I’m from a town called Sacramento, California. Its two hours drive from San Francisco.
As a kid going into San Francisco I always looked at Chinatown, Little Italy, Japan town etc. and wondered, how did all of the ethnic neighborhoods begin? And then ten seconds ago I wondered, is “ethnic” a term I’m allowed to use?
Really though, why did the Chinese people all move to Chinatown? Was it named Chinatown first by some local ordinance, and then they moved in? Did some white guy build a couple of buildings with sweeping tile roofs and Chinese people thought, “This looks like my house! I’ll live there”.
Is this arch thing really all it took to get Chinese people to move to San Francisco?
Then I moved to Suzhou, China in 2004, and over the last 11 years I have figured it out.
In 2004 Suzhou had a five districts, and they were as follows:
Downtown Ancient City
A bombed-out neighborhood to the north called Xiang Cheng
A bunch of dudes selling sheet metal to the south (called Wuzhong)
A couple of Japanese people to the west (New District) and,
A few brand new avenues, stop-lights and middle schools to the east (Suzhou Industrial Park, or SIP).
I moved downtown.
Everyone moved downtown. If you didn’t sell sheet metal, speak Japanese or feel like killing yourself, you moved downtown. Downtown had bars, house-parties and cooler dudes selling sheet-metal. Who wouldn’t move there?
In 2004 Suzhou, rental prices fluxuated wildly dependant upon how close you were to these dudes.
Then something started to happen. Like whispers from the new America, word started to come out of the empty fields and abandoned sidewalks that was SIP.
“A place just opened out there called Yumway that makes American-style deli sandwiches” they would say late on a Tuesday night as we sat at Funky Monkey bar in Suzhou’s grimy, greasy downtown district. “Its twenty minutes away in a taxi, but the ham sandwiches are worth it”.
And it would be true*.
Then whispers turned to statements, and statements into shouts…
“I heard that out there they just finished a brand new apartment complex with a swimming pool”, and that would be true.
What followed were Mexican restaurants, the city’s first Starbucks and a legit fake-DVD shop, all on the same street.
It was the corner of Xinghan Jie and Jichang Lu, but it would become the center of our universe.
This strip mall was the center of the Suzhou expat universe.
First Jake Cavanaugh moved there. Then Mikey Renne. Then a hooker got killed in an apartment above the German restaurant, two doors from the sandwich shop. A couple people moved away.
Then Justin (can’t say his last name, you’ll find out why) moved in and got a gym membership at the new gym. Then Rami (ditto) moved into the dead hooker apartment. “I got a good discount!” he would boast.
Then some giant dude named Kenneth John Freeman moved in and got a gym membership at Justin’s gym.
Then we found out Kenneth John Freeman was an America’s Most Wanted pedophile on the run from the US. He got arrested. Justin got grossed out and quit the gym.
Then we found out there was a reward for Kenneth John Freeman that we all missed out on. We spent the full next day Googling every weirdo in town to see if there was an America’s Most Wanted reward for them too. No luck.
As the seasons passed and more people moved to our corner of the universe, all of our holidays started to happen in or neighborhood at the corner of Xinghan Jie and Jichang Lu (now renamed ZhongXin DaDao).
Every Thanksgiving was right there, in Jake’s backyard. USA basketball during the Olympics was always watched at Mr. Pizza two doors down from the German place where the hooker died, four doors from the sandwich shop.
My Thursday night comedy nights existed for three years in downtown anonymity until I moved them into Mister Pizza on Thursday nights in 2012. They were immediately packed. Our corner was now hopping.
Along the way a community formed, legends were built, reputations cemented. Ten years later I have friends who’s kids are going to college and have grown up on our corner in SIP.
Everyone I know has the same skinny, undefined body type because we all have played on the same soccer teams, walk to the same bars and eaten at the same five restaurants.
Ten thousand western expats now live in Suzhou and the majority have flocked to the corner we migrated to in 2006 in a quest to find a good sandwich.
Maybe that’s what happened in San Francisco.
Maybe Chinese people were initially scattered all over the bay area, and then, drunk at a karaoke bar one night a guy said to another dude “Have you heard of that place at the corner of Grant and Stockton? I heard it has amazing hot pot.”
And the other dude said, “Let’s check it out”.
Our neighborhood today.