- Businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown have been struggling to survive because of coronavirus-related restrictions and a racial stigma against Asians in the US.
- Chinatown small businesses reported losses between 60% to 80% in February and March.
- Local organisations are helping them raise funds and set up temporary outdoor dining spaces.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
Small businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown have survived weeklong closures following disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. But those hard times don’t compare to the months of dwindling business the neighbourhood is experiencing from the coronavirus pandemic.
Chinatown small businesses report losses of 60% to 80% as early as February from a decline of customers that happened before New York City’s first confirmed COVID-19 case and the city’s mandatory lockdown in March.
“Since there is a misunderstanding that the virus was brought to the US from China, a lot of people did not want to be in or around Chinatown, or even eat Chinese food,” said Chuen Ping Hui, owner and executive chef of Ping’s seafood restaurant.
While New York recently lifted its restrictions on outdoor dining, Chinatown restaurants are still contending with a lack of visitors.
“New York City now, it’s quite clear that we no longer have the 66 million visitors from international tourism,” said Wellington Chen, executive director of Chinatown Partnership.
The organisation helps maintain cleanliness and safety in the neighbourhood, which are more necessary than ever.
“The demand on you is higher because of the additional cost of the shield, the masks, the sanitizers, the air filtration, HEPA equipment that has never been in your formula,” Chen said. “And that’s never in your budget, but meantime, your customers are down this much.”
To attract customers, the nonprofit Chinatown Partnership has been helping Ping’s and other local businesses set up outdoor seating arrangements for the summer, in the form of collapsible tents, tables, chairs, and planters.
Ping’s is one of the area’s small businesses that operates on thin profit margins and relies on a steady stream of both locals and tourists. When that stream dropped off in mid-March, Hui made a tough decision.
“Once March 15 came around, the business for March was down by 80%. I did not see a future,” Hui said. “Chinatown was quiet. I had no choice but to [temporarily] close the business.”
After a three-month closure, Ping’s reopened in early June with delivery and takeout service only. But the setup was less than ideal for a fine-dining restaurant accustomed to serving as many as 150 people indoors. The restaurant added a small outdoor space in late June, but it only fits around 20 diners, and it’s often empty on weekdays.
Amid the pandemic and an economic downturn, Asian Americans are fighting racism and a stigma that they’re to blame for the virus.
In March, the FBI warned of a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. And since March 19, the website Stop AAPI Hate has received 2,373 anonymous incident reports of hate and discrimination toward Asians in the US.
The Stop AAPI Hate reporting centre found that verbal harassment makes up 70% to 80% of the incidents and there’s been a rise in physical incidents, such as spitting or coughing on Asian people.
“We shifted really quickly from being ‘crazy rich Asians’ and the ‘model minority’ to being ‘crazy infected Asians’ and being the perpetual foreigner,” said Russell Jeung, founder of Stop AAPI Hate and chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.
As Chinatown suffers, hate crimes against Asians are rising in the US.
President Donald Trump has reinforced the harmful racial stigma by saying “Kung flu” and “China virus” when referring to COVID-19.
“The president’s insistence on using the term ‘Chinese virus’ really makes the situation worse,” Jeung said. “We noticed that after he began to repeatedly use that term, a clear spike in hate speech circulating on the internet and acts of violence against Asian Americans.”
Chen, the Chinatown Partnership and Chinatown BID director, said the attacks threaten not just Chinese people, but all Asians.
“Unfortunately you have a ripple effect affecting Malaysians, Singaporeans, Vietnamese, people from the Philippines,” he said. “As long as you have an Asian face, you then become associated with this virus.”
The stigma has been detrimental to Asian American small businesses: 233,000 have closed across the country from February to April, a loss of 28%.
To support small businesses in their neighbourhood, Victoria Lee and Jennifer Tam started the grassroots organisation Welcome to Chinatown in March. The organisation has several initiatives, including a partnership with small businesses to create and sell merchandise, with revenue going directly back to the businesses.
“Chinatown doesn’t need saving in the sense that there’s an impassioned community,” Lee said. “We’re only one of a handful of different grassroots initiatives that have come out of the pandemic.”
One of its early fundraisers, Feed Our Heroes, involved purchasing meals from local eateries and delivering them to essential workers. The group has served more than 16,000 meals in 11 weeks.
To extend assistance beyond food-related businesses, Welcome to Chinatown ended that program in June and recently launched the Longevity Fund, a $US200,000 fundraiser to alleviate overhead costs for 40 small local businesses.
“It’s just really hard to see a time and place where Chinatown isn’t where it was before in a post-COVID world,” Tam said.
In the meantime, Chen is encouraging people to visit the neighbourhood.
“Please come down here to show your support, whether by just your physical presence, buying a $US1 item, or just walking the street. It helps a lot,” Chen said. “Chinatown is, to the credit of everyone involved, very, very resilient. These are tough fighters.”
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