Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous in American cities, it’s hard to imagine any big metropolis that isn’t dotted with takeout joints, noodle shops, or dumpling houses. But thanks to the global pandemic, the legendary dining scene of Manhattan’s Chinatown is in peril.
The neighborhood’s restaurants have endured many crises in the past. In the 1990s, Chinatown eateries struggled when the garment factories that once employed thousands of immigrant women shut down as fashion brands sent their manufacturing abroad. Then followed the crises of 9/11, the recession of 2008, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012—all of which pummeled local businesses.
But the hundreds of Asian restaurants that dot this stretch of downtown Manhattan between the Lower East Side and Tribeca have never seen such a deep, lasting loss of revenue as they have since the beginning of the pandemic—a result not just of months-long lockdown orders from the city and state governments, but also the city’s withered tourism industry. Countless restaurants have been shuttered or limited to takeout only or just a fraction of normal seating capacity, and traditional dining is likely to remain moribund for months to come, even with New York’s rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations.
Restaurant workers and owners, along with foodies and community activists, are wondering what will survive of the Chinatown dining experience: the grease-blotted lazy Susans, the pungent smells, the Chinese-only menu for insiders, the orange slices and fortune cookies. When the pandemic finally subsides, how many of the restaurants that embodied Chinatown’s plebeian cuisine will be left standing?
Back in July, when the city was recovering from the first coronavirus wave, I stopped by Wu’s Wonton King, a Cantonese restaurant on East Broadway known for its whole suckling pig and Dungeness crabs. The tables had been cleared away, but the bubbling fish tank held an overgrown King crab that sat idly on display in the window, while a skeleton staff was still churning out takeout orders in white plastic boxes by the nook where roast ducks usually hung. A server who introduced himself as Tan, aged around thirty, came by with a tray of sweet drinks for his coworkers. He had lost work when the restaurant temporarily cut staff during the citywide lockdown—but had come all the way from Corona, Queens, where he was living on public benefits and watching his kids at home, to visit his coworkers, he told me. With or without customers, the restaurant remained a place for employees to gather.
Tan was not sure what he would do if he eventually got permanently laid off, but he felt relatively fortunate. “We younger ones, we’ll do okay,” he said. “Like renovation work or something—we can do that. The ones who have been working here all their lives…the ones who are a bit older, can’t work anymore.”
The pandemic began afflicting Chinatown earlier than it did other neighborhoods. Business started to decline sharply weeks before the city went into lockdown last March—a downturn widely attributed to anti-Chinese prejudice, as well as to fear of the virus within the Chinese immigrant community.
Wellington Chen, executive director of the economic development corporation Chinatown Partnership, said that in February, he noticed that large banquet venues were seeing mass cancellations. At the same time, commercial trash collection in the area, which Chinatown Partnership helps manage, dipped—a sign that foot traffic was falling. Chinese immigrants, who had been getting news about the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan well before the virus took hold in the US, were wearing masks as a precaution and starting to avoid going out.
“Initially people laughed at those of us that wore masks early on,” Chen recalled. “They couldn’t understand that in Asia it’s quite common to wear a mask just [out of] consideration for your fellow human beings as well as for the protection of your health.”
Last February, Chinatown Partnership launched a campaign called “Show Some Love,” encouraging people to patronize Chinatown businesses that were being shunned. As infection rates began climbing across the city, however, the organization moved into crisis mode, providing such services as power-washing and disinfecting the streets in order to allay fears that Chinatown, not noted for its cleanliness prior to the pandemic, might pose a public health hazard.
Overall, New York City’s food and hospitality industry lost more than 144,000 workers from February through December, according to federal data, a net decline of over 40 percent. Although there are no comprehensive statistics on restaurant closures, the New York State Restaurant Association estimates some 4,500 restaurants have shut down citywide, and there could be countless more closures in the coming months. (Both the recently passed stimulus bill and the pending one will extend some relief funds for small businesses, including some targeted funding to the restaurant sector in the latest package, but just a fraction of the long-term bailout that the industry requested). The financial pain has recently been exacerbated by frigid temperatures and a second surge of infections that forced indoor dining to shut down again from December through mid-February.
Chinatown Partnership estimated that in Manhattan’s Chinatown, about 10 percent of the neighborhood’s roughly three hundred restaurants had closed as of the last month of 2020. Asian-American businesses nationwide have suffered disproportionately compared with those owned by other ethnic groups. According to researchers at the University of California–Los Angeles, an estimated 28 percent of Asian-American-owned small businesses closed between February and April 2020 alone, compared to just 17 percent of non-Hispanic white-owned small businesses.
Mei Chau, co-owner of a Malaysian-French bistro on Baxter Street called Aux Épices, decided to close her restaurant temporarily following the city’s first lockdown. She told me in April that she had realized that her customers, many of them non-Chinese professionals, had suddenly stopped coming. Meanwhile, one of her servers reported being harassed in the subway as reports of anti-Asian violence spiked around the city.
“How much business are we going to do, even if we’re open?” Chau said. “I don’t think the business will survive because there aren’t going to be enough customers, because the public has no confidence.” The restaurant shut permanently in June.
Outdoor dining, which began operating across the city that same month, has restored some life to Chinatown, as has the halting resumption of limited indoor dining at 25 percent capacity, which, after a winter shutdown, was increased to 35 percent capacity in late February amid heavy lobbying from restaurant owners. Wooden dining booths—installed with the help of Chinatown Partnership—give Mott Street the feel of a low-key beachfront café. But during recent walks through the area at night, I encountered many booths that stood mostly or completely empty. One December evening, under the glare of Wo Hop’s backlit sign, I watched a middle-aged waiter named Danny hand a bag of roast duck to one of the last takeout customers of the night. Restaurants on the strip closed at 9 PM, he told me, an hour before the city’s mandatory closing time. Wo Hop was still doing some business, he said, but the workers’ hours had been cut. Covid-19 robbed the street of the late-night footfall that used to keep business brisk until well after midnight.
“We made it through 9/11,” said Peter Lee, the second-generation owner of the revered Cantonese canteen Hop Kee, next door to Wo Hop. “But with this here…. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen tomorrow.”
Earlier in the year, funds from the Payroll Protection Program had subsidized Peter Lee’s workers’ wages. Hop Kee had also received assistance from Welcome to Chinatown, a nonprofit founded by Chinatown residents Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee that raised tens of thousands of dollars online for small business grants and helps local businesses sell branded merchandise online, in the absence of sufficient federal funding (full disclosure: Pearl River, a store managed by my family, partnered with Welcome to Chinatown on merchandise sales and other projects to promote the neighborhood).
But when Lee and I spoke in August, we were the only occupants of the windowless, wood-paneled dining room—once crowded with late-night diners devouring heaping plates of fried flounder and pork chop Peking style. At that point, the kitchen was doing only takeout orders, which had contributed just a fraction of Hop Kee’s pre-pandemic revenue. Over the following months, Lee was able to run a few tables indoors and outdoors, but by mid-December, indoor dining was gone again, and he was back to takeout. Although restaurateurs had long complained about onerous and seemingly arbitrary restrictions, Lee said, the city wasn’t interested in listening to struggling restaurant owners like him.
Chinatown’s more upscale restaurants have faced acute challenges trying to refocus on takeout and limited indoor and outdoor dining, while bills pile up and federal relief grants dwindle. At Jing Fong, a 25,000-square-foot Cantonese banquet hall on Elizabeth Street, manager Truman Lam, who recently took over the restaurant from his father, had to lay off many of the restaurant’s more than one hundred employees. Although the restaurant’s Chinatown and Upper West Side locations eventually reopened, business has seriously suffered without its popular weekend dim sum service, as well as weddings and other catered events. In February, the management announced that it would close its famed second-floor banquet hall and seek a new location. Fearing job losses, Jing Fong workers, who are members of Chinatown’s only grassroots restaurant staff union, held a rally in early March to demand that the landlord keep the dining hall open, chanting, “Save Jing Fong, Save Chinatown!”
“The bigger you are,” Lam said, “the more trouble you’re in.”
Manhattan’s Chinatown has sunk farther and faster than other Chinese enclaves, such as Flushing, Queens, or Sunset Park, Brooklyn. On top of the general hardships of unaffordable rents in the neighborhood, Manhattan’s restaurants draw relatively little of their business from local Chinese residents, Wellington Chen explained. “If you have an existing large residential population, as in Queens, in Brooklyn, in the suburbs, you don’t have to worry,” he said. “Why? They still need to eat three meals a day. They must come downstairs to go and do grocery shopping…. But when you are in a commercial district like Lower Manhattan, you rely on the human tsunami of workers…[and] the 67 million tourists who are no longer here.”
Chinatown’s dining scene has always depended on luring in outsiders. Chinatown evolved as a migrant ghetto both because of, and in spite of, the draconian nineteenth-century Chinese Exclusion Act. The neighborhood quickly adapted, transforming itself into a tourist destination. A century ago, its restaurants marketed themselves to white tourists as exotic locales, on the itinerary of so-called slumming tours that escorted sightseers through a prefab jungle of “opium dens,” staged gang fights, and other tantalizing iniquities. Neighborhood restaurants were conveniently placed to offer visitors a dish of “chop suey” (literally, random parts) to cap an evening of oriental adventure.
The generation of restaurateurs who helped popularized this exoticized fare were not just opportunists, but visionaries. Since the Exclusion Law had exemptions for immigrants who qualified as “merchants,” as opposed to lowly laborers, early Chinese entrepreneurs developed an ingenious network for importing migrants into the restaurant trade. The merchant visa enabled owners to sponsor relatives to migrate, creating a pipeline for workers and capital from China to the US. Their businesses turned into vehicles for circumventing immigration restrictions and cultivating a stable workforce of fellow migrants.
Even after the liberalization of migration from Asia in the 1960s, the Chinese restaurant continued to act as a channel for working-class immigrants hoping for a share in American prosperity. Although the work has always been drudgery, Chinese restaurants mushroomed across the country for several generations, helping to grow the Chinese-American middle class and send the children of restaurateurs on to careers and aspirations beyond Chinatown. According to a New York Times analysis of occupational data for first- and second-generation Chinese Americans, children of these immigrants tend to enter other professions, and even those who become entrepreneurs often go into fields outside the restaurant trade, in businesses such as computer services, dental offices, and consultancies. Meanwhile, the share of Chinese-food outlets in the restaurant sector is declining nationwide, while the share of other ethnic cuisines is steadily expanding.
The Chinese restaurant boom was a pragmatic response to a paucity of business opportunities for immigrants who lacked the language background and education to become professionals in the institutionally racist mainstream economy. They built their enterprises on the hope that their children would not have to “eat bitter,” as they had. If second-generation children no longer feel that restaurants are the only path to prosperity, the Chinese restaurant will have become a victim of its own success. Yet now that the pandemic is ravaging Chinatown’s keystone enterprise, the restaurant sector’s future may hinge on this younger generation of Chinese Americans—some of whom are now trying to reinvent the livelihoods their parents created.
Just down the street from Hop Kee and Wo Hop lies a portent of the future of Chinatown dining. At Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a century-old café in the crook of Doyers Street, Wilson Tang, a former financial analyst, has been trying to preserve the business he took over from his uncle in 2011. Before the pandemic hit his business, Tang had spent years cultivating the dim sum café’s nostalgia chic, with 1950s decor that evokes Flower Drum Song and colonial-era Hong Kong, and expanding the brand to several locations in New York, Philadelphia, and Shenzhen. Though many of the older staff members opted to stay home while collecting unemployment benefits, he redeployed younger, English-speaking staffers to a revamped takeout operation.
Nom Wah’s dumpling factory, which Tang previously used to supply the Parlor’s kitchen, now produces batches of frozen soup dumplings for customers to reproduce the dim sum experience at home. Its branding, angled toward non-Chinese foodies and hipsters with prices to match, capitalizes on a fascination with Chinatown of a bygone era—reflecting a reality that many younger Chinatown entrepreneurs are navigating: to revive Chinatown, small businesses need to look backward and forward at the same time, as well as outward for new customers and markets.
Yet, without being able to fully reopen the physical space, Tang said, Nom Wah cannot offer food tourists its main selling point: the experience of sitting in a vintage Chinatown tea shop. “No one opens a restaurant to be half full,” Tang said, and despite his frozen dumpling venture, “there’s only so much you can do with offering a virtual experience…. We’re all kind of anticipating a new normal.”
Chinatown was in need of a new normal even before the pandemic. In recent years, its cultural integrity has been challenged by the city’s demographic shifts: while the Chinese immigrant population has soared, according to census data, the number of Chinatown’s Chinese residents has declined by some 30 percent since 2000. Those who remain suffer from spiking rents and other economic pressures caused by gentrification. Community activists have long protested about the lack of quality affordable housing and threat of displacement of small businesses and family households by aggressive real estate development.
Manhattan’s Chinatown appears to be following the same path as other traditionally Chinese neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, all of which have shrunk, lost much of their original populations, and, in some cases, become husks of their old communities, playing up tourist attractions and novelty shops. Although Manhattan’s Chinatown has retained its working-class Chinese population more than its counterparts elsewhere have, one need only look to neighboring Little Italy—known for its generic, tourist-oriented restaurants and kitschy souvenir shops—to see what can happen to an ethnic enclave when its defining inhabitants move out.
Margaret M. Chin, a sociologist at Hunter College who has studied Chinatown’s development, told me that, post-pandemic, “restaurants that survive have to transform the way they do business…. It’s going to be a business that’s less face to face”—unless, she said, the trade can once again find a way to “integrate itself into the everyday eating habits of their customers.” After all, the signature roasted poultry hanging in restaurant windows in the 1980s were a precursor of the on-demand meal kit: ready-made home cooking for exhausted Chinese American mothers to bring home to their families after a long factory shift. But in the twenty-first century, it may no longer be possible for restaurants to lock in such a loyal immigrant customer base.
Chinese restaurants still occupy a unique niche in New York City’s dining scene, catering to a broad spectrum of tastes and price points, from quick-serve char siu buns to ten-course banquets. But more and more, Chinatown’s restaurant owners are grappling with the question of whether and how the neighborhood will remain relevant to the diaspora. Chinatown emerged in response to economic discrimination and the ghettoization of Chinese immigrants; today, it stands as a testament to the legacy of racial exclusion as well as cultural survival.
According to Wellington Chen, Chinatown’s restaurants will rebound after the pandemic subsides because Chinese food is an indelible aspect of the city’s cultural landscape: “I have no doubt many eateries will still be here,” he said. “Chinese food is meant to be served piping hot. And it’s meant to be shared. It’s meant to be a social experience, which everybody is craving right now.”
But Chen warned that to adapt to modern culinary culture, Chinatown’s restaurants will need to move toward a more sustainable business model. Now that the city’s minimum wage has risen to fifteen dollars per hour (though tipped restaurant workers get a lower “sub-minimum wage,” designed to be combined with tips), he said the community should work to educate both merchants and customers about what it takes to run a restaurant ethically: “The reality is that the cost of living, the cost of food, the [rising cost of] the workers’ wages now requires that you do not take advantage or exploit.”
Such a transformation might mean that post-pandemic Chinatown’s dining scene would be centered around establishments that emphasize not just the quality of the food, but also the service and workplace practices—even if it means a potentially pricier menu. “Why should the Chinese food be the cheapest?” asked Chen.
Jennifer Tam remains confident that Chinatown does have a future, as long as a younger generation remains dedicated to its survival. The pandemic has ruptured Chinatown’s economy, she said, but it has also compelled the children of Chinese immigrants to rediscover the value of “continuity” for their cultural heritage: “We’re at the turning point where we are truly embracing who we are as individuals, and what our culture and identity mean to us.” Bringing that fresh pride back to their roots, the next crop of denizens might seed a new way to do business, and to dine, in Chinatown.