Covid-19: Chinatowns fighting racism and pandemic to survive

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An empty road in San Francisco's Chinatown in May 2020
San Francisco’s Chinatown, pictured in May 2020, has been hit hard by the pandemic

Lunar New Year is usually the busiest period for businesses in Chinatowns around the globe. But in 2020, it coincided with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many restaurants empty. A year on, the BBC speaks to business owners to find out how they survived – and what’s next.

Sam Wo’s has been a fixture in San Francisco’s Chinatown for more than a century, but the last year has been hard.

Coronavirus has forced restaurants across the world to shut their doors, and Chinatowns have been hit particularly hard. The virus first emerged in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, leaving businesses like Sam Wo fighting not just fear, but anti-Asian sentiment.

“All the Italian restaurants in North Beach were still busy and packed and then you went through the tunnel to Union Square and those guys had lines waiting to get in. And then you drive around Chinatown and it’s completely empty,” recalls Sam Wo’s co-owner Steven Lee, describing the weeks before shutdown orders came in early last year.

“So we know that xenophobia was affecting small businesses. Why would other districts be busy and we’re not?”

In the 12 months since, it has been forced to cut its staff numbers from 23 to three due to a lack of customers.

“People wouldn’t show up, they were just scared,” Mr Lee tells the BBC. “We had to rally and tell people to fight the virus, not the people and all this kind of stuff – but it didn’t help much.”

People walk through Chinatown in Yokohama
Yokohama’s Chinatown pictured in 2019 ahead of the Rugby World Cup

In Yokohama, home of Japan’s largest Chinatown, it went beyond just people avoiding local businesses. Notes containing anti-Chinese messages were left on the doors of several restaurants last March.

They were already in deep trouble financially: sales figures had plummeted to about 10% of what they were in a typical peak period.

Yokohama’s mayor came out in support of the businesses, telling local media that he was “utterly infuriated” with the letters.

In response, locals rallied around Yokohama’s Chinatown, sending messages of support on social media, telling businesses to “hang in there” and promising to visit their establishments.

A man walks with his phone through Yokohama's Chinatown
Yokohama’s Chinatown pictured in February during the build up to Lunar New Year

And then, the shutdowns arrived, meaning the restaurants were unable to open their doors.

“I know many businesses in Chinatown have closed. It’s terrifying,” Ying Hou, who runs Shandong MaMa in the Australian city of Melbourne, tells the BBC. “There are gift houses where tourists come to buy souvenirs – most of them didn’t make it and have closed down.”

She has also suffered following the introduction of one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in the middle of last year.

Ms Ying says her business is still making only 50% of what it was making before the pandemic and so she has turned to making frozen dumplings that customers can cook at home. Luckily, they sell well: Shandong MaMa is the only place in this Chinatown to sell fish dumplings.

A sign posted on 14 February 2020 reassures visitors about the restaurant's cleaning policy
A sign pictured on 14 February attempts to reassure visitors about a Melbourne restaurant’s cleaning policy

Melbourne gave rent relief to many Chinatown businesses last year, but for Ms Hou, that has now come to an end.

“If we continue paying the full rent with the 50% income, then we are really going to go broke.”

Her main goal for the next year or so? “To survive,” she said.

An event in Melbourne's Chinatown in 2019
Chinatown is right in the centre of Melbourne and has hosted numerous events such as this fashion show in 2019

In New York’s Chinatown, Karho Leung, founder of barber shop 12 Pell, has also thought of new ways to bring in customers.

“Chinatown in New York City is the one place in the world that never really closes. We don’t close for Christmas, we don’t close for New Years, only a handful end up closing for Chinese New Years.”

But last year, even the essential shops had closed by May.

“Everything was a ghost town and it was really scary to see,” he said.

When it was time to reopen, he looked at ways of preparing his business for customers. Taking inspiration from Hong Kong, he added dividers, temperature checks and humidifiers to keep the air fresh, before putting together a video for social media.

It went viral, explaining to customers what safety measures were in place.

“We saw the spike immediately and it was the busiest week we ever had in our lives, and then the next week was super silent,” he said. “There were probably fewer than 20 clients who ended up booking and then we started getting worried.”

New York's Chinatown district on 13 January 2021
New York’s Chinatown pictured in January 2021. Many businesses are finding ways to bring people back to the area

Mr Leung realised it wasn’t just his business that had a lack of customers. The shop 12 Pell is located on “barber’s row” and many other stylists were just hanging around with nobody to serve.

It was then that he decided to offer free haircuts to people who spent $45 in Chinatown. All they had to do was show their receipts.

“We looked at our situation and we thought, we have nobody that’s coming in anyway. Why don’t we offer everybody a deal?”

The company has also worked on other social media initiatives such as getting its audience to order directly from restaurants instead of companies such as Uber Eats.

“We were leveraging social media as a main way to push the younger audience to come back,” Mr Leung said.

People rush to buy flowers ahead of New Year in 2019
New York’s Chinatown pictured just before Lunar New Year in 2019. A year later and the city would look entirely different

Send Chinatown Love, a group of New Yorkers, is also trying to help businesses by working with them to start a website, create their own social media accounts and in some cases help redesign menus and logos.

“Everything started happening around January, February of last year, which is the most lucrative and joyous and festive times for Chinatown. They took a hit with that business and lost most of it,” Louise Palmer, a representative for the group, said. “So they ended up going into lockdown in March at a deficit, which kind of set a really terrible precedent for what the rest of the year would look like.”

The organisation is also promoting Chinatown on social media, creating “food crawls” they hope will help increase foot traffic.

In San Francisco, foot traffic is already increasing. With the reintroduction of outdoor dining, many places have put in place outdoor seating so that customers can eat outside.

People eat outside a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is slowly regaining its visitors thanks to outdoor dining

It has given Sam Wo’s co-owner hope.

“I was there last week in Chinatown on Saturday and it was booming,” Mr Lee said. “Actually, there were a lot of people out.”

He is now waiting for indoor dining to start so people can return to Sam Wo, as the hill-top location means outside seating is impossible. He’s also ready to open up the first nightclub in the city’s Chinatown in more than 40 years, which he hopes will also help revitalise the area.

“We’re the oldest Chinatown in the country. We’re the tourist attraction that everybody comes to when they come to San Francisco. So we have to preserve it.”

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