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San Francisco’s Little Saigon is facing an existential crisis

A graffiti-laden urban corner with a person resting by a statue base, surrounded by trash and discarded items.
A pillar that marks the entrance of Little Saigon has been defaced. The district was established 20 years ago to boost Southeast Asian small businesses in the area. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Khong Tu thought his life could be easier in San Francisco when he escaped Cambodia almost half a century ago. But now, at the age of 71, he’s still struggling.

Sitting at his 30-year-old jewelry store in Little Saigon, the once-thriving Southeast Asian commercial district on Larkin Street in the Tenderloin, Tu said the good times of this area are gone.

“All the stores here were Vietnamese businesses, and everywhere was busy,” Tu said. “They all moved away already.”

Little Saigon, a business corridor established 20 years ago to highlight the vibrant Vietnamese and wider Southeast Asian American community in the heart of the city, is now fighting to survive.

An older man with glasses sits behind a glass counter, with calendars and a chart on the wall behind him.
Khong Tu, owner of Quoc Long Jewelry, is one of several business owners who said Little Saigon is struggling with vacancies and deteriorating street conditions. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Late last year, the closure of Turtle Tower, a famed pho restaurant on Larkin Street, was a major blow to the area. The storefront joined more than a dozen vacancies on a two-block stretch of Larkin Street between Eddy and O’Farrell. Even the entrance pillars of Little Saigon have been heavily vandalized, making the historic neighborhood barely recognizable now.

Now, in the eyes of many merchants in the area, a homeless service center proposed at the former site of the restaurant is the last straw.

Once Thriving, Now Shrinking

San Francisco, home to the oldest Chinatown and Japantown in the U.S., has one of the most visible Asian American communities of any city nationwide. But Little Saigon, a newer and lesser-known district, lacks the prestige of its more touristy peers.

Following a massive wave of Southeast Asian immigration to San Francisco in the 1970s, Larkin Street became a destination for Vietnamese-owned, family-run small businesses, as well as community and religious centers and schools.

The usage of “Little Saigon” to describe the cultural hub emerged as early as 1991. In 2003, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to recognize Little Saigon as a Vietnamese cultural and commercial center.

At the time, Little Saigon spanned six blocks on Larkin Street from McAllister to Geary.  Prominent signage was installed, highlighting it as an official destination for Southeast Asian shopping and dining.

A street banner reads "Welcome to Little Saigon, San Francisco," with people and cars on the urban street below.
In 2004, banners welcomed visitors to a six-block area of the Tenderloin dubbed Little Saigon. | Source: Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

But the street conditions have worsened in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, which encircles Little Saigon and is now the epicenter of the city’s homelessness and fentanyl crisis. Jane Kim, former District 6 supervisor representing Little Saigon in the 2010s and a mayoral candidate in 2018, said the area wasn’t like this before.

“I went to Little Saigon several times a week because some of my favorite restaurants are on that [Larkin Street] block,” she said. “But Covid really hit hard in the area.”

Kim said that since the pandemic, foot traffic has gone down and “negative street behaviors” have increased, making it harder for businesses to attract customers.

On a Thursday at noon, only four customers were eating at Golden Lotus, a Vietnamese restaurant on Larkin.

A man stands by an open door of a Pho restaurant, with a menu and a colorful sign in the window.
Hau Hung, owner of Golden Lotus restaurant, said his restaurant was packed with customers before the pandemic. Now, there's far less foot traffic in the area. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Golden Lotus owner Hau Hung said before the pandemic, his restaurant would be packed with City Hall employees who work nearby, and he needed four staffers to serve them. But now, even one staffer seems excessive, he said.

Planned Homeless Center Hits a Nerve

After Turtle Tower closed in September, San Francisco Community Health Center, a longtime Tenderloin and Asian American-focused nonprofit, purchased the building at 645 Larkin St. using city funding and decided to open a homeless drop-in services center.

The announcement was met with stiff pushback from merchants nearby. Tu, whose store is right next to the site, said the center will force more businesses out of Little Saigon.

“We are all doing business here,” Tu said. “What’s the reason to put a homeless service center here?” Tu also said he never received any communication from the center, so the news was a shock to him.

Hung agreed, saying that activity outside the planned center would deter already-sparse foot traffic.

“Imagine the long line outside that center,” Hung, a Chinese Vietnamese immigrant, told The Standard in Cantonese. “No one would want to come to eat here—no tourists, no locals.”

City street scene with pedestrians, traffic lights, Asian signage, and a Larkin Street sign.
Little Saigon, a once-thriving Tenderloin corridor, is now lined with vacancies. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Judy Young, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Development Center in the Tenderloin, criticized the plan as “not the right match” for the area.

“There's not enough resources to support and visibility for the small business owners,” Young said. “They're not going to survive.”

The plan also garnered some high-profile opposition—Mayor London Breed.

In a statement, Breed’s office acknowledged that people who live and work in the Tenderloin vehemently opposed opening the drop-in center in Little Saigon. 

“Without any demonstrated support and the level of neighborhood opposition, there are serious concerns about the provision of services at this location,” the statement said.

Kim, a progressive icon in San Francisco’s politics, also opposed the homeless center’s opening.

Searching for a Lifeline

However, San Francisco Community Health Center is confident that the new plan will bring some “hope” to the area.

A spokesperson for the center said since November, they have been reaching out to neighbors and businesses to engage and collaborate on the design of the space.

The center also said it has served as a safety net for the transgender and unhoused communities, taking care of people who use substances and those with mental health needs. 

“We continue to foster this hope and look forward to continued dialogue on how we collectively heal all members of our community,” the center said in a statement.

It’s unclear how the center will move forward with the plan, given strong opposition from local merchants and political figures. If advanced, the proposal will also need the Planning Commission’s approval, which will be a public process during which the community can raise concerns.

No matter what happens with the homeless center, the city is still alarmed by what it sees happening to the once-decorated district. Gloria Chan, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said some of its programs are trying to help businesses in Little Saigon.

“We are committed and focused on supporting the Tenderloin neighborhood, including Little Saigon,” Chan said in a statement, citing storefront lighting improvement programs, business navigation and consultation services, social media marketing campaigns and arts and cultural events and programming.

Tenderloin advocates also hope the city’s recent “Vacant to Vibrant” initiative, which pays for rent for pop-up shops in Downtown San Francisco, can expand to Little Saigon.

But despite the existing efforts, merchants are hoping for a drastic change to save the corridor.

Five adults stand in front of a store, with pedestrians passing by on a city sidewalk.
Khong Tu, his granddaughter Ma’at Tu-Ford, and three daughters Liza, Trisha and Mei Stans, stand in front of his shop in Little Saigon. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Tu’s daughter, Trisha Tu, a Tenderloin-born and raised mom and a second-generation business owner, said that other neighborhoods in the city may have bounced back since the pandemic, but Little Saigon has not and indeed needs help. 

The street conditions in Little Saigon even prompted her to consider changing her child’s elementary school, which is in the nearby Lower Nob Hill.

“This used to be the cleanest block in the neighborhood,” Tu said. “It’s just so hard to walk here now.”

Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com