“I just feel I’m super grateful to have grown up here and you know, I think this place, Oakland, California is the place that I have more roots than probably anywhere else in the world. Even China. I know that sounds crazy, but I have four generations here and I think one of the things that’s weird about being Asian is one of the stereotypes we encounter is this stereotype of being a perpetual foreigner. So a lot of times people look at me, they look at my Asian face and they assume that I’m an immigrant and I certainly have immigrants in my past and my ancestry. But my family’s been in the United States and in Oakland specifically a really long time, over a hundred years.”
What is your name and age?
My name is Nicole Lee. I’m 42 years old. Asian don’t raisin.
What part of Oakland are you from or would you say you associate with home?
I mean, I grew up all over Oakland. Right now we’re in Oakland Chinatown. My father’s side of the family, is actually from Oakland Chinatown their from the original Oakland Chinatown, which was where Ghost Town is. The Chinese were displaced to where Chinatown is now. And my father grew up in Oakland Chinatown.
Do you want to talk a little bit more about that real quick?
Yeah, I mean, all I know is that my grandmother, I’m a fourth generation Oakland resident and my grandmother was born here in Oakland probably around 1908, 1909, something like that. And originally the original Oakland Chinatown was up in West Oakland, near Ghost town. My understanding is that there was a development boom and the Chinese were pushed to closer to downtown where they are today. My dad was born in 1935 here in Oakland and he grew up on seventh street then as a child. My dad was at East Oakland business owner and as a child, I spent every weekend here in Oakland Chinatown with my grandparents.
Do you know what are the specific reasons why your family chose to come to Oakland?
I don’t, the Cantonese or southern Chinese people came to the United States mostly through California in the late eighteen hundreds. There was economic strife in Canton, it was being colonized by the British. There was also an opium epidemic. I think people came here for those reasons and probably my family came during that time. Chinese folks were working on the railroads and they were merchants. So I assume that that’s what was happening with my family, although I don’t know the specifics. My great grandmother owned a house over on sixth street about three blocks from here. It’s no longer there because when they built the 880 freeway, they put the on ramp right there. It’s literally right there. And they eminent domained that side of the street and built the on ramp. So that house was destroyed during that process. That’s the house that my great-grandmother grew up in, like two blocks from here. The story that I was told is that she ran a candy store on the front and a gambling house in the back, maybe like kind of like a Chinese speakeasy probably during the 1920s and thirties, I assume, I think during the Great Depression.
Can you talk about a little bit about how your grandparents got this house?
My understanding is that, um, my grandfather, this was a poor and working class immigrant community and I think that my grandparents got this house in the either late 1930s or the early 1940s, and that was the tail end of the Great Depression before World War II happened. People in this community were struggling. And so my grandfather, you know, I’m not allowed to tell the details, my grandfather he had to hustle sometimes and also the Chinese were involved in gambling. So my understanding is that he was a card dealer up and down California. They had these back alley Chinese gambling establishments. California did have segregation, maybe not in the formal way that it was in the south. Chinese folks were the dealers in the back alley casinos and African Americans weren’t always allowed in the mainstream casinos. And so people would go to the back alley casinos to gamble, so my grandfather, you know, dealt cards and he also gambled himself and I think that he won some money and that’s how they got this house.
Tell me a little bit about growing up in this neighborhood or growing up in Oakland and some of your memories.
I grew up all over this city, I just remember my grandmother would walk me around here. She would knit sweaters, like crochet these sweaters that I thought were embarrassing. But they were really nice and she would dress me in them and then take me by the arm and walk me through Chinatown to show it off to all of the other ladies in Chinatown. And they would all comment in Cantonese, oh how beautiful. Look at that sweater. And she would say, Oh, I knitted it myself. I remember being horrified and embarrassed. (Laughing) I remember that she would want to make sure that I knew how to get home if I ever got lost. So she would walk me somewhere in Chinatown, and then she would say, okay you show me how to get back to the house. Which in retrospect, I think that was smart of her at the time. I thought it was weird. I think for me it was challenging sometimes. I was much more assimilated. She was to actually, my grandmother she was born in Oakland. She grew up in a Chinese community her whole life. So she spoke Chinese fluently probably with, you know, a little bit of an American accent. But she was fluent in the culture, she was also a die hard Oakland A’s fan and that’s all American culture, whatever. I remember her as a Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley fan back in the day. She would watch the A’s game every night that it was on. But she was also Chinese in a lot of ways, and I feel very fortunate that she passed the culture on to me in this house and that’s what I remember about Chinatown.
What does it mean to you to be an Oakland native born and raised here?
I just feel I’m super grateful to have grown up here and you know, I think this place, Oakland, California is the place that I have more roots than probably anywhere else in the world. Even China. I know that sounds crazy, but I have four generations here and I think one of the things that’s weird about being Asian is one of the stereotypes we encounter is this stereotype of being a perpetual foreigner. So a lot of times people look at me, they look at my Asian face and they assume that I’m an immigrant and I certainly have immigrants in my past and my ancestry. But my family’s been in the United States and in Oakland specifically a really long time, over a hundred years. So this is really, I feel like it’s in my dna, you know what I mean? I also grew up in Oakland, I was born in 76. I grew up in Oakland in the eighties and nineties when it was a predominantly African American community and I think anybody who grew up in Oakland, you can tell from talking to me or being around me that African American culture was certainly an influence on everybody that lived in the city at that time. That’s what’s so hard about this moment because it feels like people of color, black folks and some white folks held the city down through the most difficult of social and economic times, through, you know, businesses leaving this city, through the crack epidemic, through the outbreak of violence that happened in this city, through mass incarceration. Now capital’s coming back, development’s coming back, money’s coming back and it feels like the people who held the city down are the first ones being pushed out and it really feels like a betrayal to me.
I just feel really fortunate to have grown up in Oakland during that time and I feel really a sense of devotion to the people of this city, the people that held this down that are really from here, that held the city down through those rough times. I feel like those are my people and I feel a devotion to those people to our people. And I feel so that’s why I do social justice work because I feel like it’s my duty to fight for he people who really made Oakland what it is. And that’s why all these folks who are coming here, because they’re attracted to that, it’s like they’re attracted to it, but then they don’t really want it at the same time. You know what I mean? Um, so anyways, that’s why I do social justice work.
What makes Oakland such a special city in comparison to other cities of similar size and stature?
Oakland to me, it’s a city of innovators and tastemakers it always has been that. It’s not a coincidence, it’s the, it’s the birthplace of the Black Panther party. It’s actually where Cesar Chavez learned organizing. A lot of people don’t know that but he was part of a community organization here in Oakland and he used to do canvassing in East and West Oakland. There’s photos of him with Bobby Seale walking through neighborhoods in East and West Oakland. Bruce Lee lived in Oakland. I mean, there’s just so much about our history. I don’t know what it is. It’s something special in the sauce. But we’re this little town, we’re 400,000 people and before that we were probably smaller than that. So we’re not like some huge metropolitan area, but for some reason we’re this place where these innovators come from. I don’t exactly know why that is, but it makes it really special. And I think honestly, I’m actually writing a piece about this right now, but I think that the numbers are grim. If you look at the numbers, the demographic shift in this city over the past 10 years is, is much greater and much more dramatic than I ever imagined was even possible. And happening with the velocity that blows my mind and breaks my heart. But at the same time, I think that there’s something about the spirit of this city that can’t be erased. Last year when that woman called the police on Kenzie and Deacon at Lake Merritt, who became known as Barbecue Becky that was happening all over the country because cities like Oakland and Detroit and DC and all these other places are being gentrified. And when the new residents come in, they bring their own social expectations and honestly racist ideas about people of color into the cities. Then they encounter folks and they call the police on them for sitting in Starbucks or for checking out of an airbnb or for barbecuing at Lake Merritt, things that people have been doing this whole time.
But the difference about that story and Oakland is that happened and then there was a response and we took our young people led the first response to that, um, which happened on May 10th, it was part of Five One Oh day and so, Dj fuse came out, we threw this big dance party and people started doing the electric slide and it went viral. It became like this national news story, then Jamail Robinson and other folks created a barbecuing while black. We took the lake the whole summer, but the thing is we’ve been doing that. In the 90s when I grew up here, the lake was like that every Sunday. I just think there’s something special about Oakland. And so the story about this kind of racist incident has been happening again and again, all over the country. Our story was different because this is a city where resistance and standing up for ourselves and pride is in our blood. It’s in our bloodstream.
Why do you think so many people are moving to Oakland now?
I think everybody’s trying to move to Oakland for a number of reasons. I mean, the obvious reason is the tech industry and our proximity to silicon valley. But I also think people are attracted to cities like Oakland and Detroit because they’re quote unquote edgy, which is this weird thing about American culture that I don’t quite understand. I think a lot of times mainstream American culture of fetishizes urban culture and black culture specifically and commercializes it, but then it has a disdain for black people and urban people of color in urban communities. So it’s this very weird contradiction where there they want to wear these shirts and say they’re from Oakland and even tattoo the Oakland tree on their arm and they’ve only lived here for like three months and they can’t even tell you where Sobrante and Brookfield are. It’s just mind blowing to me. And that’s what feels like such a betrayal. They’re attracted to things that the people who really are from here created, but then in their attraction they’re pushing people out and I think that’s the contradiction.
What do you wish people knew about Oakland before they came here? Or what would you tell neighbors is the guidelines to be a good Oaklander?
So like I don’t have a problem with people moving. People move through history. Right? I mean, obviously my ancestors immigrated here. We wouldn’t be sitting here in Chinatown. Right. So I don’t have a problem with that per se, I think it’s more about acknowledging the history and culture and people who came before you. I think that’s in general, otherwise it’s like you’re a colonizer. Do you know what I mean? I think it’s acknowledging and giving respect to that history. I also think you have to learn a community when you come into it. Obviously anyone who comes to a new place is going to have some blind spots. But I think it’s about learning that community. You have to understand what are the social norms of that community, what are the values, the expectations that people in that community have of one another before you just start expecting things or demanding things or acting entitled. Some of it honestly is about respect and some of it is about how you actually can be accepted and thrive in a community. If you come into a community and you don’t know anything about it and you act a fool, that can actually be dangerous for you. You know what I mean? So I just think it’s about listening and learning and building relationships and being respectful. These things seem basic to me, but apparently they’re not basic.
What do you like about new things that are changing in Oakland?
To be honest, Oakland, most of my life was going through an economic depression and that was really difficult. I don’t want to glorify the 90s in Oakland. That was one of the most difficult decades probably that the city has ever experienced and entire families, entire communities were devastated. I don’t know what else to call it, but genocide and I think what’s hard also is that’s still happening in certain communities even while all these other improvements, so called improvements are happening. So that also feels like a contradiction, but I don’t think that this city could survive forever with no economic activity. And I do think it’s exciting to see young creatives. I guess that’s the word the millennials use young people who are creative and who have ideas, have an innovation, have the space to create new things and to start small businesses. There’s a lot of artists and folks that are from the town that I know who have started clothing lines or jewelry lines or apparel lines. Really getting the space to be creative, to do cool things and to make money doing it. So I like all of that. I definitely like having a nightlife in Oakland. When I was in my twenties, I used to go to San Francisco every single weekend, three, four times a week sometimes. I like SOMAR, shout out to Mike to the Ramos family. It’s definitely nice to see some things flourishing in Oakland. My wish is that those things can benefit the people who have been in this city for a long time.
What are your hopes and aspirations Oakland?
I hope that Oakland can continue to be a diverse city because that’s such a core part of our identity. I grew up all over this city and I grew up with people of literally every background you could imagine. My elementary school, there were as many indigenous Native American kids as there were Asian and Black kids. I think that that’s something that makes us special. I also have traveled to other cities but there’s a way that cultures mix in Oakland, not that we don’t have our own issues, but there’s a way that cultures are allowed to influence each other in Oakland that I had never actually seen anywhere else in the country. I hope that continues and I hope that Oakland can thrive but not lose the core of what makes us a special place. Because I think in this moment right now with everything happening, with all of this flare up of racism and reactionary stuff happening all over the country, sexism, and I think the world needs Oakland much more now, so than ever before. So I hope that we can continue to be that special place.