The shelves of the Wah Kue hobby shop are almost empty, and the boys who cluster in the back of the barren store are there to show off their collections of Japanese trading cards, not to buy anything.
Soon Yee, the co-owner of this Chinatown fixture for the past 20 years, has all but made up his mind to go out of business.
"Things are bad in Chinatown since 9/11," said Yee, 49, ringing up a rare sale -- a can of soda. "We used to get a lot of tourists. The streets were so crowded people were bumping into each other."
The narrow streets of the neighborhood, home to an Asian population of 56,000, are crowded once again on sunny weekends, but the visitors are not spending much money. Boarded-up or shuttered storefronts testify to the lingering hard times in one of New York's best-known and most exotic enclaves.
This neighborhood, which bills itself as the most populous Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere, still is struggling to regain its footing after suffering a combination punch that cost it thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue. First came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which paralyzed local business and led to a steep decline in tourism. Then last year's outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, spread fear here, though the disease originated thousands of miles away in China.
"Business has not come back yet to where it was," said Andy Liu, owner of a large gift and souvenir shop on Mott Street, Chinatown's main shopping and dining street. "The tourists are scared. They don't think it's safe."
Chinatown, only a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, was flooded with evacuating office workers the morning of Sept. 11. The scene from the days that followed, as fires raged underground at Ground Zero, remains a vivid memory for Ellen Lii, co-owner of the Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co.
"The whole sky was very smoky," recalled Lii, who had to wait three days before police allowed her past security barriers to check on her shop, which she feared would burn down because an electric cooking pot had been left on. "You had to wear a mask for several days."
With Lower Manhattan, including Chinatown, declared off-limits to nonresidents, the twin pillars of the neighborhood's economy collapsed. Business at Chinatown's 500 restaurants plummeted by as much as 70 percent. The garment industry in Chinatown, which depends on frequent deliveries and pickups, came to a virtual standstill.
An estimated 25,000 people, or 75 percent of Chinatown's workforce, were out of work in the two weeks after Sept. 11.
"Basically, it put the whole economy into a freeze," said Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, a community development group that has helped small businesses in the neighborhood obtain low-interest loans.
The damage to the garment industry was profound. One year after the attacks, 65 garment factories in Chinatown had closed, and a study by the Asian American Federation of New York estimated that the attacks cost the industry $500 million in revenue. Then, early last year, as Chinatown was emerging from the doldrums, the SARS outbreak in China dealt another blow. The link between SARS and China made New Yorkers skittish about visiting the neighborhood, especially after a rumor circulated on the Internet that someone in Chinatown had died of the respiratory ailment.
That rumor was false, but the damage had been done.
"It was a double whammy for Chinatown," Kui said. "For some businesses, it had even more impact than 9/11. It really caused a lack of confidence."
Lii recalled a bit of black humor from that time that summed up the effect that SARS had on the community.
"People would say that if you see a line in the post office, all you have to do is cough, and you'll be first in line," she said.
The worst seems to be over, and Chinatown is hoping for a mini-boom at the end of this month, when all of the city is preparing to welcome visitors by the thousands to the Republican National Convention.
But for the neighborhood that has been the heart of New York's Chinese community for more than 100 years, things still are far from normal, business owners say. Park Row, a thoroughfare that connects Chinatown to the rest of Lower Manhattan, remains closed because it runs in front of police headquarters. The World Trade Center, whose 40,000 workers were one of the neighborhood's biggest sources of customers, has yet to be replaced.
"It's getting better," said Chuen Tang, 62, owner of Vegetarian Paradise, whose customers are predominantly non-Asians from outside the neighborhood. But he said business is down about 15 percent from before Sept. 11 while his overhead rises.
Community leaders say the neighborhood's woes since Sept. 11 have dramatized a long-standing need for Chinatown to reinvent itself.
Even before the terrorist attacks, the area was faltering. The garment industry was closing factories and moving jobs out of high-priced New York. Newer Chinese neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens meant that Chinatown no longer was the only place to buy Chinese foodstuffs, herbs and other products. Many of the neighborhood's restaurants also were old, bare-bones establishments that needed renovation to compete with the growing number of fancier Asian restaurants that have sprung up around Manhattan.
To help some of Chinatown's 4,000 businesses survive the post-Sept. 11 period and adapt to changing times, Asian Americans for Equality has put together about 250 loans, totaling $12.5 million, at interest rates averaging 2 percent. The low-interest loans are funded by a local Sept. 11 charity and New York state's economic development agency.
Kui, the group's executive director, said he believes the neighborhood should diversify its economic base by developing more office space and presenting itself as a "Pacific Rim" business district to attract companies that do business with Asia. Beyond that, he and others believe the neighborhood is in need of an image makeover.
"We want New York's Chinatown to become America's Chinatown," Kui said. "The history, the culture, the people are real. That's an asset for the community."
Signs of change are evident along Mott Street. The Silk Road Cafe has taken the place of a traditional Chinese bakery. It offers not just Asian sweets but also Krispy Kreme doughnuts, an exhibition space, Internet connections and a basement performance area where weekly open-microphone concerts are held. A nearby bar sponsors an improvisational comedy night called Takeout Comedy.
Taking a cue from the popularity of pricey coffee drinks, several Chinatown tea shops have introduced a concoction from Taiwan called bubble tea, which sells for about $4 a serving. The frothy drink, which can be served hot or cold, is a blend of tea, milk, and flavorings such as almond and strawberry. Resting on the bottom of the tall mugs of bubble tea are layers of large, chewy tapioca balls that can be sucked up through oversized straws.
"Chinatown is changing," said Telly Wong, project manager of a new two-year marketing campaign to attract more visitors to the neighborhood. "New things are going on."