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How Chinatown businesses are using farm-to-market ingenuity to survive

People shop at G&J Florist in New York. (Photos by Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

It’s springtime in New York City’s Chinatown, and bright red tomatoes are stacked on a table outside Gary Liang’s store, just $2.99 a pound. A florist by trade, Liang started selling fresh vegetables during the pandemic to keep his business, G&J Florist, afloat, connecting directly with farmers in Pennsylvania and Maryland to create his own personal supply chain, including Swiss chard, Japanese sweet potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes.

“I started looking at a map,” says Liang, 45. “I drove to the farmers markets out of state and got to know people. I wanted produce that was really fresh and clean to bring back to the city.”

Now Liang makes a weekly eight-hour round-trip drive to pick up produce and fresh-off-the-farm eggs, continuing a Chinatown food purveyors’ time-honored tradition of cutting out the middleman — a practice that can be traced directly to the xenophobic policies that forced Asian immigrants to live in strictly separate communities, via the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

“These were people who weren’t accepted in American society,” says Valerie Imbruce, author of “From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace,” “so they developed a food system to support their own cultural demands, leveraging trust within their own social networks.”

Just 80 years after the law was finally repealed, family-run food markets in Asian communities from coast to coast still offer high-quality produce, meat, eggs and fish at bargain prices, often using the same direct connections to farmers and fishermen established by earlier generations. It’s the children and grandchildren of the owners of those markets who are now considering how to honor those carefully developed supply chains while also expanding their customer base beyond the local Chinatown population.

“In a lot of ethnic communities, you’ll tend to see products that are cheaper and higher quality than standard supermarket options,” says Jefferson Li, 30, who, with his father, Peter, runs his family’s meat shop, 47 Division Street Trading in New York. “These are people who are just one or two generations removed from agrarian societies, so there’s culturally an expectation of fresh food that’s going to be cooked today.”

Peter Li emigrated from China, where he learned to butcher, in 1985, eventually opening his own market and maintaining connections with friends who left the city to establish livestock farms. Building relationships with duck farmers on Long Island helped him create a market for Chinese barbecue across the community: “My dad and I can see a duck hanging in a window at a restaurant and tell you where it came from based on how fat or slim it is,” Jefferson says.

Social media brings new shoppers

But it was the frustration and fear of the pandemic’s early days that drove Jefferson to take to social media in an effort to bring business to his family’s store and help feed the local community. His pathos-laden Reddit post, by turns raw, funny and deeply personal, included lines such as: “$10 will get you something like 13 pounds of chicken drumsticks, plus a dozen eggs. Don’t like drum sticks? Fine, get something else, our prices are lower than your GPA and your parents’ expectations for you.”

Unsurprisingly, the post went viral. “I literally wrote it while I was sitting in the delivery truck,” Jefferson says. “I’d seen supermarkets charging $59.99 a pound for drumsticks. At first I thought, ‘Fine, I should do that,’ but then I thought about families like mine and the aunts and grandmas of people I grew up with. I didn’t want to be a scumbag.”

The response was big, attracting non-Asian shoppers from outside the community, often groups of people placing orders of $400 or higher. Jefferson started adding signs in English, a novelty in a store that had only Chinese language signage. As the pandemic wound down, the big orders became less frequent, but the store has still seen more diversity in its customers.

Steven Wong spent summers as a teenager on Martha’s Vineyard working in commercial fishing operations, learning about wind patterns and shouldering bags of seafood that weighed more than he did. Now 43, he and his brother Freeman, 47, are the second generation running the family business, Aqua Best, where a glistening whole branzino sells for $8.99 a pound, about $3 less than other fresh seafood purveyors around Manhattan, and fresh shrimp is at prices even lower than discount supermarkets.

“My mom instilled in us that you always go to the source,” Steven says. “So it was about building relationships with the fishermen to ensure freshness.” Owning a lobster pound in Canada is just one way that Aqua Best guarantees freshness and fair pricing for customers, ranging from Michelin-star restaurants to local seniors on a fixed income.

Providing the food Asians needed

The supply side is deeply integrated into Chinatown communities, where the population originally had no access to the familiar ingredients, from bok choy to chicken feet, necessary for traditional recipes. Bo Bo Poultry, founded by Richard Lee in Upstate New York in the 1980s, focuses on raising Buddhist-style chickens, sold with the head and feet, specifically for Asian cuisines. They now sell their chickens in 37 states and Puerto Rico.

“The recipes that Asians use are different,” says Lee’s daughter Anita, 45, who joined the family business in 2001. “The chickens are older and the cooking methods are usually poaching or steaming instead of roasting, with ginger and green onion in the water. The meat needs to be more dense and flavorful.” Because Chinese immigrant communities tend to cook a lot, she says, it allows Bo Bo to keep prices competitive, even for a specialty product.

There is a long history of Asian immigrants establishing farms outside of the cities where Chinatown communities were thriving. Yee Lung Kwong and his wife Yee Dong Shee moved with their four children an hour outside New York City to rural New Jersey in 1940, seeking healthier air while growing Asian vegetables to sell in Chinatown.

“They had some basic farming knowledge, but it was mostly just trial and error,” says grandson Roland Yee, 45. The operation expanded to southern New Jersey in the 1950s, then the Yee family, including Roland’s parents, began farming 1,000 acres in Boynton Beach on Florida’s east coast in the early 1970s; Roland and his brother Ethan are now the third generation farming the land. The vegetables grown today — such as gai lan, yu choy and napa cabbage — can still be purchased in Chinatown produce markets, as well as across the country, at theme parks, on cruise ships, enjoyed by Americans of every culture.

For activist Jan Lee, a third-generation resident of New York’s Chinatown whose own father drove produce north from Florida in the 1940s when White truckers strictly controlled trucking routes, there’s a deep concern that shopping for affordable fresh food in America’s Asian communities is under threat from gentrification, as real estate developers buy up cheap buildings. “The Chinese community adapted because it was corralled into these ghettos,” he says, “but the survival and future of Chinatown is now at stake. How many mom-and-pop stores are going to be able to compete and sell low-cost food?”

Vanishing storefronts and aging populations

Zoe Lin, a master’s degree candidate at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, has been examining the now 20-year-old data found in Imbruce’s “From Farm to Canal Street” research, noting decline that began in 2008 with the SARS epidemic and continued with Hurricane Sandy and unchecked gentrification.

“When I did on-the-ground ethnography and looked at historical Google street views,” says Lin, “I found that just 30 percent of wholesalers and 40 percent of food vendors are left in Chinatown. There is a very gentle balance and tension here, because these are vendors who are quite vulnerable because they didn’t choose to be in these forces but had to exist within it as immigrants or refugees.”

Vanishing storefronts and aging populations — not just in New York City’s Chinatown, but in Asian communities across the country — are threatening a culture that has been consistently fighting against erasure for 150 years. The consensus among business owners and activists seems to be simple: If you value this community, then come buy great food at great prices, in a system built over generations against all odds.

“In Eastern cultures,” Jefferson Li says, “people are willing to put society as a whole before themselves as individuals. One brick doesn’t do much, but a thousand bricks can build a foundation. When you shop with us, you don’t just support one business, you support an entire community.”