Chinatown, Three Years After COVID
Anchored beneath the rumbling overhead tracks of the Manhattan Bridge between Chinatown and Two Bridges, the 88 East Broadway mall has been home to a number of businesses since it opened in 1988: doctor’s offices, hairdressers, travel agencies, clothing shops. Many New Yorkers remember it for the large Cantonese banquet hall, 88 Palace, on its upper level. Waiting for an excruciating 30 minutes or so during a weekend brunch rush granted you entrance to a true, steam cart-pushed-by-old-aunties style dim sum experience until you were ready to take a nap atop the soy sauce-splattered tablecloth. That restaurant has been closed since 2020, shortly after the onset of the pandemic upended the world, and especially Manhattan’s Chinatown.
The three years since then have been dark days for the neighborhood. As COVID-19 spread, businesses closed, many for good; Chinatown elders stayed at home at first for fear of contracting the disease, and then also for fear of being beaten up or worse. Combine those factors with office workers who used to hit the neighborhood for lunch fleeing the city or working from home indefinitely. All three problems still plague Chinatown.
On January 28 of this year, East Broadway mall was once again alive, albeit in a thoroughly different type of scene: The nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown was hosting a pop-up fair during Lunar New Year. Patrons crowded and queued to enter vacant retail shops that were temporarily taken over by businesses helmed by young, Asian American entrepreneurs like Yu and Me Books, Dawang clothing, and Ga Ma Diam Taiwanese goods. Beats spun by DJ LUV filled the mall with an up-tempo vibe, while patrons crushed cans of Lunar hard seltzer. In one store, organizers offered a 3D peek at an upcoming innovation hub to support and foster community for entrepreneurs. The hub, a project by Welcome to Chinatown and the local architect Spaced Agency, is planned to open this fall.
A week later, and a few blocks away at 1 Pike Street, the nonprofit Think! Chinatown held a lantern-making workshop to coincide with the Lunar New Year parade. Serving hot eight treasures tea from large thermos dispensers, the nonprofit’s artist-in-residence, Jacqueline Tam, helped a group of grade school-aged kids hang the tassels they had written messages on from a red paper lantern. The nonprofit is planning to transform the space, the former site of a bar, into an interdisciplinary open studio to hold more workshops, exhibits, and cooking demonstrations in the years to come.
Think! Chinatown’s director, Yin Kong, remarked that 2023 was the first Lunar New Year parade that looked lively and well-attended since COVID started. Last year, 2022, there had been the omicron wave. In 2021, the parade was called off. Lunar New Year 2020 was conspicuously low-key, thanks in part to the anti-Asian rhetoric from then-President Trump.
In other words, the celebratory mood kicking off the Year of the Rabbit was a long time coming for Chinatown’s businesses and residents. But that may obscure some of the lingering problems the neighborhood faces. Alice Liu is a community outreach lead for Think! Chinatown, and also the business manager and small business advocate for her family’s store, Grand Tea Imports, on Grand Street. Like many local businesses, she says, it has not recovered to its normal opening hours from before the pandemic started, which is “money left on the table.”
Manhattan Chinatown’s troubles actually began long before the pandemic did, says Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID). Chinatown used to have a “monopoly” being the only Chinatown in New York City. But that’s changed over the last quarter of a century, as newer waves of Chinese immigrants formed enclaves in neighborhoods like Flushing, Elmhurst, and Sunset Park, or New Jersey towns like Edison. Now Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, and even East Harlem are home to sizable Chinatowns, too.
“In the 1980s, there’s only one Chinatown so every weekend we had to pay our pilgrimage there,” says Chen.
It wasn’t only Chinese Americans, he says, but Asian Americans of all stripes. I can attest to the transformation he described. Back in the ’80s, when my parents moved out of Brooklyn to a New Jersey suburb, Manhattan’s Chinatown was still the place where we might spend a Saturday to get dim sum and shop for essentials like bok choy, dried shiitakes, and bottles of soy sauce that weren’t labeled La Choy or Kikkoman. It wasn’t exactly the same food that my mom was used to in Taiwan, where she had emigrated from; the immigrants who founded the neighborhood over a century ago had been largely Cantonese and Toisanese, and the restaurants reflected it. But it was close enough, because near our home in New Jersey, pretty much the only Chinese food from restaurants was Americanized takeout.
Over the ’90s, once my family found those Chinese banquet halls and supermarkets in New Jersey, we stopped going to Manhattan Chinatown’s. So did many families that had moved out of the city. Meanwhile, foodies were flocking to Flushing for exciting flavors from Sichuan, Beijing, Xi’an, and various Chinese provinces other than Guangdong — whereas the faded menus of Manhattan’s Chinatown felt trapped in time.
One thing the newer Chinatowns didn’t have was its history. In the last couple decades, scions of legacy businesses began leaning into that history, even as they modernized their businesses and appealed to a new generation of fans. It may have started with Wilson Tang, who took ownership of the century-old dim sum restaurant, Nom Wah, in 2010. It continued with Mei Lum, a fifth-generation owner of the oldest continually operating home goods and gift store, Wing on Wo; and Paul Eng, a third-generation owner of an 80-year-old homemade tofu and soy milk shop, Fong On. They’ve been part of a resurgence celebrating the heritage of Manhattan’s Chinatown. And that sense of pride for the neighborhood’s roots has crept into newer restaurant concepts that have opened amidst the pandemic, to wide acclaim. Places like Cha Kee (called “a Beacon in Chinatown’s revival” by The New York Times), Uncle Lou (“a restaurant for people who love Chinatown” by the same news organization), and Potluck Club (the latest in “a wave of next-generation Cantonese restaurants in NYC” according to this publication).
While these kinds of success stories offer a glimpse into a bright new chapter in Chinatown’s history, it’s muted by fears that have continued since the pandemic started.
“Perceived sense of safety matters a lot,” says Liu. “Businesses are scared to stay open late, and they’re seeing other small businesses close early, too. So they’re feeling like they could get attacked being the only one manning the store, or commuting home late.”
The reduced hours are cutting profit margins for businesses that already rely on slim profits. But then again, you can’t put a price on personal safety. For many, the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes over the last three years — like the random stabbing of a man in the neighborhood — have taken a heavy toll, traumatizing the neighborhood and Asian Americans as a whole.
It’s not just safety that compels restaurants to reduce hours. “It’s a mixture of safety and staffing,” says Vic Lee, co-founder of Welcome to Chinatown, on the decreased hours for many Chinatown businesses. The nonprofit’s outreach found that many restaurants were having trouble hiring employees. At Wo Hop, for example, the staff is aging, and most people don’t want to work that late-night shift, Lee says. And as a resident of Chinatown, she still can’t find many restaurants that are open after 9 p.m., despite new businesses like Dim Sum Palace that’s open until 4 a.m. There have been a few bright spots: “It was really positive to see [Great N.Y.] Noodletown start to open past 9 p.m. recently, but a lot of businesses haven’t returned to their normal hours,” Lee says.
Most Chinatown businesses are seeing fewer customers compared to 2019. A study conducted by Welcome to Chinatown found visitation to Chinatown still down by 50 percent in late 2021, and another study conducted by the Chinatown BID and Think! Chinatown found a 21 percent vacancy in Chinatown storefronts in mid-2022. Especially concerning to many small businesses surveyed is the loss of customers during the weekdays compared to numbers from before the onset of the pandemic.
“It’s the Monday to Friday they need help,” says Chen. While tourism is coming back on weekends, when people have discretionary time to spend, the rest of the week, restaurants are struggling to find the office workers they once fed for lunch regularly. And that’s due to a “paradigm shift” in the workplace model, says Chen, with hybrid offices and remote work remaining. It’s unsustainable for many businesses, with no relief in sight.
“There’s no substitute for live bodies with their stomachs — the golden rule of retail,” says Chen.
While business has gone down, costs have gone up. The owner of Cha Kee told Chen recently that the cost of eggs rose from $26 to $156 a carton. While inflation and fluctuating prices due to global factors, including the war in Ukraine, are affecting businesses all over, these are substantial economic woes for already precarious small businesses.
What can a business do? Will charging more money work for a neighborhood that’s notorious for low prices? There are voices who say that prices should go up to better reflect the real cost of goods and labor, as well as to better respect Chinese food and goods. But there are also those who don’t wish to alienate the Chinese Americans who make up the backbone of Chinatown.
“That’s a struggle I deal with every day,” says Liu, of her family’s shop, Grand Tea & Imports. “We try to keep profit margins as lean as possible so that we can maintain affordability and hold that line as long as possible.” One solution that has helped her navigate that situation is to charge slightly higher prices for goods that are sold online, while keeping in-store costs low to ensure their products are still accessible to their community. Offering online sales at all, much of which is shipped to other states, involves product development, marketing, and “bridging a cultural gap” to new customers, so Liu feels good about charging more for online sales.
Many small businesses still need outside help.
“I think the sentiment is this sense of trying to catch up and recoup the losses of what happened,” says Jennifer Tam, co-founder of Welcome to Chinatown, who says she has seen weekend traffic go up in recent months. The nonprofit supports some of the most at-risk businesses, like Pasteur Grill and Imperial Ballroom Dance Studio, through its Longevity Fund, which is currently accepting tax-deductible donations.
Grace Young, the cookbook author whose advocacy for Chinatown in recent years has earned her distinctions from the James Beard Foundation and the Julia Child Foundation, mourns some of her favorite Chinatown food businesses that have been lost.
“Losing Lung Moon Bakery was heartbreaking. Their custard tarts (dan tat) were the best. Mee Li Fruits & Vegetables on Elizabeth Street was my go-to market for produce. The quality of the produce was superb. Chinatown isn’t the same without WK Restaurant (aka 69 Bayard). It was part of the community for over 65 years. The walls were lined with dollar bills and the space was filled with our collective memories. I also miss Hoy Wong and Hop Shing restaurants, which were part of Chinatown for over 50 years,” Young wrote in a recent email.
She encourages people to support the neighborhood simply by visiting it, sharing their experiences, and encouraging others to, as well. You can get everything in Chinatown, from excellent carbon-steel woks to eyeglasses prescriptions, says Young. Donate to Welcome to Chinatown. Go to events put on by Think! Chinatown. Or take a tour led by the Mott Street Girls.
“We take Chinatown for granted,” wrote Young, “thinking it will always be here, but the pandemic showed us how fragile Chinatown is.”