On a recent Sunday afternoon, Callan Porter-Romero dragged her little red trolley to a restaurant in Chinatown. She unloaded her ladder, placed paint cans and brushes on the ground, then mixed purple and pink on her palette. Atop the spattered ladder, she drew orchids on the restaurant window.
The flowers surrounded a sketched hand holding a pair of green chopsticks.
“We need more art in the community to show that people who grew up here are still here, and their art, their story, their creativity is valued,” said Porter-Romero, 26.
Many artists are volunteering their spare time to create murals in Chinatown, some on windows, some on walls, and some temporary ones on boards that business owners put up for protection.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, numerous demonstrations took place in Oakland, followed by the vandalism of some businesses, including the ones in Chinatown. The coinciding COVID-19 pandemic also led to an increase in the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans and random attacks on people in Chinatown.
According to the 2020 Hate Crime in California Report released in June, overall hate crime events rose 31% from 2019 to 2020, to 1,330; and anti-Asian bias events doubled to 89. Of the 52 hate crime cases reported in Alameda County, Oakland had the highest number, 19 cases. The statistics don’t cover this year, when attacks against Asians continued, prompting leaders in Chinatown to ask the city for more police protection.
“I woke up in the morning and saw the news saying that Chinatown had been smashed within a night. I thought my store was destroyed as well, so I ran to my store and saw the whole street was vandalized except mine,” said Tiffany Wu, owner of the Mermaid Boutique.
Some stores closed, and others boarded up. The once-bustling neighborhood became dishearteningly empty and quiet.
“The whole Chinatown had just one color — pale yellow-brown of wooden board. It looked scary,” Wu said.
Many store owners turned to local organizations for help.
Three Thirty Three Arts, also known as Dragon School, is a nonprofit dedicated to creating public artwork in Chinatown. It invited artists who cared about the community to decorate the wooden boards on storefront windows.
Eugenia Ho, 29, a designer at frog, painted “Let Love Bloom” on a jewelry store at Ninth and Webster streets. Ho’s family is originally from Hong Kong, and she grew up speaking Cantonese, so the project had personal significance for her.
“I wanted a message that was positive,” she said, “something that was still related to empathy, compassion, letting the community heal.”
The art, with its bright colors and positive messaging, makes Chinatown look cheerier than it did when it was dotted with blank wooden boards. But, as Wu pointed out, window dressing can’t hide what’s been missing in Chinatown for the past year and a half.
“I felt very thankful for the artist’s effort.” she said, “but I still wish Chinatown could get back to when it was crowded and full with people.”
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Callan Porter-Romero’s name.