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Gang of one takes on Chinatown

Planner eases worries of businesses, residents amid ambitious city plan

As a graduate student in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, Suenn Ho tried to save part of the Kowloon Walled City before it was torn down and replaced by a park.

The Portland urban planner Ñ then a Fulbright scholar studying Hong Kong's urban slums Ñ left the city knowing little about architecture but having learned a lot about deep, binding ties to a neighborhood.

Now, she sees that same intense passion in Portland's Old Town Chinatown, the 12-block district of restaurants, stores and social clubs along Northwest Third and Fourth avenues between Burnside and Hoyt streets.

'Dragons, phoenix, the pagoda roof, that is not the essence of the place,' said Ho, the city's liaison and one of the designers for the Third and Fourth Avenue Streetscape, the Portland Development Commission's $4.5 million plan to redo the center of Chinatown. 'It's the people. If you don't have that, you don't have Chinatown.'

The project's budget, which would fund turning two streets into pedestrian malls and gussy up streets, lights and plants, had been cut by about half because of the redevelopment agency's budget woes in the wake of an Oregon Supreme Court decision. The City Council will vote on the development plan in November.

Ho still has high hopes. She said she would like to attract an internationally known anchor store such as China Products or Shiseido cosmetics, which recently opened a counter in the Pacific Market at Northeast 67th Avenue and Halsey Street.

The streetscape 'has become a critical link between the River and Pearl districts and emerging west end of the downtown area and retail core,' said developer Brian McCarl, who hired Ho to help him with the design of Chinatown's proposed 150-housing unit Pacific Tower. 'It really will perform as an important economic and physical link to downtown.'

Worldly wise

Born in Boston, Ho grew up in Hong Kong, the daughter of renowned Chinese architect Tao Ho. At 17 she entered Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., graduating in 1985. She got her first job at the Architects Collaborative in Boston and went on to work for architect Rafael Vinoly before her Fulbright studies. The result of her work is the 31-page book 'An Architectural Study of the Kowloon Walled City.'

In 1995, she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study the nation's five largest Chinatowns: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia and New York City.

At 41, Ho is largely an outsider who came to Portland in 1994 to work as a University of Oregon assistant professor after living in Paris and Hong Kong. Soon after, she joined SRG Partnership as a senior designer before leaving last year to focus on her own company, Northgate Group LLC. This winter, she'll teach urban design classes at Portland State University.

PDC Development Manager Bruce Allen first met her when she created a class project to have students design housing for Chinatown.

'Not only is she a designer, but she has excellent contacts and communication with residents there and understanding of their issues,' he said.

Ho believes her worldly experience works in her favor.

'I keep telling people I'm an outsider,' said Ho, who is married to local architect John Flynn and has two daughters. 'I've lived in Portland eight years, which is as close to home as you can get. But if I call this home, it might be too close to my heart to give an objective view. I can tap into the Chinese community because I don't have baggage, no associations here. I don't represent any one group.'

Working independently is more to Ho's taste, said Jim Tice, associate professor of architecture for the Department of Architecture at the University of Oregon.

'It has to do with who she is É she's a bit of a free spirit,' he said. 'She works well by creating her own boundaries and not having them imposed by someone else.'

Tice, who attended one of Ho's classes, found out how deeply rooted she is in her own culture. 'Given her personal background and interests in architecture in China, she is someone who makes a connection between the East and the West and values that are important to her,' he said.

A gift for listening

Fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, Ho has cajoled Asians who left the area Ñ for shops on Southeast 82nd Avenue and Division Street on the east side and Southwest Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway west of the river Ñ to open branches in Chinatown. She's also lighting fires of neighborhood rebirth among the Chinese who stayed through the blight that has marked the 108-year-old neighborhood.

And while most Portlanders see the facade of Chinatown, Ho goes behind closed doors, up the stairs and into the secret family associations and tongs where mah-jongg is played and the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated.

If not for her, some of the metro region's 70,000 Asians would not be aware of what the city is planning, nor have a smidgen of interest in getting involved, McCarl said. There are language and cultural barriers. Some people have an innate mistrust of government officials because in China, people have been locked up for voicing their opinion.

'She's been able to bring people into the process who, until now, because of language barriers have not been able to be involved,' McCarl said. 'She's the one who really designed the public notices and information that was translated.'

A day earlier, Ho had talked to several Chinese women who were 'freaked out' because they had heard the new PDC streetscape would eliminate curbside parking.

'I asked, 'Where do you hear that?'' Ho said. 'They didn't know. Those are other hurdles we go through.'

She also worked with Rosaline Hui, editor of the Portland Chinese Times newspaper, to inform residents about district events and the city's plans.

'She knows the background and culture of Chinese so well; so when she was doing the outreach job she knew how to approach the Chinese people,' Hui said of Ho. 'They are not as open as the Americans, so they need a different way to approach them.'

Making the rounds

It's Oct. 9, and Ho stops in the China Wind Bookstore to tell owner Sunny Yee Ñ a native of Canton, China Ñ about a small-business workshop being offered by the city.

Yee, with today's Sing Tao Daily, phone cards and Chinese CDs on his glass counter, greets her in his native Cantonese. He says he can't come because he has to watch his one-man shop. Ho will have to come back later to explain it to him and others who can't get away from work.

Yee, who is interested in opening a supermarket in Chinatown, is disappointed he can't go.

'It's very difficult to attend those things,' he said, using Ho as interpreter. 'There's a lot of potential. If you beautify, there will be more traffic and then they'll look for new stores.'

A half hour later, Ho stops in Acupuncture & Botanical Clinics of Oregon, where dried sea horses, tree bark and about 400 herbs sit in cafeteria-size jars on the shelf. She greets an acupuncturist in Mandarin, which sounds softer with its four tones than the more colloquial Cantonese, with its eight tones.

'There's a huge hurdle in front of us from where we are to where we want to be,' Ho said. 'It's a chicken and egg thing. Business can't run without demand; we can't have demand without residents.'

She faces a tough task. Generations of the Portland area's Chinese families don't want to associate with Chinatown, which has historically been perceived as drug-ridden and a ghetto, where only the desperate and downtrodden live.

The slow economy also has played a role in keeping Old Town/Chinatown stagnant, said Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skates and chairman of the neighborhood committee. 'There's the reality of recession, empty storefronts. We really haven't had a lot of energy put into that neighborhood to grow and prosper.'

Those whom Ho has persuaded to open Chinatown branches, such as On the Rise Bakehouse, see only a dribble of customers during the slow fall months. Most shoppers are Caucasian, Ho said.

'They are doing Chinatown a favor by coming here,' Ho said. 'I want to make it a hip place to go to, romantically exotic. A tourist trap is not sustainable without residents.'

Bakehouse owner Xiang Ma, like others, is downright negative about Chinatown's future.

'I think Chinatown should be on 82nd Avenue,' said Ma, who came to Portland from southern China. 'At least there is a supermarket.'

Many Asians say they prefer a Chinatown like the one in San Francisco, said Hui. 'This is a community that Chinatown (as a concept) missed. They don't have a place in this Chinatown to celebrate culture, big festivals, that belongs to them.'

Market, housing top wish list

Despite detractors, Ho sticks to the possibilities.

Ho said certain fundamentals are essential to rebuilding Chinatown, including:

• A reputable supermarket that sells live chickens and fish, bok choy and broccoli at inexpensive prices. A small grocery at Fong Chong's on Northwest Third Avenue closed several months ago, but 'even then it was too expensive,' Ho said. 'The Chinese who work here are comparing prices to what they paid in mainland China.'

nÊAffordable housing such as the 15-story Pacific Tower and amenities to attract Asian residents.

nÊA small-business 'service station' to help companies stay solvent and grow. Mom and pop stores have left as properties change hands. Still, more than 25 percent of businesses in Chinatown are owned by Asians.

'We want a diverse ethnic neighborhood,' Ho said. 'We'd like to have Japanese there, Korean businesses, the Chinese, Vietnamese, Greeks, Irish and Russians.'

There's only so much that can be done through the bureaucratic channels; the rest is up to Chinatown's residents.

'I don't want the Chinese community to lose what's there,' Ho said.

If that happens, it's almost impossible to bring it back.

Contact Kristina Brenneman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..