Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories

By Grace Young

Introduction

During this harrowing time, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages New York and the nation, Poster House is committed to supporting our communities by sharing their stories. In January, one community in particular, New York’s Chinatown, had begun to unravel—at first slowly, then with terrifying speed—as both the virus and a concomitant shunning of Chinese restaurants began to take hold. It seemed a sadly auspicious moment for us to focus on this contemporary tale of unprecedented economic hardship, especially as it related, quite coincidentally, to a current exhibition.

On February 27, Poster House had opened a show of 20th-century Chinese posters that tells the story of the economic relationship between China and the rest of the world: The Sleeping Giant (curated by Steffi Duarte & Marc H. Choko). As part of the exhibition-related programming, we had reached out to Grace Young, a Chinese-American and an award-winning author of cookbooks devoted to Chinese cuisine. But on March 10, only eleven days after opening, we closed the museum in an effort to halt the spreading contagion. Even with our doors closed, we wanted to continue working with the Chinatown community and asked Grace for ideas.

She immediately suggested going into Chinatown and recording the stories of the mom-and-pop businesses that had been suffering since January. Due to COVID-19, tourism from China had ceased and Chinese locals were already beginning to shelter in place. The situation worsened as xenophobic fears caused a large portion of the general public to start avoiding Chinese restaurants. Significantly, both Mayor De Blasio in New York, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, made trips into their respective Chinatowns to allay coronavirus concerns. Sadly, their efforts had little effect.

After Grace posted an Instagram request for a videographer willing to accompany her, Dan Ahn offered his professional skills. They commenced a one-day shoot on March 15, with a handful of businesses and restaurant owners so that New Yorkers could hear their personal stories. She hoped her interviews would inspire diners to patronize Chinatown eateries and shops at this perilous moment. But, as the videos posted below demonstrate, Grace and Dan were faced with a rapidly changing situation. While two restaurants planned to remain open, they were shocked to learn 70 percent had decided to close the following day. The team conducted five heart-wrenching interviews, realizing, as Grace reported, “we were recording and bearing witness to one of the saddest days in Chinatown’s history.” A few hours later that same day, the mayor ordered the shutting of all New York restaurants.

With cautions now in place to maintain social distancing, and with the streets of New York eerily empty, it became inadvisable for Grace and Dan to venture to Chinatown and attempt more interviews. But the stories they captured on that Sunday provide a moving document of a tragic drama unfolding. The first video, posted below, was recorded at the end of the day with Grace providing context for the events that, she says “shaped the end of Chinatown as we know it.” In the subsequent videos, individual restaurant and business owners speak movingly of the personal toll wrought by the virus on Chinatown’s heart and soul.

Episode 1: Grace Young introduces Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories

Grace began her journey with Dan with these comments:

On Sunday, March 15, videographer Dan Ahn and I went into Chinatown to see out how businesses were dealing with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic. Many stores and restaurants were still open, but less than 48 hours later, everything had changed dramatically. It was sobering to learn that even before Mayor de Blasio mandated the shutdown of all the city’s restaurants, 70% of Chinese restaurant owners had already decided to close.

I am deeply grateful to Poster House for posting the interviews I conducted with these devoted, hardworking people, who are the heart and soul of Chinatown. I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Dan Ahn for selflessly contributing to this project. I put out a request on social media seeking a videographer, and Dan volunteered his services. From the moment we met in Chinatown we were in sync, as if we had been working together for years. Although each interview was emotionally wrenching, working with Dan was a pleasure—and a reassuring sign that there are good people all around us willing to help.

Episode 2: Peter Lee of Hop Kee

In this second video, Grace and Dan present the first of five interviews, conducted on March 15, with Chinatown restaurateurs and business owners. They speak with Peter Lee, owner of Hop Kee, a beloved restaurant featuring retro Chinese food at its best.

I first met Peter two weeks earlier for a photo shoot for my Food & Wine story, “Chinatown Needs Your Love More Than Ever Right Now.” On that day, Chinatown business was down but the atmosphere for the shoot was jovial despite the fact that old timers and regulars were nowhere to be seen. We were all hopeful that if New Yorkers showed their support, Chinatown was resilient enough to bounce back. By Sunday, when I returned to speak to Peter everything had changed. The magnitude of what was happening was heartbreaking. My deep gratitude to Peter for his willingness to be interviewed on such a sad day for Hop Kee and his employees.

hopkeenyc.com

Episode 3: Mei Chau of Aux Epices

On March 15, 2020, I interviewed Mei Chau, chef/owner of Aux Epices, a Malaysian-French restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Since January, she said, business had substantially declined as news began to spread of a widening pandemic. All around her, restaurants were either closing or cutting back hours, but Mei remained optimistic and planned to remain open. Then came an unexpected blow: just a few hours after our interview Mayor deBlasio announced the shutdown of all New York City restaurants, except for takeout. Mei had no choice but to close down. Our interview was now outdated.

A week later, videographer Dan Ahn and I returned for a second interview. We found her upbeat mood dramatically changed. Sitting in the now-empty dining room at Aux Epices, Mei spoke movingly about her difficult and saddening decision to close and her uncertainty, moving forward, about the future of her business.

Our heartfelt thanks to Mei Chau, not only for granting us a second interview, but for speaking with such honesty and candor at this challenging time.

Deep gratitude to videographer Dan Ahn who has been an extraordinary collaborator. I also want to thank Andrea DiNoto for her invaluable help.

Mei started a GoFundMe campaign for her six employees. If you can, please consider making a contribution. All proceeds will go to the staff, from servers and cooks to dishwashers, in an effort to help them through these hard times. Every little bit helps.

On May 12, Grace returned to Chinatown to talk to Mei about her reopened restaurant. A combination of perseverance and necessity led Chau to open back up for daily take out and delivery. While a positive sign of the community’s fortitude, it also speaks to the risks business owners face by staying closed in NYC’s Chinatown.

Video shot by Susie Szeto Price

auxepices.com Gofundme

Episode 4: Aux Epices Closes

On June 12th, the Malaysian-French bistro Aux Epices—known for its cozy atmosphere and flavorful fare— closed permanently, ending the nearly 8-year run for one of  Chinatown’s most charming eating establishments. As reported in our previous videos, chef/owner Mei Chau struggled valiantly to remain open but found overwhelming obstacles to maintaining a small business against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Like thousands of restaurants nationwide, Aux Epices became collateral damage as the indoor-dining shutdown took hold. Mei’s poignant story was picked up by the Washington Post, in which she lamented: “My heart wanted to come back,” but despite her grit and grace, she found she could not survive on takeout orders alone. Mei launched Aux Epices with only six employees, including her kitchen staff of two home cooks, chosen in emulation of her mother’s kitchen in Malaysia. In the weeks before closing, all but one self-isolated at home for fear of hate crimes and the possibility of contracting coronavirus. So hard working until the end, Mei functioned as a one-woman phenomenon: she prepared meals for healthcare workers, shopped for food, prepped and cooked takeout, washed dishes, answered phone orders, and packed up deliveries, with only one remaining employee to help her. In the days before closing, Mei gave away spices—Aux Epices means “with spices” in French—to loyal customers who had come to say goodbye.

Heartfelt thanks to Yuhong Pang who volunteered her time to film this piece. Our gratitude to Mei Chau for generously granting us three interviews in which to fully document her affecting story and the untimely closing of Aux Epices.

Episode 5: Ming Huang of Wo Hop

On Sunday, March 15, Dan Ahn and I headed to Wo Hop, as much a New York institution as a Chinatown favorite, appealing to locals, tourists, hungry, post-game Knicks fans, and late-shift cops coming from nearby NYPD headquarters. Famous for its unapologetic American Chinese comfort food—from Egg Foo Young to Lobster Cantonese—Wo Hop has been on Mott Street since 1938. The restaurant is normally open and packed until the wee hours, and the wait can be down the block—even at 2am. When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, there was no line, and the restaurant was serving its generously portioned meals to a just a few occupied tables. Despite the fact that attendance was down, manager Ming Huang explained he could spare us only a few minutes to comment on how the pandemic was affecting business. He was the first to tell me 70% of Chinatown restaurants would be closing the following day. A few hours later, Mayor de Blasio ordered all restaurants closed.

Episode 6: Don Lee of Stir-Fry Meals on Wheels

Just as restaurants and businesses in Chinatown were facing shutdown, the city’s aged, home-bound poor—a large proportion of them retired restaurant and garment workers—were facing a food emergency. Isolating at home since mid to late February, thousands found themselves with limited access to groceries and prepared meals. On March 15th, I met with Don Lee, Chairman of the Board of Homecrest Community Services, who explained that many elderly, of all nationalities and cultural backgrounds, depend on a daily hot meal from senior centers, which were now in pandemic shutdown mode. “Logistically, these people had no way to access takeout options, or even grab-and-go,” he told me, nor could they afford to order food online.  In response to this crisis, Lee created Stir-Fry Meals on Wheels, an emergency relief program designed to bring culturally appropriate hot meals to seniors in Homecrest’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. In a win-win situation, a Chinese restaurant that would otherwise have closed was hired to cook the food, with volunteers providing curbside delivery. On April 25, when we shot this video, the program was cooking and delivering 800 meals a day in Bensonhurst and Coney Island. Funding for Stir-Fry Meals on Wheels came largely through private donations (contribute through their website below) but as Don Lee told NY1, “We hope the city will consider what we are doing and make that part of the relief efforts.”

Homecrest Community Services

Episode 7: Ken Li of KK Discount

Ken Li’s KK Discount, which opened in 1990, is known fondly as Chinatown’s mom-and-pop “Target” store filled chock-a-block with housewares of every variety, from woks to noodle bowls. I have known Mr. Li for years, and though we did not have an appointment to interview him on March 15th, we decided to stop by after a long day of mostly heart wrenching restaurant interviews—all had been adversely affected by the pandemic and would close imminently— the next day. When we got to Mr. Li, he too had been having a hard time. After holding on for one week more, he also shut down, Then, three months later on June 8th , ever optimistic and forward-thinking, and much to the joy of his regular customers, he reopened, back to working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, with the help of his son and wife, who also manage his online store KKDiscount.com. When we saw him next he reported walk-in business was back at 50 percent, and he was encouraged that new customers were coming in. The downside, so far, he said was that his restaurant business—major buyers of dishware and cooking utensils—was only at 10 percent. As ever, I was especially impressed that despite struggling with the pandemic’s effect on his and other Chinatown businesses since January, Mr. Li has retained his enthusiasm, his optimism, and his commitment to having an old-fashioned personal connection to his customers. As he says in this video, “I have to do a really good job so people come back.” I thought: That’s the key to saving Chinatown—that people do come back.

KKDiscount.com

Episode 8: Chinatown Boston

Contribution by Jacqueline Church

Boston’s Chinatown is one of the most historic Chinatowns in the US. We have a layered and complex history of immigration, exclusion, and marginalization. From promises unkept and justice denied, struggle is very much a part of the DNA of this community. More importantly, Chinatown’s resilience and survival in the face of these historic challenges make it an example of triumph.

As a resident of Chinatown and the historic Leather District, and owner-operator of Boston Chinatown Tours, I shared the pain of lost business. Tourism and hospitality make up a significant portion of the Commonwealth’s revenues. We lost $20 Billion in tourism revenues and $7 Billion in restaurant revenues, according to Mass. Office of Tourism.

Chinatown has suffered a triple pandemic:
– the voracious appetite for its real estate – we’re nestled between the Financial District, major commuter highways, hospitals, and colleges.
– the Coronavirus itself – an aging and largely immigrant population remembers other pandemics
– the racism and xenophobia stirred up by Trump echoed the anti-Chinese sentiment of the Exclusion Act era when labor organizers whipped crowds into violent action against the Yellow Peril.

These combined, to strike fear in the hearts of many locals. Chinatown restaurants sat empty long before the quarantine orders were issued. Many lost 50-70% of their business.

In those first days of fear, I organized dinners in Chinatown, highlighting the regional cuisines available here. By the time I held my third “Eat with Me” dinner the situation here was grim. Schools had been closed, office towers were empty, everyone was from home. The horrifying news of attacks on Asian citizens was reaching us here though our official numbers remain low. (The national STOP AAPI HATE anonymous reporting hotline tells a very different story about Boston’s AAPI assault numbers, however.)

By summer, downtown Boston was a ghost town. Grace Young and I began to talk about including Boston’s Chinatown in this project. What follows are my first two installments, contributions which I hope will document our Chinatown, sharing her best and her struggle to stay alive. I could not have done this alone: Sharon Chen volunteered her time and talent to the videography while working full-time job and Carey Lin contributed translation skills while working full-time as editor of Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese and English newspaper in New England. I am deeply grateful to both and to the Poster House for hosting this and to Grace Young for her ongoing inspiration, friendship, and inclusion.

Episode 9: Chinatown Boston: Shōjō Restaurant

Brian Moy is the owner of Shōjō a contemporary restaurant that brings people into Chinatown for modern takes on classic dishes, cool cocktails in a setting that’s full of life–usually. The hip hop music, the murals, the food, brought devoted return customers to Shōjō and curious crowds to Chinatown. By January 2021, when we filmed, all that was left were the murals.

As the second generation of the venerable China Pearl restaurant family, Brian is well aware of the challenges of running restaurants. He and his family occupy an important place in the hearts of Boston’s restaurant community. China Pearl is one of the first places many non-Chinese experience when a Chinese friend would bring them to a banquet or a wedding. The dim sum is near-legendary. Brian’s Shōjō was well on its way to establishing itself as the next generation iconic favorite.

He also opened Ruckus a terrific contemporary ramen shop, which closed under pandemic pressures. Best Little Restaurant run for decades by the family, and rebranded as another contemporary venue BLR, closed pre-pandemic as Brian concentrated efforts on other restaurants.

Brian also occupies a unique spot translating Chinatown’s needs and value to the larger community. As one of Chinatown’s few bilingual restaurateurs, he’s often the first to be asked for interviews, and he was one of the early organizers of Mass Restaurants United a group devoted to the needs of the restaurant community under COVID-19. He cares deeply about this community and the weight of all this responsibility cannot be easy to carry. We’re grateful he carved out time to speak with us.

Episode 10: Chinatown Boston: Taiwan Café

Peter Wang’s energy and enthusiasm belie his years. His journey began in Fujian, then his cooking mentor brought him to Flushing, New York, Peter later moved to Boston. He opened Taiwan Café in 1998. He also owns and operates Dumpling Café on Washington Street and Dumpling Palace in Back Bay.

Generous hospitality and great Taiwanese food bring locals, and business travelers back to Taiwan Café. Students and local residents usually fill this restaurant. When we filmed on February 24, 2021, a customer told us that he comes to Boston for business and each visit, Taiwan Café is always his first stop.

Taiwan Café has remained open throughout the pandemic, struggling to make a go of it with takeaway and delivery business. At the worst point, 50-60% of the business had evaporated. Peter is positive, determined to stay “as long as possible.” His determination and resilience are emblematic of the strengths that have sustained Chinatown. We’re so hopeful this neighborhood favorite survives.

Episode 11: Looking Back on Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories

Since starting the “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories” video series, Grace Young has continued to find ways to express her love for Chinese cuisine and advocate for the support of Chinatown businesses. Young has worked with the James Beard Foundation to promote #SaveChineseRestaurants on Instagram, began a fundraiser with Welcome to Chinatown to deliver meals from restaurants to the community, and encourages us all to shop, eat, and visit in the historic district.

In October 2020, Young sat down with Poster House Director, Julia Knight, to talk about the project and what we hope for the future of Chinatown.

This series is ongoing, so please check back to see future video installments and updated information.

PRESS

If you have ideas for collaboration, email us at info@posterhouse.org

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