“People were shunning Chinatown,” recalls cookbook author Grace Young, 65, who lives nearby. “Waiters were just standing around in empty dining rooms, and Asians were afraid to be out after dark.”
By the time a citywide shutdown went into effect two months later, Chinatown had become a virtual ghost town, along with similar Asian communities across the United States. Restaurant owners were hanging on by a thread, pivoting to expensive delivery services while struggling to keep up with rent and utilities.
Raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1960s and ’70s, Young spent each Saturday eating dim sum with extended family and frequenting the restaurants where her father, a liquor salesman, was a well-known community member. “When I walked down Grant Avenue with my dad,” Young says, “everyone knew his name. I grew up with a real small-town feeling.”
But it took a pandemic for Young to realize that she had never truly made the same connection with the Chinatown in New York, the city she’d been living in for some 40 years. “I realized I had taken it for granted,” Young says. “I just took from it when I needed something — to buy groceries or go to a certain restaurant.” Walking around Chinatown’s deserted streets has now made Young fear that this iconic neighborhood could possibly be lost forever. And New York was far from the only Asian community affected: The same empty businesses could be found in Chinatowns — as well as Japantowns, Koreatowns and Little Saigons — across the United States, from San Francisco to Boston.
If it seems impossible to imagine the death of such an established and historic community, one need only look to D.C.’s Chinatown, founded in the 19th century and which, just 30 years ago, catered to a significant resident Asian population with large grocery stores, shops, and dozens of traditional restaurants. Today, the community is a shadow of its former self, populated with chain restaurants and stores, while just a handful of Chinese restaurants remain, along with far fewer Asian American residents.
It’s no coincidence that Lisa Mao, director of the 2021 documentary “A Tale of Three Chinatowns,” refers to it as a “dead Chinatown.”
“The immigrant experience is fraught with challenges,” Mao says, “and these were segregated communities where people were forced to live, in what were considered less desirable areas. But once that area becomes popular, it can be hard to hold on against developers.”
Indeed, New York Chinatown’s Zip code, which it now shares with trendy SoHo and Tribeca, has created real problems for Asian American business owners: the 10013 Zip code is considered to be a high-income neighborhood, preventing struggling restaurants from qualifying for targeted economic injury disaster loans through the Small Business Administration, while other pandemic relief programs seem to benefit national companies. Young points to the multimillion-dollar Paycheck Protection Program loan received by Asian-themed restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s, saying, “Their sales doubled. Meanwhile, restaurants that have been mainstays in Chinatown for decades — Hop Shing, which was 47 years old, Hoy Wong, which had been there for 42 years — they had to close. These were old-style Cantonese restaurants, you’ll never replicate that cooking again.”
Again, if that sounds dramatic, it’s not. The restaurants that are still hanging on in Chinatown were already facing an aging workforce before the pandemic; the chefs working the woks at venerable restaurants like Hop Lee on Chinatown’s storied Mott Street are often in their 50s and 60s, and it’s their long years of experience that help bring that flavor of “wok hei” — the umami-rich char that comes from cooking over high heat with a well-seasoned wok — to lo mein, snow peas and much more.
Young’s concern led her to begin documenting, via video interviews, what was happening in Chinatown in early March 2020, with the support of the Poster House museum. Young had been collaborating with the museum on an exhibition about Chinese posters. Encouraged by the museum’s director, Julia Knight, and accompanied by videographer Dan Ahn, Young headed out to talk with Chinatown business owners just as the pandemic was really beginning to take hold in New York City. The videos can be viewed at posterhouse.org and at graceyoung.com.
Mei Chau, a restaurateur for over 25 years and owner of the charming Malaysian-French restaurant Aux Epices, was among the first to be documented by Young. On March 15, Chau was smilingly optimistic that the public health crisis would be short-lived; six days later, after a statewide stay-at-home order went into effect, Young returned to find an openly depressed Chau deeply concerned about the impact on her employees, who feared leaving their homes because of rising violent attacks against Asians.
By May 2020, after limping along with carryout business coupled with mounting debt and only one remaining employee, Aux Epices became an early pandemic victim, closing its kitchen forever and depriving the community of signature dishes like laksa, a Southeast Asian seafood stew.
Now retired and speaking from her home in Chinatown, Chau says: “We were a restaurant run by women, but no one wanted to take the subway to come to work. It was unsafe to be Asian and be a woman traveling alone. It makes you feel very sad because this is a great country, but we are the ones who tear it apart. No one else is doing that.”
Among the restaurants still maintaining a foothold in Chinatown is Pasteur Grill and Noodles, just off what used to be a bustling Canal Street. Dennis Chung, 62, has owned the restaurant since 1995, working long hours dishing up traditional Vietnamese food, including a dozen different kinds of pho and lobster stir-fried with lemongrass. “I only went home to take a shower and sleep,” Chung says.
For his son, Tony, 24, who is studying for a master’s degree in biomedical science with an eye on medical school, the restaurant was always a second home. He points to a corner table where he and his older sister did their homework each afternoon. But it was during the pandemic that the younger Chung gained a deeper appreciation of what his father had built and why it mattered to keep the restaurant alive.
“Besides the personal aspect that this restaurant is the sole source of income for our family,” Tony says, “it’s also a source of personal identity.” Tony sees a bowl of pho not just as a collection of meat, vegetables, noodles and broth, but as a representation of the history of Vietnam’s survival of invasion, colonialism and war.
“We’re telling a story through our food,” he says. “Three Vietnamese restaurants [in Chinatown] have already closed forever. If all the Vietnamese restaurants here close, then that part of Chinatown simply dies.”
Harboring the same fears, Young recently began reaching out to friends in the culinary industry to ask them to take part in a social media campaign dubbed #LoveAAPI, encouraging them to share stories about their favorite Asian restaurants and shops.
The first chef to join the campaign was television host and cookbook author Sara Moulton, a New York City native with childhood memories of Chinatown as an enchanted place full of vivid color and flavor. “I’ve always loved Chinatown,” Moulton says, “but I’ve also watched both it and Little Italy shrink over the years, as the neighborhoods around it became more hip.”
Walking through the deserted streets of Chinatown at lunchtime on a recent weekday afternoon was a sobering experience for Moulton, where she felt especially concerned about the dramatic rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, an issue that became more apparent to her this past August when she invited Young to attend an event in midtown Manhattan.
“Grace told me that she would love to come but would also be leaving early, because she didn’t feel safe traveling home after dark,” Moulton says. “We agreed that I’d accompany her home, to make sure she got there safely. And I thought, ‘What is wrong with this picture that someone like me, at 5 feet tall, is acting as a bodyguard?’ ”
With the history of Chinatown neighborhoods across the United States directly connected to racist politics of the 19th century that barred Asian immigrants from citizenship and owning property as well as enforced residence in designated areas, issues of exclusion are indelibly imprinted upon these communities. The effect of covid-19 has made Chinatowns, already dependent on foot traffic and tourism even while trying to preserve traditions dating back thousands of years, more fragile than ever.
Bonnie Tsui, author of “American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods,” sees these neighborhoods as deserving of support from all Americans, regardless of race.
“Chinatown has always been characterized by history, culture and vital continuity,” she says. “There's a nostalgia, a romance to that, for sure, but it's also very functional and practical. It evolves. This is a place that serves its community — which has become a very diverse community — and those beyond its borders, too.”
For Grace Young, there’s not a moment to lose.
“When people see a Trader Joe’s open up on Mott Street, they’ll say, ‘Oh no, we had no idea that we could ever lose Chinatown,’ that’s when they’ll realize how important these places are,” she says. “But these businesses are like your grandparents. They’ve always been there and you’ve taken them for granted. Now they need your love and attention.”
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