For decades, Chinese residents were prohibited from buying property, so associations incorporated and bought real estate in Chinatown. Today, the majority of the buildings are owned by Chinese associations, partnerships and individuals, Ms. Louie said. Association leaders discuss rental issues, scholarships to award and charities to fund.
“The associations do incredible things,” Mr. Peskin said. “Their saving grace is that they are all profoundly interested in the continuity of the community.”
Associations uphold traditions, but they cannot prevent retirement and real estate vacancies.
Eddie Au, owner of Man Hing Ivory & Imports for 50 years, is praying someone will buy his antiquities store. What was once a 1,500-square-foot storefront with ivory, bone and jade carvings now occupies 600 square feet.
“It takes five years to carve a bone or a stone. These are handcrafts that people have had to learn,” he said. “But this generation does not care for things like this.” He does not expect his grown children to take over and has begun selling his inventory on eBay.
A few members of the younger generation, however, are keeping the flame alive. Some do it out of duty, others for a fun challenge.
Kevin Chan, for one, has worked at Golden Gate Fortune Cookies, owned by his mother, Nancy Tom Chan, since he was 9. Ms. Chan created the secret recipe and has been mixing the batter daily since 1962.
“I’m not rich,” Mr. Chan said. “I am giving back to Chinatown and the city of San Francisco. I’ll be here until I die.”