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Chinatown is Empty

I emerge from a pandemic that has kept me sheltered from many parts of San Francisco, and rediscover Chinatown once again, for the first time.

Nestled in San Francisco's downtown, Chinatown is one of the oldest parts of the city, encompassing a distinctive 24 square blocks. It's typically filled with a hustle-and-bustle mix of local residents, office workers hunting for a meal or libation, and tourists wandering about, marveling at all of the sights, sounds, and shops. All types of automobiles pack its modest, one-way streets: city buses, delivery trucks, Ubers and Lyfts more recently. Or so it was before Covid.

In 2020 during the first year of the pandemic, I avoided traveling to San Francisco's busy downtown; the last place I wanted to be was among a lot of people. But in March of 2021 with a national vaccine rollout just around the corner and a daily routine of facemasks and precaution, I felt safe enough to pack my cameras up and head downtown. And frankly it was about time: I missed this massive part of San Francisco that I had been abstaining from visiting. Somewhat shockingly as a photographer, I'd never taken pictures of Chinatown in any meaningful way before, so I was excited and inspired to finally return. But when I arrived, I found that Chinatown had changed in a pandemic-led world: It was eerily vacant.

Reduced foot traffic due to stay-at-home orders and high rents forced many storefronts to shut-down; hopefully only temporarily, but possibly forever. I was saddened to see so many shops closed, gated, or boarded up. The downturn is tragic by any account, but I find a selfish silver lining: Seeing Chinatown so oddly barren, with only its native residents going about their normal routines, was cathartic. This is Chinatown in a new light: Stripped of outsiders (well, myself excluded) and distilled to an everyday "normal" that I'd never experienced before. Even the historically busy open markets of Stockton Street were sparsely populated. I unpacked my cameras.

Gear-wise, I was well-covered: I brought my trusty Mamiya 7 with a fairly new (at the time) 50mm lens to explore. The wide angle proved beneficial in hindsight, as it allowed me to capture much of the space above Chinatown, such as buildings that stretch high, as well as icons of the San Francisco skyline like the pointed Transamerica Pyramid. For more intimate street-style photography I brought my Nikon L35AF point-and-shoot, a camera I cherish for its on-the-draw autofocus and quality optics. I shot exclusively on color Lomography film (100 ISO for the Nikon, 400 for the Mamiya), with the exception of a single roll of Ferrania P30 black & white that I eagerly loaded into the 35mm camera as soon as I arrived.

Even though I’m a San Francisco resident, I feel comfortably out of place in Chinatown. No one paid me any mind as I began to take pictures. A man sat and read his newspaper on a park bench, never once lifting his head even as I crouched in front of him to compose a shot. Patrons ordered breakfast pastries, either oblivious to my presence or too carefree to acknowledge it. Elsewhere in a public square, students practiced in an ornately-decorated lion costume as I, the only "tourist" present, snapped away, delighted to watch my own personal show. My apparent invisibility allowed me to take the extra time to be more precise with my focusing. I could disregard my typical zone focus approach to street photography and ensure I properly lined up my rangefinder patch.

For what few pockets of people I encountered during my late morning in Chinatown, each scene was full of life and energy. After a year’s worth of pandemic-induced seclusion, re-experiencing Chinatown and embedding myself among its enduring community, safely and with a mask, was exactly what I needed. I found inspiration in shooting Chinatown once again, for the first time.