Smithsonian panel explores the importance of “Saving Chinatown”

On May 5, Grace Young, Brandon Jew, and Wellington Chen expressed the importance of Chinatown and its meaning to them during the first half of “Saving Chinatown and Our Legacies,” the first in a series of four virtual conversations presented by the Smithsonian Associates. They also discussed the future of local Chinatowns during and towards the end of the pandemic, notably in San Francisco; Flushing, N.Y.; and Manhattan, N.Y. 

Young, a renowned cookbook author, said that she was in Manhattan’s Chinatown on March 15, 2020, when Mayor Bill de Blasio “announced the lockdown.”

“[A]t that point in Chinatown, 70 percent of owners were closing the following day because business had been so bad….so many businesses in Chinatown were [only]operating at 30 to 40 percent pre-COVID.” 

A bill at Hop Lee Restaurant on 16 Mott St. in Manhattan Chinatown.
(photo by Francis Chin / Meniscus Magazine)

Coupled with the drop in business is a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Young noted that many restaurants and stores that used to be open until 1 a.m., like Mott Street’s well-known Wo Hop and Hop Kee, are closing earlier because owners and managers want their employees to get home safely. Young started a fundraiser in April to distribute personal security alarms to the elderly residents in Chinatown and is also giving them to local employees and waitresses. 

Unlike Wo Hop and Hop Kee, several restaurants had to close shop last year, notably the old-school Hop Shing on Chatham Square, where one could get the best char siu (pork) buns and coconut buns. Uncle Boon’s, an excellent Thai restaurant also closed, but reopened around the corner at Thai Diner.

Jew, a chef and owner of several restaurants in San Francisco, notably Mister Jiu’s, Moongate Lounge, and Mamahuhu, emphasized that Chinatown is not only composed of businesses but is also a community.  “My employees are much like my extended family so taking care of them emotionally as well has been very taxing. But on the other end, there’s some optimism and strength,” he said. He wants individuals to support their community by dining out and having a “staycation in your city.” 

Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) Partnership in New York, spoke about his horrific experience witnessing someone being stabbed in the back with a butcher knife just three feet from him. He insisted that last year we got hit with a “second virus…[which] has no vaccine and dates back to the 1906 earthquake. As soon as it hit San Francisco, that system that created it is still there…” According to the National Park Service, the earthquake was an excuse for “city officials to claim Chinatown for profitable commercial development and they attempted to drive the Chinese out of the city.” 

Like Young, he noticed that Chinatown restaurants close by 8 or 9 p.m. and observed that “weeknight traffic is not just about tourists, but about locals visiting.” 

Chen added, “Asians make up 6 percent of the country’s population. The other 94 percent need to take initiative to report any hate crimes.” Notably, 68 percent of Asian hate crime victims are women and if “Asian women are fearful to come out..we are fighting a losing battle.”

He asked America to “have no fear. We’re not here to take over the country, just trying to make a different life. This is representative of every single immigrant. We are all looking for a better life. What we have to share is a culture of 4,000 years to where we landed here 1,000 years ago.”

The second half of “Saving Chinatown” focused on the grassroots efforts of Victoria Lee and Daphne Wu. 

Lee is the co-founder of “Welcome to Chinatown,” a grassroots initiative in Manhattan Chinatown that focuses on empowering small business owners. She felt that small businesses shape experience and identities, and “didn’t realize how much a community can represent an identity.”

“With AAPI hate, you never felt quite American enough or Asian enough,” Lee said. “I look back to my experiences in Chinatown…we learned about tradition.” By the end of 2021 through the initiative’s Longevity Fund, US$1 million in small business grants will be distributed by the end of 2021. 

Lee believed that social media should be used to share business owner stories and that people should pay attention to what local politicians are saying and cast their vote accordingly. Sadly, half of Chinatown was left out of a New York City US$37 million loan as several of its zipcodes didn’t qualify due to their proximity to SoHo. The Department of Small Business Services (SBS) was offering “up to $100,000, zero interest loans” for qualifying small businesses. According to Eater, Lee’s “Welcome to Chinatown” is working with SBS to help qualify 10013 for the loan program.  

Wu manages Cut Fruit Collective, a Bay Area grassroots organization that creates art for AAPI community care by supporting AAPI artists and investing in AAPI communities. She is building a “grassroots [organization] rooted in storytelling, cross generational or multi generational and communities.  

Unlike Manhattan’s Chinatown Wu says that Oakland’s Chinatown is “not reliant on tourists, but supports locals.” Cut Fruit collective recently launched a “Persimmon Grant” to give two QTAPI (Queen Transgender Asian Pacific Islander) Bay Area-based artists $500 each and worked with the Oakland Fortune Cookie Facotry to produce limited edition pride fortune cookies to help support the grant. This past Lunar New Year, they worked with six AAPI artists to create the “Have You Eaten Yet?” recipe zine and limited red envelopes, raising $19,000 to help support three Oakland Chinatowns.

Manhattan Chinatown in February 2021. (photo by Francis Chin / Meniscus Magazine)

The pandemic has brought to light that we need to support communities that once thriving, are now failing due to lack of foot traffic generated by fear and/or hate. Chinatown and local Asian-owned businesses should not be taken for granted, especially now when businesses around the country are reopening. Please support local Asian-owned businesses by eating or dining out. 

Asian Americans For Equality – Safe with Sound:
Chinatown Business Improvement District (Chinatown BID):
Cut Fruit Collective:
Good Good Eatz:
Welcome to Chinatown:
Send Chinatown Love:
Stop AAPI Hate GoFundMe:

Where to Eat:
Eater Los Angeles: Chinatown:
Eater New York: Flushing:
Eater New York: Manhattan’s Chinatown:
Eater Oakland: Chinatown:
Mister Jiu’s:
Thai Diner:

Register for the final event in the Smithsonian’s Free Culinasia Series, “Asian American Farmers Look Back to Go Forward,” which takes place on June 23, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. ET.