Metropolis

What Happens if Chinatowns Don’t Survive

They’ve become victims of the pandemic for the second time.

Bill Lee walking toward the front of his Chinese restaurant.
Owner Bill Lee in San Francisco’s Far East Cafe. Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Before the pandemic, San Francisco’s Far East Cafe was known for its lavish banquets, where parties of up to 700 people would dine on braised abalone and steamed fish while celebrating weddings or birthdays. These days, large gatherings are rarities, canceled reservations are frequent, and a once-prodigious customer base has shriveled. The restaurant, which has been located in the heart of Chinatown for more than 100 years, may soon close its doors. “I keep losing money. For me, it’s really difficult to continue,” owner Bill Lee told me recently. “We’ll work until the end of October, and if we don’t get any help, I think we will close down forever.”

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It’ll take a lot of help. Some days, only 20 to 25 customers show up at Far East Cafe, not nearly enough to sustain the two-story restaurant. Lee has slimmed operating hours, and his attempts to get a restaurant revitalization grant through the Small Business Administration have been unsuccessful so far. “Day after day we’re open, but there’s no business. It’s not under my control,” Lee said. “I don’t have any idea of what I should do. I feel really depressed.”

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Hospitality businesses everywhere knuckled through a brutal year, but those that survived were able to return to near-full or normal operations as vaccines rolled out. Yet the delta variant has drawn out the grueling task of staying afloat during the pandemic, and businesses of all kinds are experiencing slowdowns again. Chinatowns across the country face this dilemma, but it’s worsened a host of additional issues, like technology and language barriers and pandemic-stoked xenophobia. Community organizations fear that the diminished patronage and insufficient government support will force many long-standing businesses to close, which could accelerate the gentrification that is displacing the people who have built and relied on their Chinatowns for decades.

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Chinatowns are a haven for immigrants and working-class Asians in America, so ensuring their survival is crucial for keeping many underprivileged communities intact. Due to model minority stereotypes about Asian success, the low-income residents of these districts tend to get overlooked when it comes to aid programs. They often depend on the local business ecosystem to eke out a living. So if these neighborhoods fade away, cities stand to lose a lot more than a critical mass of good food.

Far East Cafe is far from the only business in San Francisco’s Chinatown that’s in dire straits. Things seemed to be looking up for the 24-square-block district over the summer when the COVID vaccine was rolling out and tourist season helped to pad revenues, but the outlook is hazier going into the fall months. Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center that runs a number of neighborhood economy and affordable housing initiatives, told me the summer travel rush subsided in August and there was a noticeable drop in street traffic. At around the same time, infections from the delta variant were rising in the U.S. and local health measures became stricter, which further put a damper on commerce. “Restaurant operators in particular had been optimistic [in the summer] and began hiring and ramping up operations, but now are beginning to face that downturn again. It’s raising questions about survival,” said Yeung. Now that summer travel is subsiding, Chinatown businesses are depending on local patrons. (Seasonal commerce isn’t likely to pick up in the same way again until late January for the Lunar New Year.) According to Yeung, people who live in Chinatown have been the main source of revenue for the area during the pandemic. Office workers from the nearby financial district venturing out to Chinatown for lunch breaks and dinner also used to be a significant driver of revenue, but many of those customers are still working from home.

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While dealing with the delta variant and lack of foot traffic is by no means unique to Chinatown businesses, these unwelcome developments are compounding other challenges particular to the district, such as the continuing wave of anti-Asian violence that appears to be afflicting women and the elderly in particular. Due to a number of high-profile attacks on Asians over the course of the pandemic, the number of pedestrians in San Francisco’s Chinatown tends to decrease dramatically after sundown, and Asian seniors have been wary of visiting. Yeung notes that the hesitance is especially pronounced because 80 percent of the Chinatown population is dependent on public transit rather than cars, which potentially leaves those people more exposed to violence.

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Jackie Wang, communications head for the Welcome to Chinatown initiative supporting Manhattan’s Chinatown, has observed a similar phenomenon in New York. “It’s an overarching fear and concern within Chinatown. We still see stories and instances of violence happening,” she said. “There’s such a large elderly population in Chinatown, since it’s this ecosystem where you can speak no English but get everything you need to get and do everything you need to do. It’s really hard to see it not be this safe haven for people.”

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The xenophobia that’s reared its head during the pandemic also has less obvious, but nevertheless devastating, impacts on Chinatowns. Such districts were among the first to feel the economic consequences of COVID-19 due to the racist association in American culture between Asian people and the pandemic. Businesses “were sensing a huge shift in energy and foot traffic as early as February [2020],” said Wang. “That comes from some of the toxic rhetoric that was being used in media, and xenophobia and fearmongering around Asian people, and language like ‘the China virus.’ ” Many of these businesses now have a deeper hole of debt to climb out of in order to recover. Welcome to Chinatown conducted a survey earlier this year that found that 84 percent of Manhattan Chinatown storefronts saw business decline by more than half even before New York instituted lockdown orders in March. A similar story has been playing out in other Asian enclaves in America, such as Koreatowns and Little Saigons.

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Another major obstacle to survival for many establishments is the fact that applying for government assistance often requires searching for online forms that are written in English. “If you look at businesses in Chinatown, some of which don’t even have great access to technology and speak little to no English, the barriers to get to … government aid are so challenging,” said Wang. Her organization saw it necessary to create its own grant program, which involved going door to door in Manhattan’s Chinatown with translators to hand out paper applications printed in both English and Chinese. Most of the applications thus far have been requesting assistance with back rent and overhead costs that have piled up over the past year. Welcome to Chinatown’s surveyors further found that 33 percent of the applicants were not proficient in English, 57 percent did not have a social media presence, and 67 percent did not have a website. Indeed, marketing businesses online on Yelp and other sites, which has been crucial for storefronts that are seeing fewer passersby walk in, is particularly challenging without English proficiency. “Establishing online store presence/business on predominantly English-language social media platforms creates disparities in ability to promote and continue business online,” Devon Stahl, communications associate for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, wrote in a statement. The corporation is trying to address the issue by compiling a digital business directory that is more accessible to smaller shops.

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There’s a fear that, if current trends persist and commerce doesn’t pick back up again, many of the mom-and-pop shops that have defined America’s Chinatowns for decades may be replaced by luxury establishments, especially since the real estate is generally centrally located and could command high commercial rents. “Everybody thinks about economic recovery from the standpoint of stimulating activity,” said Yeung. “In the context of Chinatown, there has to be a conversation about protecting particularly the community-serving retail and food assets that showed up and proved how they’re a key part of the safety net during a crisis.” For instance, Far East Cafe and other restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown helped provide takeout meals to the area’s vulnerable families and senior citizens in public housing in March 2020, when lockdowns began choking off many peoples’ sources of income. New development and rising rental prices are not new issues in Chinatowns, but the pandemic is putting those foreboding trends into overdrive. “We see this as something that could speed up the gentrification that’s already happening in Chinatown,” said Wang, adding that it’s a particular problem for Manhattan’s Chinatown, which occupies two different ZIP codes. Many of the Chinatown businesses actually reside in tony Tribeca, and thus don’t get as much attention for aid while fending off higher-end shops that want to move in.

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Local Chinatown development organizations have been trying their best to counteract the pandemic-related forces that are weighing down on their districts. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, as Stahl highlighted, has been hosting scavenger hunts and fundraisers in an attempt to provide small local businesses with extra funding. Yeung has an eye toward the tricky balance of attracting new consumers while also ensuring that the distinctive character of San Francisco’s Chinatown doesn’t fade. For him, this means building a brick-and-mortar cultural center where educators and artists can display programming to help visitors navigate the district and its history. “That can be one of these key pieces that can be a lift for Chinatown and hopefully draw visitors and tourists here,” he said. “Give them a center of gravity in terms of where they begin their journey in Chinatown, how they can make sense of Chinatown, but also ultimately situating them in Chinatown well enough where they feel like they should be investing and spending money in the community.” Visit the cultural center. Stop by a place like Far East Cafe. And maybe bring 699 friends with you.

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