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APEC Anxiety Sweeps Chinatown as San Francisco Inspects, Shuts Down Restaurants

Written by Han LiPublished Oct. 24, 2023 • 6:20am
An employee preps noodles in the kitchen at Sam Wo in Chinatown. Business was temporarily halted by a health inspection. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Three weeks before San Francisco’s high-profile international summit event brings thousands of visiting foreign dignitaries, the city is doing everything it can to bolster its reputation. For many of Chinatown’s restaurants, however, rolling out the red carpet can also mean increased scrutiny.

In recent weeks, inspectors from the San Francisco Department of Public Health have visited multiple Chinatown restaurants for routine inspections, shutting several down temporarily over health code violations and causing a panic wave in the community.

Steven Lee, owner of the century-old Sam Wo restaurant, told The Standard that his business was shut down briefly. And soon, a Google user posted a photo of the “CLOSED” notice that was then displayed on Google Maps.

“We understand that’s protocol,” Lee said. “Shutting us down and putting a notice at our front door won’t help us.”

He later posted the restaurant's “PASS” notice on the Google review, hoping to control any damage to Sam Wo’s reputation.

Lee had heard the rumors that the city was strengthening its enforcement ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next month, which will attract global political and business leaders to San Francisco. He said he urged the city to communicate any violations to restaurateurs first and to consider the circumstances that the city’s small businesses have faced.

“The city is putting pressures on small businesses to meet the standard,” Lee said, “but where’s their responsibility to keep the street clean?” 

He added that a homeless encampment has been outside Sam Wo for days, and the city hasn’t responded after he filed a report.

The Department of Public Health issued a statement to The Standard confirming multiple inspections and the temporary permit suspensions in Chinatown but denied that the crackdown was related to APEC.

“While facilities may be receiving inspections at different dates and times compared to the previous year,” the statement said, “no facility is receiving additional or different inspections compared to prior years.”

Kathy Lee works behind the bar at Far East Cafe in Chinatown in 2021. | Source: Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

A block away from Sam Wo, the century-old restaurant Far East Cafe also received an inspection.

Kathy Lee, Far East’s second-generation owner, said the restaurant passed its inspection earlier this month, and she understands the city may want to be stricter.

“It could be APEC,” Lee said. “But also, since the reopening, the city doesn't want the businesses to become ‘too relaxed.’”

The battle between city inspectors and Chinatown restaurants is not new. Many of Chinatown’s buildings are old and prohibitively expensive to renovate, so conditions such as rodent and cockroach infestations could easily lead to health violations. However, some critics have slammed the public health department for not understanding Asian and Chinese cuisines and cooking cultures.

Little Paris, a Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant on Stockton Street, was recently cited for food temperature issues but received a conditional pass. Owner Xiaolan Mei told The Standard that she had to throw food away because inspectors determined it wasn’t hot or cold enough.

In Cantonese, she said many Chinatown restaurants and grocery stores are struggling, and the heavy-handed operation will just make more businesses quit altogether.

What exactly is APEC, and why is San Francisco hosting part of it this year? KQED journalist and APEC Host Committee Press Ambassador Priya David Clemens explains.

Normally, the department conducts inspections twice a year with a focus on foodborne illness risks to “ensure health and safety to all San Franciscans and visitors.”

But as the city works to show its best side to the world, Steven Lee’s APEC anxiety might just get started. He's part of an event planning committee tasked with making Chinatown a highlight during the weeklong summit. 

"We want to make sure the world knows Chinatown," Lee said. "We want to show the world that we are not the shithole that everybody says we are."

Han Li can be reached at

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