Chinatowns are in trouble. Delta has once again decimated business.

Before the pandemic, San Francisco’s Far East Cafe was known for its lavish banquets, where groups of up to 700 people dined on braised abalone and steamed fish while celebrating weddings or birthdays. These days, large gatherings are rare, canceled reservations are frequent, and a once-prodigious clientele has shrunk. The restaurant, located in the heart of Chinatown for over 100 years, may soon be closing. “I keep losing money. For me it’s really hard to keep going, ”owner Bill Lee recently told me. “We will be working until the end of October, and if we don’t get any help, I think we will close forever.”

It will take a lot of help. Some days only 20-25 patrons show up at the Far East Cafe, not enough to keep the two-story restaurant alive. Lee has reduced its hours of operation and attempts to secure a restaurant revitalization grant through the Small Business Administration have so far failed. “Day after day, we are open, but there is no business. It’s not under my control, ”Lee said. “I have no idea what to do. I feel really depressed.

Hospitality businesses around the world have had a brutal year, but those that survived were able to return to near full or normal operations as vaccines were rolled out. Yet the Delta variant has prolonged the grueling task of staying afloat during the pandemic, and businesses of all kinds are experiencing slowdowns again. Chinatowns across the country face this dilemma, but it has compounded a host of additional problems, like technological and language barriers and xenophobia fueled by the pandemic. Community organizations fear that diminished patronage and insufficient government support will force many long-standing businesses to close, potentially accelerating gentrification that displaces people who have built and depend on their Chinatowns for decades.

Chinatowns are a haven for immigrants and working-class Asians in America, so ensuring their survival is crucial to keeping many disadvantaged communities intact. Due to model minority stereotypes of Asian success, low-income residents of these neighborhoods tend to be overlooked when it comes to aid programs. They often depend on the local business ecosystem for a living. So if these neighborhoods disappear, cities risk losing much more than a critical mass of good food.

Far East Cafe is far from the only business in San Francisco’s Chinatown that’s in dire straits. Things seemed to improve for the 24-block district over the summer when the COVID vaccine was rolled out and the tourist season helped boost income, but the outlook is more blurry as the months approach. fall. Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center which runs a number of neighborhood economy and affordable housing initiatives, told me that the rush for summer travel subsided in August and that there had been a notable drop in road traffic. Around the same time, Delta variant infections were on the rise in the United States and local health measures became more stringent, further hampering trade. “Restaurant owners in particular had been optimistic [in the summer] and began to hire and scale up operations, but is now starting to face this downturn again. It raises questions about survival, ”Yeung said. Now that summer travel is on the decline, businesses in Chinatown are reliant on local customers. (Seasonal trade is not expected to pick up in the same way until late January for the Lunar New Year.) According to Yeung, residents of Chinatown have been the region’s main source of income during the pandemic. Office workers in the nearby financial district who ventured into Chinatown for lunch and dinner breaks were also a big driver of income, but many of those clients still work from home.

While the Delta variant and lack of foot traffic are by no means unique to Chinatown businesses, these unwanted developments compound other challenges unique to the district, such as the continuing wave of anti-Asian violence that appears to afflict women and the elderly in particular. Due to a number of high-profile attacks on Asians during the pandemic, the number of pedestrians in San Francisco’s Chinatown tends to drop dramatically after sunset, and older Asians are reluctant to walk away. to visit. Yeung notes that the reluctance is particularly pronounced because 80% of Chinatown’s population depends on public transportation rather than cars, potentially leaving these people more vulnerable to violence.

Jackie Wang, communications manager for the Welcome to Chinatown initiative supporting Manhattan’s Chinatown, observed a similar phenomenon in New York. “It’s a global fear and concern within Chinatown. We still see stories and cases of violence happening, ”she said. “There is such a large population of old people in Chinatown because it’s that ecosystem where you can’t speak English but where you get everything you need and do everything you need to do. It’s really hard to see that it’s not this safe haven for people.

The xenophobia that emerged during the pandemic is also having less obvious, but nonetheless devastating, impacts on Chinatowns. These neighborhoods were among the first to feel the economic consequences of COVID-19 due to the racist association in American culture between Asians and the pandemic. Businesses “sensed a huge shift in energy and foot traffic as early as February [2020]Wang said. in order to recover. Welcome to Chinatown conducted a 2021 survey that found 84% of Manhattan Chinatown storefronts saw more than half of their business before New York even instituted lockdown orders in March. A similar story unfolded in other Asian enclaves in America, such as Koreatowns and Little Saigons.

Another major obstacle to survival for many establishments is the fact that applying for government assistance often requires searching for online forms written in English. “If you look at the businesses in Chinatown, some of which don’t even have good access to technology and speak little or no English, the barriers to accessing… government help are so difficult,” Wang said. His organization found it necessary to create its own grant program, which involved going door-to-door in Manhattan’s Chinatown with translators to distribute paper applications printed in English and Chinese. So far, most of the requests have asked for help to cover rent arrears and overheads that have accumulated over the past year. Welcome to Chinatown investigators further found that 33% of applicants were not fluent in English, 57% did not have a social media presence, and 67% did not have a website. Indeed, online business marketing on Yelp and other sites, which has been crucial for storefronts that see fewer passers-by entering, is particularly difficult without fluency in English. “Establishing an online presence / business on predominantly English social media platforms creates disparities in the ability to promote and pursue business online,” wrote Devon Stahl, communications partner for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, in a statement. The company is trying to solve the problem by compiling a digital business directory that is more accessible to small stores.

There is a fear that if current trends persist and commerce does not pick up, many of the family-owned stores that have defined America’s Chinatown for decades will be replaced by luxury establishments, especially as real estate. is usually central. located and could command high commercial rents. “Everyone thinks of the economic recovery from the point of view of stimulating activity,” Yeung said. “In the context of Chinatown, there has to be a conversation about protecting especially the community-serving retail and food assets that have come forward and have proven how a key part of the safety net they are. during a seizure. For example, the Far East Cafe and other restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown helped provide take-out meals to vulnerable families and the area’s seniors in public housing in March 2020, when the closures began. to stifle the sources of income for many people. New developments and rising rental prices are not new issues in Chinatown, but the pandemic is highlighting these worrying trends. “We see this as something that could accelerate the gentrification that is already happening in Chinatown,” Wang said, adding that this was a particular problem for Manhattan’s Chinatown, which occupies two zip codes. different. Many Chinatown businesses actually reside in Tony Tribeca, so they don’t get as much attention for help while pushing away high-end stores that want to move in.

Local development organizations in Chinatown have done their best to counter the pandemic forces weighing on their districts. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, as Stahl pointed out, has organized scavenger hunts and fundraisers in an effort to provide local small businesses with additional funding. Yeung is mindful of the delicate balance of attracting new consumers while ensuring that the distinctiveness of San Francisco’s Chinatown does not fade. For him, that means building a cultural center of brick and mortar that educators and artists can display programming to help visitors navigate the neighborhood and its history. “It can be one of those key things that can be a lift to Chinatown and hopefully attract visitors and tourists here,” he said. “Give them a center of gravity as to where they start their journey in Chinatown, how they can make sense of Chinatown, but also ultimately locate them sufficiently well in Chinatown where they feel they should invest and spend money. money in the community. “Visit the cultural center. Stop at a place like Far East Cafe. And maybe bring 699 friends with you.

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