With Lunar New Year Afoot, Chinatown Businesses' Optimism Wanes After Enduring Year of Racism, Pandemic Stress

Once bustling streets in New York City's Chinatown are now largely empty in the days leading up to Lunar New Year as the community continues to deal struggle amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Once bustling streets in New York City's Chinatown are now largely empty in the days leading up to Lunar New Year as the community continues to deal struggle amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Getty)

As many Asian Americans await the Year of the Ox to begin the ringing in of the Chinese New Year on Friday, they do so with anxiety and unease, a stark contrast to the hopeful attitudes for luck and prosperity that normally surrounds the holiday. That’s because ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, life in Chinatowns, especially for business owners, has been harder than ever.

“We’re trying to be as hopeful as we can because that’s what the New Year is – having hope that the new year will be better than the year before,” Patrick Mock, the 27-year-old manager of 46 Mott Street, told Inside Edition Digital. “But realistically, the next three or four months will be very tough for us.”

New York City is one of several cities in America that shut down indoor dining for a second time over the winter months as numbers of those infected with coronavirus began rising again. But the average winter temperatures dip as low as 26 degrees, making outdoor dining nearly impossible. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo declaring indoor dining to resume Feb. 12 – just in time for Lunar New Year, as well as Valentine’s Day – many Chinatown shops remain pessimistic that business will return until at least the summer.  

Mock said business has been incredibly tough for his shop, a small Cantonese bakery nestled in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown. They specialize in dishes like soy milk, tofu pudding and rice noodles, cheap staples in Cantonese cuisine, but even so, 46 Mott Street has seen a drop-in business by nearly 60%, Mock said.

Which is why when New York went into its initial shut down last March and people were encouraged to stay home as much as possible, Mock was shocked his regular customers still visited his shop every day, purchasing cup noodles for $1 or sticky rice for $2.75.

“They finish the cup noodles, then they come back into the store to add more hot water to it,” Mock said. “It’s a two-for-one meal. You finish the noodles, then you add more water to the noodles and then you have a soup.”

That’s when he realized how desperate some of his customers and neighbors must have been.

“It crossed my mind, ‘Oh snap, they might be homeless’ … it was a do-or-die situation,” Mock said. “I was very touched because they were there supporting us during our time of need, [but] it was a stay-at-home order. They got no place to stay, really.”

To support his community, Mock decided to start handing out free meals to anyone in need.

Within days of beginning his initiative, many supporters jumped on board, including one generous donor who sent enough money to allow Mock to hand out 100 meals for 10 days straight.

Eventually 100 meals a day became 150 to 200 meals a day, and when lines to pick up free meals spanned blocks, Mock shifted his business to delivering straight to his customers so as not to block foot traffic around Chinatown.

More than nine months later, Mock has continued to consistently make deliveries every night, handing out 45 to 60 meals that costs him about $3 a meal, which he makes by hand.

“I won’t give you a meal I won’t sell. I won’t serve nothing I won’t eat,” he said. “I don't half ass. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it all the way.”

Chinatown Businesses Were Already Suffering Because of 'Xenophobia and Racism' When the Shut Downs Began

Despite making all efforts to support the less fortunate in their community, 46 Mott Street’s struggle to survive is not unique. In fact, business has been tough in Chinatowns across the country ever since the coronavirus began making headlines.

“Chinatown wasn’t affected [by COVID-19] in March,” Mock explained. “It was already affected in January [2020] because of xenophobia and racism.”

New York City’s Chinatown saw a 75% decrease in revenue in late January 2020, right around the time of last year’s Lunar New Year, according to a study conducted by UCLA.

Businesses in Chinatowns across the country rely on revenue generated around Lunar New Year, Mock explained, and when that didn’t come, nor did the boost in business they normally see over the summer from tourist foot traffic, the winter became all the harder to bear – especially when they’re projecting another quiet Lunar New Year.

While white-owned small businesses declined by 17% between February and April 2020, Asian American businesses saw a 28% decline in the same period, according to research by UCLA. Other Asian enclaves around the country, including LA’s Koreatown, also saw significant dips in business, the report stated.

Additionally, nearly one in four Asian Americans are employed in hospitality, a sector that is seeing a 40% unemployment rate in the pandemic, according to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research. While the unemployment rate before the coronavirus pandemic among Asian Americans was comparable to white Americans at about 3%, the unemployment rate among Asian Americans in May 2020 is 15% compared to 12% among white Americans.

Some estimate that because many jobs and businesses in ethnic enclaves function in a cash-only capacity, the impact may be worse than we know.

“Everyone’s trying to be as hopeful as we can but realistically, the next three or four months is going to be very tough for us,” Mock said. “This winter will be a very long, cold winter for us in Chinatown. We need to get through this for better times ahead.”

Businesses aside, the coronavirus pandemic has made daily life for Asians in the United States and abroad very difficult.

On Jan. 31, a 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown made headlines after being a victim of a brutal attack, in which a hooded suspect came up behind him and violently shoved him to the ground. The incident spurred Asian Americans across the country to action, including celebrities like Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu, who together offered $25,000 to whoever has information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator.

A suspect in the case has since been arrested, yet many Asian Americans continue to be on edge, and for good reason. Nearly 2,000 hate crimes against Asian Americans were reported from the beginning of the outbreak to August 2020 across 46 states and as many as one in three Asian Americans reported witnessing individuals blame Asian Americans for the pandemic, McKinsey reported.

In New York, authorities with the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force told Inside Edition Digital that as of February 2021, there were 24 reported incidents in which members of the Asian American community were targeted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including an attack over the summer where an 89-year-old woman was set ablaze in Brooklyn. Arrests have been made in 19 of the incidents, police said. 

Additionally, Asian Americans are also some of the hardest hit when it comes to health impacts of COVID-19, accounting for 52% of deaths from coronavirus complications in San Francisco, despite only accounting for 13.7% of COVID-19 cases, according to research by McKinsey. Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit group that provides mental health support via text message, reported a 39% increase in Asian American callers.

Many activists blame early rumors that the coronavirus began from Chinese people consuming bats, as well as rhetoric that called the coronavirus “China virus,” “Wuhan flu,” or “Kung Flu,” for the downturn in business and overall discrimination.

So Much More Than Just Business Is at Risk of Being Lost as Chinatowns Struggle Amid an Unknown Future 

Marcia Hu, of Queens, New York started volunteering with grassroots organization Send Chinatown Love when she saw the coronavirus pandemic impacting her neighborhood.

“A lot of [business owners] are still in the state of limbo of not really knowing if they have to shut down permanently or if they're still able to stretch the dollars a little bit to stay open and employ people,” Hu, a Flushing-native, told Inside Edition Digital. “They could be doing really well with business on a weekend and be doing really well with takeout and delivery, but they're still making a loss at the end of the day because they have payroll, they have to pay for utilities, and there's also a lot of government assistance that unfortunately these businesses haven't been able to receive.”

She spoke to Inside Edition Digital ahead of last Chinese New Year, and said that since then, the landscape has drastically changed.

“Some would say Flushing and Chinatown [in] Manhattan have kind of bounced back in a way, but to me, there is everlasting damage to the community,” she explained. “There are a lot of stores that have closed due to COVID that are not coming back. Business owners are just constantly in a state of anxiety. They started off with their lockdown in March, didn't think they would still have to be dealing with COVID.”

Her work with Send Chinatown Love involves connecting small businesses with financial assistance and other resources, raising money to send to struggling storefronts directly, or building marketing campaigns to attract new business to the neighborhoods.

Their latest initiative, in time to help local businesses generate income for the holiday, is a Lunar New Year Crawl, where participants both in-person and virtually around the country can order from restaurants, purchase items from gift shops or make donations to win prizes.

Alternatively, Send Chinatown Love also accepts donations year round, which will go directly to merchants or to purchasing meals for those most vulnerable.

For Hu, the effort to support her local Chinatowns is personal.

“This really boils down to this kind of acknowledgement of what these historical Chinatowns represent for these communities … early immigrants coming to New York City and really making a place for [themselves,]” Hu explained. “There are people – immigrants – who really depend on these restaurants and these gift stores and these bookstores and what not to provide for their families and [send] their kids to college. It's not just something here that makes New York fun and exciting, but truly people's livelihoods are at risk.”

Hu’s biggest hope is that the upcoming Year of the Ox, characterized by strength, determination and diligence, is going to bring better fortune to individuals and communities in the new year.  

“We're really coming out of what was such a chaotic year, 2020, into this new year and a lot of us are eager to turn a fresh leaf and really try to get past COVID and do some amazing things this year,” Hu said.

Mock, who has worked extensively with Send Chinatown Love in the past, accepts donations for his food deliveries via Venmo (@mott-46) or PayPal, and all proceeds go toward the meals he hands out to vulnerable populations. “I’m going to do this all the way,” he said. “The need is still there. If I stop who's going to fill that gap? “

For those who can’t donate, Mock asks that people support Chinatowns across the world by seeking out local organizations run by a younger generation of activists and sharing news of their work. “We’re willing to step up to do the work, and we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty,” he said.

“Right now, for us to get through this, we need the power of unity and the power of community,” Mock said. “It’s not just about my Chinatown anymore. It’s about all the Chinatowns.”

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