Apr 27, 2021
WITH A POPULATION HOVERING around 100,000 and a history dating back to the 1870s, Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of New York’s largest and most significant surviving cultural enclaves. Waves of immigration from present-day Guangdong province, Fujian province, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, among other places, have shaped the neighborhood into the culturally rich and diverse space that it is today—and the quintessential bustling tourist drawcard it was until last year.
Since 2020, a rise in anti-Asian racism and violence, coupled with the economic devastation of Covid-19, has threatened to destroy many of the small businesses that make up the soul of the neighborhood. Wilson Tang, owner of the Instagram-magnet Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dim sum restaurant on Doyers Street with a history dating back to the 1920s, remembers seeing the impact of pandemic on his business months before the rest of New York City shut down in March 2020. By the time the Lunar New Year celebrations rolled around in January, racist fears of what then-President Donald Trump repeatedly insisted on referring to as the “China virus” and the “kung flu” led to as much as a 70 percent drop in business for some of Asian-American-owned restaurants in the neighborhood.
“The Lunar New Year celebrations for 2020 were one of the weakest I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Tang says. “We definitely felt the decline in traffic and in sales. From xenophobia to sinophobia, we got it all.”
During that dark time, members of the community rallied together to protect vulnerable mom-and-pops and bring a sense of hope back to Chinatown. In March of last year, local residents founded Send Chinatown Love and Welcome to Chinatown, grassroots organizations dedicated to making a difference. Since then, Send Chinatown Love has raised more than US$579,000 for local merchants, donated more than 13,000 meals from Chinatown restaurants to elderly locals in need, and organized digital food crawls via Instagram to help raise awareness of businesses that might otherwise fly under the radar. Along with Think!Chinatown, they’ve also raised money to put up colorful lanterns hand-painted by local artists to bring light—and much-needed foot traffic—back into the area at night.
Welcome to Chinatown, meanwhile, has reached out to more than 200 small businesses, doled out US$225,000 in US$5,000 Longevity Grants, and raised more than US$200,000 for local restaurants by donating more than 25,000 meals. Like many of their fellow grassroots organizers, cofounders Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee, both of whom have lived in Chinatown for more than a decade, had no background in the nonprofit sector. They simply knew that standing silently by was not an option.
“When the city started to shut down and the officials started to mandate shelter in place, Chinatown had already been hit with that impact two months earlier than everyone else,” Tam says. “The damage had already started. That’s why we felt so compelled to do something.”
Tang says he feels an enormous swell of pride seeing how members of the community have risen to the challenge where both the federal and city governments have fallen short. There is no way to undo all of the damage that was done or the revenue that was lost, but these organizers have helped to rewrite the narrative and bring business back to Chinatown.
“We have young Asian-American adults really stepping up by using their different backgrounds in marketing and business,” Tang says. “They’re channeling the skills they’ve learned from working for bigger corporations to help immigrant-owned small businesses and mom-and-pops. I don’t have enough good words to say about that and how much encouragement it gives me.”
While the situation has improved, Tang knows that there is still a great deal of work to be done. New York, like many cities in the United States, is still grappling with a rise in violence against Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans. And although the U.S. government recently passed a sweeping stimulus package including the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, immigrant-owned small businesses are ill-equipped to receive funds in contrast to large, corporate chains with powerful legal teams. Tang cautions that action still needs to be taken at both the federal and the grassroots level.
“If that’s not done, the landscape of the community is going to be forever changed,” Tang says. “With time things will get better, but action needs to be taken now to make sure that we don’t lose this piece of our culture.”