Wo Hop, a NYC Chinatown institution, is struggling to survive a year into the pandemic - all while keeping its staff safe from anti-Asian attacks

Debanjali Bose/InsiderNYC Chinatown restaurant Wo Hop has been serving customers since the 1930s.
  • Wo Hop is a popular New York City Chinatown restaurant with a Cantonese menu.
  • David, a co-owner, says the restaurant is just starting to “break even” a year into the pandemic.
  • The restaurant also has shorter business hours to keep the staff safe from anti-Asian attacks.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s hard to spot a single patch of blank white wall at Wo Hop.

A walk down a short flight of stairs leads customers to the unassuming but busy restaurant. Inside, every square inch of wall is covered with postcards, family photographs, dollar bills with inscriptions, and police patches that Wo Hop has gathered from past patrons over the last 80 years while serving Cantonese food with an American twist.

In addition to popularity with customers, the restaurant also has positive press coverage. In 2010, Sam Sifton wrote for The New York Times that there is “great comfort” in eating the food served at Wo Hop. The Infatuation called it “a true NYC institution, where you might see lawyers from the DA’s office and ’80s headshots of former Broadway stars.”

Aware of how beloved the Chinatown eatery is among tourists and locals alike, Insider reached out to Wo Hop to see how they are faring amid the pandemic and rise in anti-Asian violence.

We learned that their story is emblematic of what’s happening all over the city.

CopyDebanjali Bose/InsiderPostcards and pictures on the wall.

Speaking to Insider, Wo Hop’s co-owner David (who chose to withhold his last name over privacy concerns) guesses that they were able to stay afloat through the pandemic, even as many other restaurants shut down, because they’ve been in business for close to a century and are well-known around the city.The New York Times reported in March that 17 restaurants and 139 ground-floor stores across Chinatown have shuttered during the pandemic, citing a decline in tourists and foot traffic as well as social-distancing restrictions.

The Times story added that business owners and community leaders are worried that people won’t return to Chinatown due to racism and xenophobia amid the pandemic even though the neighborhood has a lower rate of confirmed coronavirus cases than the city-wide average.

“I mean, if we just opened up in the last five or 10 years and we weren’t that famous, then I think that we might not have had as much business,” David told Insider.

Debanjali Bose/InsiderDanny Liang, who has worked at the restaurant for 10 years, waits on tables set up for outdoor dining.

Still, Wo Hop wasn’t immune to the steep economic decline brought on by the pandemic.

Ming Huang, who’s the restaurant manager and has worked at Wo Hop for 20 years, told Insider in March that they’ve lost about 70% of the business from pre-pandemic levels.

David estimates that they’re just starting to break even again, a year into pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, partly because they employ fewer people and less money goes into payroll.

Debanjali Bose/InsiderRestaurant employee Huang at the cash register.

But David told Insider that Wo Hop started seeing fewer customers before COVID-19 lockdowns went into place

Restaurants across New York City have been operating at reduced capacity for most of 2020 and all of 2021 thus far due to the pandemic.

NYC restaurants opened up for outdoor dining in late June 2020 and indoor dining in September (at 25% capacity). After a two-month-long pause during the winter, indoor dining has been back since February 14, currently operating at 50%.

David said that Wo Hop was “completely closed” for the first few months of the pandemic in 2020 and gradually opened back up for takeout and outdoor dining last summer.

The restaurant currently has about six tables open for service indoors and a few more kiosks set up for outdoor dining, in keeping with the city’s coronavirus distancing guidelines. Plastic partitions separate the tables inside the restaurant, and servers wipe down each unit once the customers using it have left.

Debanjali Bose/InsiderHuang makes his way through plastic partitions.

Tracey Wong, Cassandra Dick, and Constance Louie, who are sisters and lifelong Chinatown residents, told Insider that last summer when Wo Hop wasn’t offering dine-in services, they came to the restaurant for takeout every single day and were back for outdoor dining when that became an option.

However, even before restaurants across NYC were closed in March 2020 because they were considered “non-essential” businesses during the pandemic, David noticed that Wo Hop’s sales were slipping. They were serving fewer people.

“Starting beginning of January, you could feel that the streets were getting deserted, and we lost at least half our business,” he said.

David told Insider that Chinatown streets were “really quiet” even during Lunar New Year in late January 2020, which is usually a busy time. He blames that early loss of business on racism against Asian Americans during the pandemic.

“People were afraid to walk amongst Asians. I guess they didn’t want to be in Chinatown,” he added.

Keeping his employees safe from anti-Asian attacks is a priority for David

Wo Hop’s doors close by 9 p.m. every night even though under recent NYC COVID regulations, restaurants have been allowed to stay open until 11 p.m. Wo Hop used to be open 24 hours at one point pre-pandemic.

David started to end service at the restaurant a little early a few months ago when he noticed that subways started “getting quiet” at night. The New York Times reported that subway ridership fell by 90% last March and has recovered to about a third of pre-pandemic levels.

Debanjali Bose/InsiderManager Ming Huang serves customers.

“If we were to stay open till 10 or 11, then people who would be going home to Brooklyn or Queens would be on the subway pretty late,” he told Insider.

“We didn’t want people going home that late,” he added.

Now, he cites a wave of anti-Asian attacks and discrimination across the US as informing his decision and says that he continues to end service early every night to keep his employees safe.

“Now that there’s a lot of Asian discrimination, we don’t want people going home late at all,” David said. “Even after 9 p.m. ’cause Chinatown gets quiet.”

David is also apprehensive about sending staff out for delivery service for the same reason.

“Delivery people can get attacked or might get mugged,” David told Insider. “We’ve short-changed ourselves by not doing delivery. But we just felt it was safer just to do takeout and a dine-in.”

David echoes Jason Wang, the owner of Xi’an Famous Foods (an NYC-based chain serving “fast-casual” Chinese food), who told The New York Times that he’s had to adjust store hours to ensure the employees’ safety. Wang told the publication that two of his Asian-American employees were physically assaulted while commuting to work and back home.

Thankfully, none of Wo Hop’s employees have faced a physical attack, and David doesn’t intend to extend hours anytime soon. He told Insider he might add hours during the day at some point but has no plans to bring back the overnight restaurant hours, even if the city allows it in the future.

“I don’t know what else to do except by keeping our current hours where it’s not too early and not too late,” he said.

“That might have to change in the future, but we’re going to be cautious about it for now,” he continued.

“I’m not in a rush to extend our hours. I’d rather wait until the discrimination dies down and more people are out, but we won’t rush to that,” he added.

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