On her way to work at a health clinic in downtown San Francisco, Samantha Wong walks briskly into a Chinatown pastry shop.
With her right hand she waves with familiarity to an employee, with her left she reaches for cash. She orders in Cantonese.
The 24-year-old speaks the language, eats the food and cares for the residents of Chinatown at work, but she doesn’t live there.
No young adults do, she said. At least not ones with an education or career.
While young professionals pile into shared housing and compete for affordable apartments all around San Francisco — including spaces adjacent to Chinatown — young people are trying to escape the historically oriental neighborhood.
“There really is no point to staying here,” she said. “You can make a better life elsewhere.”
Wong’s mother grew up in Chinatown, sleeping on a pull-out couch in the living room of a one bedroom apartment. When she was old enough, she married and moved to the suburbs. It’s what all the children of Chinatown do, said Wong. They get out.
The people who do live in the neighborhood, said Sing Quan, are either elderly or part of an immigrant family with young children. The elderly have been there for years and are unlikely to leave, he said, but immigrant families treat the neighborhood like a transition zone. Sometimes the parents stay, but the children rarely do.
Quan, a first generation immigrant who lives in the city’s Mission District, has been working with youth at the Donaldina Cameron House for 13 years. He’s repeatedly seen the same progression: A child immigrates to Chinatown with his or her family, lives in a cramped single-room occupancy building or — if they’re lucky — a small apartment, goes to college and never moves back.
“They have the opportunity to not live at home, and they take it,â€ he said. “And if you don’t live at home, you don’t live in Chinatown.”
A 2005-2009 city government survey of San Francisco’s neighborhoods found that 75 percent of Chinatown’s residents are foreign born, and nearly 40 percent of them are more than 60 years old.
It’s the most densely populated neighborhood in city. In 2010 Chinatown’s population density was more than 70,400 per square mile — more than four times the average population density for San Francisco.
But density has likely increased in the rest of the city in recent years. Not only by people per square mile, but by people per housing unit. The tech boom in the bay city has drawn many young newcomers, but tight building restrictions have prevented the city’s housing from growing at the same rate. The U.S. Census bureau estimates that the city grew by 7,500 people in 2012. Sarah Karlinsky, policy director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, told the San Francisco Chronicle in January that the city had only added 200 housing units in that time.
To much of the bay city, “young newcomer” means a young professional coming to town for a tech job or a recent college graduate infatuated with the city culture. But in Chinatown, the only young newcomers are younger: They are children, and like their young professional counterparts, they sacrifice personal space to be in the city.
Most new immigrant families live in SROs, said Quan. SROs are single rooms, generally about 10-by-10-feet, that often house two families at a time. It’s a living situation far more cramped than young professionals renting closets and laundry rooms in shared homes.
“Imagine a regular college dorm room, but instead of two people living there, two families live there,” he said. “There’s one kitchen and one bathroom per floor. That’s if they’re lucky. Some have one for the building.”
Families pay about $500 to live there, he said, and have no privacy.
“As a 20-something, that’s not what you want to come back to,” he said.
Weaving through the Chinese food markets on the Stockton Street sidewalk, Eliza Kern wonders aloud about how to find housing in Chinatown.
She doesn’t know anyone that lives there and heard from a friend that apartments in the neighborhood aren’t advertised on sites like Craigslist.
Kern moved to San Francisco in May 2012. She’s a stereotypical newcomer: A recent college graduate who moved to the city for a job in the tech industry. Or rather, in her case, a job writing about the tech industry.
She lives just two blocks from Chinatown and regularly walks the neighborhood’s streets for exercise.
If Kern could read Cantonese, she might have had her answer. Angela Chu, the community organizing manager for the Chinatown Community Development Center, said landlords often advertise vacancies with signs in their windows. The community is so tight knit, she said, that most openings are filled with signs or by word of mouth.
There are 37 San Francisco neighborhoods included in the search function on Craigslist and Chinatown is not one of them. A search for Chinatown in postings from the last 30 days yields apartments boasting that the neighborhood is “within walking distance” or “adjacent to block” — but none that are within.
But Wong and Sing say young people aren’t looking for space in Chinatown anyway. It’s a neighborhood overflowing with the elderly and transitional immigrant families, a neighborhood children don’t return to.
If they chose to stay in San Francisco, the children of Chinatown — equipped with a college education and a dream — will join the masses in the fight for housing elsewhere in the city. And for children raised in an SRO, $500 a month for a closet of their very own might not be so bad.