San Francisco’s Chinatown bills itself as the largest district of its kind outside of Asia and the most established in North America. But not every merchant is of Chinese ancestry. Even though people from the Indian subcontinent are considered Asian-American per U.S. Census, the definition of Asian-American in daily discourse and life remains fluid:
By Julian Moncaleano
It is 7:50 a.m. at Fremont BART as Yogesh Patel awaits his daily commute to San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Patel must make it to Chinatown by 9 a.m. to set up his souvenir and clothing store, Shona Fashion, located on the corner of Grant Avenue and Jackson Street.
Grant Avenue is one of San Francisco’s most beloved streets, and a vast majority of the storefronts are predominantly owned by Asian and Asian-American families. Patel is well aware that he may be the only non-Asian store owner along Grant Avenue, but he was confident when he bought the store from the previous owner who happened to be Indian, like Patel.
Just like many business owners of Chinatown, Patel left his homeland in hopes of building a cultural economic empire for his family back home.
Patel arrived in the United States in 2010 with his wife and two children. After graduating from college in India, Patel worked many different jobs, but his last was as a stockbroker and it wasn’t cut out for the lifestyle Patel envisioned for his family.
“Life is better here,” Patel says. “My wife does not have to work as much and it really balances our lives at home. It’s nice that I get to be my own boss and I’d have to say the hardest part of my job is probably greeting the customers.”
Patel works about five days out of seven. While he’s at work, Patel’s wife raises their kids in the suburb of Fremont. Patel believes that in order to run a family business, he needs complete support from his wife. “When I am at work, my wife watches the children, and when she comes to the store it is my turn to watch the children—we always have either my wife or me here along with one of our helpers.”
Patel is a successful store owner, but life was not always like this for him and his family.
He worked at a Taco Bell in Fremont as his first job in the United States. It was not until one day that Patel realized that this wasn’t what he came to America for. “I didn’t like it. I came here for one reason—money.”
Before owning Shona Fashion, Patel worked as a helper to the previous owner and they built a successful work relationship. In 2014, within one year of working at Shona Fashion, Patel received an offer to buy the store.
For years, Patel worked tirelessly to provide for his family and ultimately invested all his earnings into the souvenir shop. Everything he once hoped for in India was essentially in the same store he was working at.
Patel is content with his one store and does not plan on investing in any other storefronts at the moment, as he continues to have his hands full with Shona. He believes it’s a bit easier to run a store when all people involved can be trusted. Patel likes his small setup because he can keep an eye on shoppers and employees.
“I like having a family environment in my store because it really makes everything comfortable,” he says, adding this joke: “I’m glad we have kids or else I don’t know how well I would work with my wife.”
For families like the Patels, who depend on one another, it truly becomes easier to run a business. But being unable to be at both stores at the same time is unnecessary stress that Patel does not want to deal with.
Since both of their children are in elementary school, it is very important for their children to be watched during the week, especially when they’re out of school. On weekdays, Shona Fashion closes at 7:30 p.m. and on weekends at 8:30 p.m. By then, Patel needs to take two BART trains in order to get back to Fremont and his children have already been tucked away in bed.
The daily commute from Fremont to San Francisco wears some people down, but Patel is grateful to have his store in such a very busy area.
People may believe that souvenir shops in San Francisco are extremely busy during the holiday season. Patel believes it’s an exaggeration.
The summer is usually the busiest time of the year for Patel and the rest of Chinatown. During the holiday season, shoppers tend to stay near downtown or inside local shopping malls.
Patel says, “That’s why we stay open later in the summer—the streets become filled with tourists and that’s when we sell the most.”
Patel is one of the few non-Asian store owners in the Chinatown district. For people with an outside perspective, it may seem odd to find an Indian man running his own business in Chinatown. But for true business owners that know the recipe for success, Patel has invested his life savings in a hidden gem.
No matter his ethnicity, Patel’s determination to provide for his family goes beyond measure and no cultural boundaries can hold him back.