I went on a food crawl through New York's Chinatown to witness how its restaurants are rebounding after devastating shutdowns — and saw how community is keeping Chinatown delicious

Irene Jiang/Business InsiderA walk through New York City’s Chinatown.
  • Chinatown districts have been some of the hardest-hit by shutdowns, decreased tourist traffic, and racist stigma.
  • I visited New York’s Chinatown to talk to restaurant owners and managers about how their businesses are recovering.
  • I also sampled some of their food, including taro ice cream, mochi doughnuts, and nasi lemak.
  • Most of the people I spoke to said that while business isn’t nearly as good as it was before the pandemic, things have stabilised into a new normal.
  • Profitability is a distant dream, but businessowners remain hopeful that their local community will be able to sustain them through the end of the pandemic.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the American Dream into a nightmare for many Asian Americans.

In addition to facing a sharp increase in hate crimes, Chinatown districts across the country were also the first to see business drop as much as 80% even before government shutdowns were put in place. One employment disruption study estimated that 28% of Asian American small businesses had closed by the end of April 2020 — compared to 17% of white-owned businesses.

But neighbourhood organisations have since stepped up to support Chinatown businesses. In New York City, the Chinatown Partnership has built outdoor dining areas for restaurants, while Welcome to Chinatown has raised more than $US245,000 for small businesses. And in September, Send Chinatown Love launched a self-guided food crawl to promote mostly cash-only restaurants without social media presences.

I took a walk through New York’s Chinatown last week and visited some of the businesses on the food crawl to see how they were doing and to sample some of their goods.


Congee Village got a major business boost last year when it was named one of Michelin’s 2020 Bib Gourmand picks. Now, the normally bustling restaurant relies on takeout.

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Source:
Grubstreet


Things looked grim on the way down through the Bowery.

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Many businesses were closed, and for rent signs were plastered over graffiti-covered shutters.

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The first sign of life I encountered was Kuih Cafe, which specialises in Malaysian desserts and opened in late February.

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Owner Veronica Gan now runs every aspect of her business by herself. Because she’d been in business for less than a month when the pandemic started, she didn’t qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and had to lay off her three employees.

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Gan told me that her dream was to bring Malaysian “kuih,” rice-based desserts, to New York. When she first started out, business was good. Now, she’s tired all the time and can barely afford to cover expenses, let alone pay herself.

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“I felt like giving up,” Gan told me. But since things reopened in June, business has been slowly climbing back up.

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Gan’s voice broke when she spoke about her desserts. She gave me two pandan coconut kuih to try. They were rich, gooey, delicate bites of sticky rice and brown sugar.

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I also had Gan’s nasi lemak: coconut rice topped with fried anchovies, crispy peanuts, sambal (chilli paste), and an egg. Gan added on some cuttlefish and acar awak, or pickled vegetables.

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Gan’s nasi lemak was a flavour explosion: fishy, salty, sour, sweet, spicy, crunchy, and soft. Gan told me she tries to source her ingredients from Malaysia.

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She says Send Chinatown Love has helped send new customers her way. However, Gan says that if another shutdown happens, she will be forced to close.

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Parts of Chinatown are visibly depressed. There are entire streets devoid of economic activity.

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Next on the crawl was Happy Veggie Restaurant, a vegetarian Malaysian restaurant that opened in February just weeks before the shutdown.

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Manager Kelly Pan told me that business hasn’t been good. “It’s been very hard,” Pan said. “We don’t make a profit.”

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The restaurant signed up for Uber Eats, but didn’t have time to establish a customer base before the shutdowns.

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Pan said that Send Chinatown Love helped the restaurant build an Instagram and a Yelp page, effectively helping it create an online presence.

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On the streets, there are still fruit vendors selling a myriad of Asian specialties such as rambutan, longan, dragonfruit, and more.

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This stretch of footpath is usually dense with tourists. Now, it’s a leisurely stroll.

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Next, I visited Alimama Tea, a café and bakery that’s famous for its sparkly, creative treats.

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I spoke to owner Janie Wang, a Lower East Side native who founded the café two and a half years ago.

Irene Jiang/Business InsiderWang (left) poses with Alimama staff member Jasmine Chung (right).

Wang’s parents owned restaurants when she was growing up. But Wang said that she was inspired to create a radically different kind of menu. “Everything that we have is unique,” she told me.

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One of Alimama’s most popular products is their mochi doughnut munchkin. It’s a crispy-outside, gooey-inside ball of fragrant flavour: taro, chocolate, or matcha.

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Another one of Alimama’s famous innovations is the boba cream puff, which is exactly what it sounds like: a massive flaky pastry filled with milk tea-flavored cream and chewy tapioca bits.

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Business is far from normal, but Wang says she’s “happy with what we have.” With no tourists around, Wang says she’s able to focus on building connections with her neighbours and members of the community.

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“Chinatown’s about community,” Wang said. “All the neighbours know us.”

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Wang told me that all the stores on their block share a landlord, and were able to collectively bargain on their rent.

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Wang said that things have improved a lot for Alimama since the pandemic first began. “It was very dangerous out, and there were very few people out.”

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With the passage of time and the addition of outdoor dining, things have started to liven up again, Wang said.

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Next, I stopped by the famous Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, a neighbourhood landmark.

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Crystal Kong has worked at the store for five years, and now manages all three locations — there’s one in Flushing and another on the Lower East Side.

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“There’s no tourist business but it’s kind of nice, because we just serve a bunch of locals,” Kong told me. Even so, Kong said, the store still gets busy on the weekends.

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Owners Christina and Phillip Seid make the shop’s legendary unique ice cream flavours themselves. “They’re super down-to-earth people who love helping the community,” Kong said.

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The Seids’ ice cream incorporates flavours tailored to the community each store is situated in. I tried the taro and rose.

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They were creamy and packed with flavour, and extremely satisfying on a hot summer day.

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Kong said that since the Ice Cream Factory is something of an unofficial landmark, they decided to participate in the food crawl to help other businesses. “It’s a united front,” Kong said.

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One of the stops on the food crawl is New Golden Fung Wong Bakery, which is the oldest mooncake bakery in Chinatown.

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Its specialty, of course, is the mooncake: a dense Chinese pastry with fillings like red bean paste and lotus. It’s traditionally served during the Mid-Autumn Festival and for other special occasions.

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Alas, the human stomach is a finite entity. And near the end, my food crawl became more of a food waddle.

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Sometimes, I wish I could order and eat all the food in Chinatown. But Chinatown is so chock full of good food that even with even during a pandemic, there’s still a surplus of restaurants serving up someone’s life passion.

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To my relief, it seemed I wasn’t the only one who wished I could eat all of Chinatown. The distanced tables were full of hungry patrons, and the streets were active, if not buzzing. And the sense of community felt stronger than ever.

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New York’s Chinatown is not dead — far from it. It’s not even dormant. It’s simply still delicious.

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