Personalities: Betty Louie

By Michelle Konstantinovksy

The dynamic businesswoman and community advocate
is pulling the historic neighborhood of Chinatown into the future.

Photo by Spencer Brown.

When she was a child, Betty Louie’s father would often make a humble admission. 

“I’m a simple man,” he’d gently intone, “and America has been good to me.” 

Louie’s father immigrated from China as a young boy in 1929, and despite facing hardship and discrimination, he remained resolutely grateful. 

“It’s very important when you’re lucky that you give back to the community,” says Louie. “That’s just in our blood.” 

Nature and nurture often work in harmony. Louie, a San Francisco native and one of the city’s most influential community advocates, has inherited and developed the philanthropic spirit of her family role models. Her mother played an instrumental role in the construction of the Portsmouth Square Plaza Garage, a key part of Chinatown’s landscape, and her father was a staunch supporter of the district YMCA. While operating a retail store on Grant Avenue, they patiently saved money to purchase real estate, yet still managed to support community efforts, including  Chinese for Affirmative Action, which aims to protect the civil and political rights of Chinese Americans. 

“People are proud to come here, and the community is now really thriving.”

— Betty Louie

When she was in high school, the Louie family moved from Chinatown to Sea Cliff — the first Asian family to reside in the upscale neighborhood. 

“It was pretty traumatic,” Louie recalls. “The neighbors said very cruel and terrible things to my parents, and wished very unhappy things to happen to us.”

The difficult time was compounded by the death of Louie’s brother and grandmother. Struggling through grief and trauma, her parents sought legal protection from lawyers Quentin Kopp and Ben Lehr. The latter helped the family make the move to Sea Cliff, “and was the only one who welcomed us,” says Louie. “When my parents passed, they gave me their home, and I promised I’d never sell it as long as I was alive. So here I am.”

Though Louie remained a dedicated Sea Cliff resident throughout her successful career running the family business, she consistently sought out ways to support the Chinatown community, a passion she has continued to pursue postretirement. 

“We want to draw back millennials, and little by little we’re succeeding,” she says. “People are proud to come here, and the community is now really thriving. We’re still maintaining the immigrant population because this is a place people come to start. If they’re given chances in the community to grow and move on, the next wave comes in. It’s like graduating out and then coming to give back.”

Louie’s efforts to breathe new life into the neighborhood have been with the help of locals. In 2011, she held a meeting at her home with a group of businesspeople, restaurateurs and nonprofit representatives, asking them to vent every complaint and write them all down. Then, at the next meeting, she told them to find a solution to each and every one. The group concocted all kinds of community-building strategies, incorporating art, music, higher-end retail and food. Betty Louie

That final piece has been particularly important to Louie, as she’s taken up the task of elevating Chinatown’s dining scene. When the lease on one of her properties containing a restaurant expired, and the tenant chose not to renew, an opportunity presented itself, however unlikely, and Louie threw herself into San Francisco’s crowded restaurant scene. The first order of business was finding a skilled chef. 

“My only criterion was that the person not already be in Chinatown,” she says. “I felt the food needed an upgrade and something different.” 

She contacted Michael Bauer, who suggested Brandon Jew. The two clicked immediately. 

“I could not be more proud of him,” says Louie. “He’s also a native San Franciscan and got his Michelin star in just six months.”

Under Jew’s leadership Mr. Jiu’s has earned a reputation as one of the city’s top dining spots. Louie made good use of the rest of the building as well, with the retail shop Kim + Ono right downstairs. Louie’s new restaurant mission is to revive the historic Cathay House space, which became vacant this year. The landmark’s new iteration will consist of Cathay House upstairs and the fast-casual Wok + Steam below. For this venture, Louie recruited industry legend Chris Yeo of Straits Cafe fame. 

Rejuvenating the property has also given Louie the opportunity to spruce up its surroundings. Aside from the greenery lining the street, the restaurant also sports a colorful mural depicting lion dancers painted by Francisco Aquino. The art has been so well received that Louie and Aquino teamed up on another painted scene in nearby Ross Alley, which captures the neighborhood’s notorious gambling history, and a third project high above the street on the corner of Clay and Grant. 

Louie remains eager to continue collaborations that will create a fresh face for Chinatown while still retaining its rich history. 

“I’ve met so many new people and it’s a brainstorming session every time,” she says. “It’s really fun thinking how we can take a community and change it with lots of love, and hopefully find commonality among the diverse groups within it.”

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