Chinatown would seem to be a neighborhood designed for loneliness. Single room occupancy hotels comprise as much as 60 percent of its housing stock. And, indeed, it has the highest number of seniors living alone.
Yes, some seniors are lonely, but a surprising number elect to stay or even to return to rooms measuring little more than eight by 10 feet, say local nonprofits.
“Sometimes, seniors actually prefer to live in Chinatown, rather than with their families, because they get to live in the community that provides them with a really significant level of social connection,” said Malcolm Yeung, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Yeung said a recent survey suggested that 78 percent of the some 900 monolingual seniors living outside Chinatown indicated that they wanted to move back. The results, “actually stunned us; that was much higher than we had thought,” he said of the report from the Chinatown Community Tenants Association.
For many immigrants, Chinatown’s language and cheap housing continues to make it the first stop in San Francisco. That pattern was established early on with the growth of single room occupancy hotels designed for the Chinese laborers who arrived in the late 19th century, according to Anni Chung, president of Self-Help for the Elderly.
At present, Chinatown is among the neighborhoods that have the highest concentration of SROs, comparable to the Tenderloin and Inner Mission. The units still represent 50 to 60 percent of the neighborhood’s housing stock, Yeung said. And while they can be uncomfortable, some in Chinatown prefer the small space to living with their children in the suburbs where getting around is difficult and Asian amenities are few.
In Chinatown, family associations connect people by their last names, and residents young and old partake in the dazzling array of Chinese food and groceries close at hand. In Portsmouth Square, the living room of Chinatown, where some seniors practice Tai Chi peacefully, a few poker games come to an end every minute.
Sit there for a few minutes and a visitor will see some seniors happily pocketing a few coins and others letting loose with curses.
On a recent weekday, Suzhu Mai, 80, was reading the newspaper alone on a bench off to the side while waiting for her 91-year-old friend who comes every day at 2 p.m. “We sat on that bench yesterday, and today we are on this bench,” she said, pointing to a nearby bench that was occupied.
Mai’s husband passed away three decades ago. She now lives alone in Chinatown, where her son, a barber, comes to style her hair and cook for her from time to time. “If you can’t find a good enough partner, it’s better to be on your own. … Here, the old people don’t live together with their offspring,” she said. “I like the life here; I live freely.”
On the bench next to her, Xie, 70, was enjoying a day off from making dumplings and Xiaolongbao at a Chinese restaurant. He echoed Mai, “Well, you know, we live separately here,” he said.
But just being in the same space makes for surprising connections. Twenty minutes into talking with Mai, Xie discovered Mai’s 91-year-old friend was actually from the same village in China as him, and had mutual acquaintances from the first half of their lives.
“She is actually my [distant] aunt. Her last name is also Xie, and she and my father are of the same generation,” said Xie.
Such chance encounters would be rare outside of Chinatown.
Early on, single men, who left behind everything they knew in the hopes of making some money in railroad construction, occupied the units. Some of the tenants never made enough money to escape the SROs; others never wanted to leave the rent controlled rooms. And, although many of their children have become engineers or teachers with the money their parents earned from strenuous work, parents often remain behind in rooms that average eight by 10 feet, some by choice and others because of a cultural reluctance to ask for help.
“If the children don’t offer to rent a nice apartment for you, I don’t think many of our seniors will ask,” said Chung. She believes this behavior emerges from cultural ideas of dignity, as the parents don’t want to be a burden to their children.
But there are also those who stay or return by choice. It’s unclear how many make up each group.
But the combined numbers are substantial. Some — 25 percent of Chinatown’s households have a resident that is 65 and older and living alone — that totals some 1,600 seniors. The highest cluster of seniors living alone is in Japantown, but the total population of Japantown is much smaller than Chinatown, and those represent only 950 seniors. Citywide, around 11.3 percent of households consist of those 65 and older living alone.
While early on it was mostly single men living in SROs, nowadays women represent the largest group of elderly, Chung said. They tend to outlive their husbands, many by a decade or more. And many remain alone.
On Thanksgiving, 100 or so Chinatown seniors attended a free lunch offered by Self-Help for the Elderly. And, true to the demographics, a large number of women were among those who picked up the softly simmered chicken with chopsticks, as a Cantonese song, “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” played over the click of chopsticks. “Many times I’ve faced the cold shoulder and ridicule, never did I give up the hopes and ideals in my heart,” the lyrics go.
Most of the elderly Chinatown residents came to the Thanksgiving event alone and hardly knew anyone. But, once seated, they chatted comfortably with their tablemates in Cantonese. But not all looked at ease.
Coming alone from his residence two blocks away on Stockton Street, 78-year-old Zhu, who has lived in Chinatown for three decades, clung to his mask when he was not eating. Sometimes his daughter visits him and brings him breakfast and cigarettes, but he doesn’t get to see his son much. “He’s afraid his baby will get the virus, so he doesn’t come,” Zhu explained.
He acknowledges: “I genuinely don’t have any friends.”
Before Covid, he played mahjong regularly, but nowadays he spends most of his time walking alone and climbing stairs.
Zhu may return to the mahjong tables, but social workers are well aware the covid and anti-Asian incidents have made the elderly more cautious. And, in Chinatown, returning home often means returning to an empty room.
Still, Chung says, even some of those who can afford not to, prefer living in Chinatown simply because it is the epicenter of their lives. “There’s such a strong desire to live in Chinatown that seniors are willing to sort of bear a level of hardship to be able to do that,” said Yeung.
The vast majority of Chinatown SROs, he said, do not have elevators, private bathrooms or kitchens, all of which are formidable obstacles for seniors with limited mobility. And again has its own challenges, including mental health.
Dr. Joseph Woo, president of Asian American Medical Group, who has served Chinatown for 27 years, said mental health remains “a big issue in and of itself.”
Cultural norms make even seeking help difficult. “We don’t look at mental health issues favorably as a culture,” he said. “Sometimes, we wrongfully feel ashamed if we have mental health issues, or our family has mental health issues. I think there is a lot of denial in our own community.”
The upside is that resources, mental or medical, are abundant in Chinatown. Doctors speaking any dialect can usually be found within a 15-minute walk, according to Woo. The elders usually have a low BMI, which makes them susceptible to diabetes.
Living alone can be a problem when they need insulin injections, and this is when the cramped SROs provide a safety net for them. “Our seniors are very resilient,” said Woo. “They seem to get by, and are very happy. I suspect their neighbors are helping them, and within their SROs they form their own little communities that help each other.”
Some, however, see the strong connection to Chinatown as a drawback. “It’s not good. It keeps us isolated. It keeps our mindset isolated,” said Kari Lee, the associate vice president of the YMCA of San Francisco who has spent 19 years at Chinatown YMCA.
Regardless, the seniors at the Thanksgiving lunch — mostly women, in keeping with Chung’s observation — were happy talking to people who spoke the same language. This joy even overcame the language barrier.
Qiufeng Du, 70, sat quietly alone, because she only spoke Mandarin and did not understand Cantonese at all. Even though she can’t understand the vast majority of what the pedestrians or merchants in Chinatown say, Du commutes to Chinatown every day from Post Street out toward The Richmond, where she lives alone, to buy groceries and, most importantly, snacks. “Whether it’s something I’ve eaten, something I haven’t eaten, something sweet, something salty, I like to try it all,” she said.