, there were only muted attempts to celebrate. The pandemic has hit San Francisco’s Chinatown, America’s oldest and largest, particularly hard. The lack of tourists, a spate of violent attacks and robberies in Chinese neighborhoods across the Bay Area, and pandemic-related racism against Asian-Americans have combined to exacerbate the economic pain felt in Chinatown.
From a strictly medical perspective, the neighborhood has fared better than many other parts of the country, heading off a mass outbreak early. And mask wearing was ubiquitous this week on the streets of the densely packed neighborhood, where shoppers strolled through the handful of shops selling Lunar New Year decorations.
But a few blocks away, in a park where older residents gathered to play board games, Will Lex Ham, a New York-based actor, was helping lead a neighborhood safety patrol, handing out whistles and a Chinese-language pamphlet titled “How to Report a Hate Crime.”
“During the Lunar New Year there is an assumption that the elderly have money on them,” Mr. Ham said.
He flew in from New York on Wednesday after seeing video on social media that has rocketed around the world of attacks on Asian-Americans in Oakland and San Francisco, including the killing of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who was shoved to the ground last month and died of his injuries.
“So often, people in the community don’t speak out when violence happens to them for fear of repercussions and a sense that nothing ever comes of it,” Mr. Ham said. “This is our time to speak out.”
Across the Bay, Carl Chan, the president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, has tallied more than 20 assaults in the area over the past two weeks. Many of them were not reported, Mr. Chan said, partly because it can take hours for police officers to arrive at the scene.
“Our seniors are afraid to walk their own streets,” Mr. Chan said.
David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University who is an expert on the history of the Chinatowns in Oakland and San Francisco, said these neighborhoods were among the first in the nation to feel the effects of the pandemic last year.
Last February, before any lockdowns, tourists had deserted San Francisco’s Chinatown, prompting Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, whose district includes Chinatown, to visit in a show of support.
Mr. Lee says that many of the shops that are boarded up and padlocked in San Francisco’s Chinatown may not return. But the neighborhood, he says, has survived fires, an emergence of the bubonic plague at the turn of the 20th century and decades of racism.
“We will not let Chinatown die,” Mr. Lee said. “It is too important to the cultural fabric of the people of San Francisco. But is Chinatown going to look the way it did before the pandemic? That is the question I have.”