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: 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

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

#ChinatownStories

Building on the “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories” video series, Poster House is starting a campaign to express our love for Chinese cuisine in order to combat xenophobia. We encourage the public to use #ChinatownStories on Instagram to post memories and photos of your Chinatown, your favorite Chinese restaurants and food shops or stores, and how they’re faring under COVID as a way of showing moral support. Or tell us why you love Chinese food and express your appreciation for this cuisine which holds an important place in American culinary culture. Chinatowns are part of our American heritage. This is what makes us who we are and makes us strong. You may live in a place with only one Chinese restaurant and that’s your Chinatown.

Poster House will collect and select posts to add to this page. It’s our hope people will write about their favorite restaurants and that will give those mom and pop stores much needed business. By supporting your local Chinese restaurants and food shops we hope they’ll be there when COVID passes.

#ChinatownStories

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