Will Chinatown restaurants that function as community hubs be a thing of the past?

Community members in San Francisco Chinatown are concerned that large banquet-style restaurants that function as community hubs will soon become a thing of the past.

Supporters say they play a critical role in helping immigrants.

Now, they are struggling to survive the pandemic and the efforts to keep them afloat.    

 "In San Francisco, we take so much pride in how diverse we are as a city, but we need to take action," said Doug Mei, who grew up in Chinatown.

 He and other community members are taking action to save the historic Far East Cafe which opened in 1920 in the heart of Chinatown.

The pandemic nearly shuttered the business at the end of last year. 

 Now, it's fighting to survive by providing meals to low-income elders and families.

The restaurant is giving and receiving relief through partnerships with the city and nonprofits. 

 "For the second chance, still difficult. really difficult," says Bill Lee, owner of Far East Cafe. 

 The restaurant is applying for legacy business status with the city which could help make it eligible for additional funding.

 "Over 100 years old already," Lee points the historical lanterns that adorn the dining area.

There is an effort is underway to restore the historical lanterns that adorn the dining area.

Their ornate craftsmanship tells ancient stories that illustrate the Chinese culture, with special attention to details. Some depicting members of the military.

Money is being raised to get the work done.

 "These lanterns come from China. They were shipped here in crates. It was purchased by owners and developers of this restaurant over 100 years ago," says Mei, a San Francisco firefighter who is volunteering his time off to help preserve the historic lanterns.

 Mei enlisted the help of other off-duty firefighters to paint the restaurant's parklet after a contractor volunteered to build it with donated materials.

 Supporters say Far East is much more than a restaurant.  It plays an important role in helping immigrants, including hiring them.

It functions as a banquet hall with the capacity to host almost 700 people, for gatherings that span generations.

 "Baby party and after the baby grows up, they get married here," says Lee.

 Sandy and Caroline Chiu have been patrons for decades.  Almost 37 years ago, they held their wedding banquet here for hundreds of guests.

"The reason why we chose this venue for our wedding banquet was mostly because of the decor," says Sandy who has been a regular patron for decades.  Wife Caroline says she reminisces about her wedding banquet every time she comes Far East Cafe, "It's a moment that you treasure. I'll be able to share it with my next generation." She has performed folk dances here for Chinese New Year celebrations in recent years.

 "When you come to a banquet hall, this is where you find your history, you find your people," says San Francisco Supervisor Connie Chan.  She's working with the owner to consider landmarking the interior which includes the private booths, the artwork and the design of the restaurant. 

 "It's really to preserve the history of Chinese Americans in San Francisco," says Chan.  

Ten years ago, Far East Cafe was among a handful of restaurants in San Francisco Chinatown that was able to hold large community gatherings. Now, it is only one of two.

The other is New Asia. 

Last July, the owner did a pandemic pivot and turned it into a grocery store to survive. But he tells KTVU he plans to resume running it as a banquet hall. 

  "It's a place where new immigrant households can come, find a place to ground themselves, find resources, find culture, find networks and use this place to integrate themselves into the American economy, into American society," says Malcolm Yeung, executive direct with Chinatown Community Development Center, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing.

Supporters say the loss of other banquet halls such as Empress of China and Four Seas has left a void.

Yeung says hundreds of banquets take place in Chinatown every year including family association gatherings and fundraisers. 

 "If this restaurant closes down, how are we going to celebrate the community," says Mei.  

 A community striving to emerge from the darkness of the pandemic with renewed hope and resilience that celebrations will return soon to San Francisco Chinatown.