Event Takeaways: The Future of Chinatowns Across the U.S.

Earlier this week, the Committee of 100, in partnership with the National Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Welcome to Chinatown hosted a virtual town hall to discuss the future of Chinatowns.

In the year since COVID-19 hit the shores of the United States, Americans across all 50 states have been impacted by personal tragedy, financial hardship and economic challenges. One of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 both directly and indirectly are the Chinatowns all across the United States.

From New York to San Francisco, Miami to Seattle, Chinatowns across the country have been struggling from a lack of tourism, fear of the virus and outright racism directed toward Chinese Americans.

This February, we celebrated the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox – symbolizing hard work, intelligence and reliability.

As we turned the page to a better 2021, the virtual town hall focused on what’s next for these Chinatowns and asked the key questions: How can these iconic “cities within a city” survive the backlash and devastation from COVID-19? How do they rebuild in 2021 and beyond? What role are grassroots organizations playing in Chinatown recovery in 2021 and beyond? How are national, regional and local governments addressing the Chinatown challenge? What policy changes are needed to help Chinatown and other businesses in 2021, and beyond?

Nicholas Wu, Congressional Reporter for USA TODAY, served as the host and moderator for the event. “As a journalist, I want to seek out stories and spur action,” said Wu. “Chinatown’s stories need to be told so people can receive help – and telling their stories in a forum like Tuesday’s webinar is a great first step to try and address the problems facing Chinatowns amid COVID-19 and the rise in anti-Asian American sentiment.”

Dr. William Gow, Lecturer of Asian American & American Studies at Stanford University, helped set the table for the event by talking about the inherent racism and bigotry directed toward Chinese Americans and Asian Americans for centuries. “In order to understand the future, we have to understand our history. The connections made between the coronavirus, China and Chinese Americans today draw on stereotypes that have circulated since the 19th century. Those stereotypes continue to influence many of the actions and sentiments we see today, including the rise of anti-Asian violence. These stereotypes are a systemic, often unacknowledged, part of the history of the United States.”

Grace Young, a cookbook author and culinary historian, touched on some sad statistics as New York’s Chinatown area struggles to survive. “As COVID-19 hit and cities like New York went into lockdown, Chinatown became this ghost town,” said Young. “It was heartbreaking to see so many stores simply vacant. During the first few months of COVID-19, business in the Chinatown area dropped by as much as 80%. Chinatown had about 300 restaurants, only 29 were open during the peak of COVID-19 here in New York. There are restaurants that were open for 50 years that have closed. Chinatown cannot rebound on its own. It needs patrons.”

Jennifer Tam & Victoria Lee, the Co-founders of Welcome to Chinatown, focused on how they saw the impact on Chinatowns firsthand, living in New York’s famous Chinatown area. “We saw firsthand the impact xenophobia combined with COVID-19 had on New York. Foot traffic was down as much 80%,” said Tam. “Today we are still seeing that there’s a loss of business (revenue) of 50%-80% on average. Our message is Chinatown will always be open for business and that’s our mission – to help in that effort.”

But there is hope. With a team of sixty plus passionate volunteers of mostly Millennial and Gen-Z young professionals, Welcome to Chinatown established the Longevity Fund. “The Longevity Fund was our answer to the lack of access and the inequity of Manhattan Chinatown’s small businesses,” said Lee. “We prioritized the most at-risk businesses based on the cultural, socio economic, and language barriers that prevented them from applying for aid. So far, we have given 45 small businesses grants in the amount of $225,000, to help empower them. Chinatown will survive.”

Betty Louie, Board Advisor to the Chinatown Merchants Association in San Francisco presented ways she is working to get people back into the Chinatown community on several platforms which include art and artistic expression. “It is also important to offer visual enticements and new retail experiences in order to lure local residents and later, tourists, back to Chinatown,” Louie stated. “We must encourage, support and mentor the next generation of business owners. We cannot survive without a strong community presence and others willing to make business investments. Our primary goals also include increasing foot traffic and revenues to Chinatown.”

Chiling Tong, CEO and President of National ACE and Member of Committee of 100, echoed the importance of getting relief to Chinatown businesses across the U.S. “Our recent survey showed that 84% of Chinatown businesses were negatively impacted by COVID-19, but yet 60% did not apply for Federal relief because they didn’t think they would qualify,” Tong stated. “As a community, we need to come together to help these businesses through the process of getting financial relief. Chinatowns are important not only because they are a community for Chinese Americans and all Americans, but because they [Chinatowns] are the incubators of celebration, belonging and opportunity.”

U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng, representing New York’s 6th District, rounded out the evening by coming full circle and talking about the two challenges that Chinese Americans are facing today. “With Chinese New Year taking place in the shadow of COVID-19, Chinese Americans are really fighting two viruses at the same time – the COVID-19 virus, and the anti-Asian hate, which seems to increase each day. We are seeing our communities suffer from discrimination and ugly racism. Chinatowns are a vibrant space with a host of food, retail and culture opportunities to explore; they are the doorways connecting to the vibrant diversity that is America today. We must do everything possible to help these and other communities through a pandemic that no one saw coming.”

How to Stay Connected

To reach out to Congresswoman Grace Meng, visit https://meng.house.gov/ or connect with her on Twitter and Facebook

Find out more about National ACE at https://www.nationalace.org/ or on Twitter @NationalACE. You can also connect with National ACE President Chiling Tong on Twitter at @ChilingTong1

Connect with author and culinary historian Grace Young on her journey to raise funds for Chinatown at https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/grace-youngs-support-chinatown-fund and #SaveChineseRestaurants https://www.jamesbeard.org/save-chinese-restaurants

Additionally, you can view the Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories from Grace at https://posterhouse.org/special-project/corona-virus-chinatown-stories/

Find out more about Welcome to Chinatown at https://www.welcometochinatown.com/ or on Twitter @WtChinatown

Follow Committee of 100 on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook

To stay up to date on all the latest news from Committee of 100, send an email to office@committtee100.org

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