San Francisco Chinatown is undoubtedly a tourist attraction but it is also the gateway for many immigrants from China when they arrive in the United States.
As one historian put it, Chinatown rose from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake. Now more than a hundred years later, it's a neighborhood struggling with changes that are taking place.
Activists say Chinatown is home to an estimated 18,000 people. Most are immigrants and there are hundreds of merchants selling their wares and services. The historic neighborhood is evolving and stakeholders need to adapt while fighting to retain what Chinatown represents.
On busy Grant Avenue the strands of Chinese music enhance the ambiance of Chinatown for visitors and locals. Just as familiar are the sounds emanating from a small factory— Golden Gate Fortune Cookies, tucked in an alley.
Since 1962, the Chan family has been creating fortune cookies.
"My mom…it's her life. She never takes a day off," says Kevin Chan.
Staying in business,” says Chan is no easy task.
He says every three years when the lease expires, the rent goes up.
"It's just too hard. Materials go up, labor goes up. We're hand made. It's just hard to stay alive," says Chan.
Staying alive was not possible for dozens of businesses in Chinatown. Empty storefronts with "For Lease” signs have become common.
"Even on this street, we have another shop that was supposed to open and it's still not open," said Jenny Chan
She runs a nonprofit, treehousespace.org in Chinatown that provides space for entrepreneurs starting up.
She says she's concerned by the empty storefronts that she's seen spread across Chinatown.
"I'd like to see young Chinese-Americans like myself to come here and open up shops and bring their fresh ideas," says Jenny Chan.
She says high rents are only part of the reason. She says newcomers face pushback from powerful Chinatown groups.
"I'm not concerned about Chinatown dying. That's not true. I'm concerned about what's going to stay and what's new that's going to come in," says Rev. Norman Fong, executive director of Chinatown Community Development Center.
For generations, Chinatown has been a place where new immigrants came first, then found their way.
Advocates are concerned that gentrification will put the neighborhood beyond the reach of newcomers.
They say any change must consider the needs of this immigrant population and its future
"We believe the core function of Chinatown is about serving the community that lives here as a services-resource hub for immigrant families all over San Francisco and the Bay Area," says Malcolm Yeung, deputy director for the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Everyone agrees change is inevitable.
One merchant says the ‘For Lease’ signs were an unfamiliar sight until about three years ago.
"For as long as I've been here, that was never advertised; any storefronts. They were always occupied. There was sometimes a wait list to get in.
Sometimes, you’d maybe have to do a little bit of bribery to get in," says Tane Ong Chan who's owned the Wok Shop for 45 years.
"It was my son who put me online," says the shop owner. Chan adapted to change. She says she started selling her wares online years ago.
Now half of her sales come from the Internet. "It's the best thing ever," says Chan.
33-year-old Adrian Chang's family owns a property that was once a ginseng shop on Clay Street. Now he says it's been vacant almost three years.
He's looking for a tenant and sees what it could become. He recently used the space to invite artists to showcase their work.
"There's a real raw, cool grittiness that comes with Chinatown like the Mission used to have. And there's so much room for young Chinese Americans like myself; entrepreneurs, designers , creators to use this place as a platform," said Chang.
Back at Golden Gate Fortune Cookies, Chan says he immigrated to San Francisco from China as a young boy, but now this is his home.
"I never want to leave me and her, don't want to leave because this is the culture here. My roots are here," says Chan.
There are different visions of what the future of Chinatown should include.
Everyone KTVU spoke with agreed they want Chinatown to retain its character and function and to serve future generations.