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The pandemic threatened business districts across the country, but misguided fears and rhetoric about Asian Americans made things particularly hard for Chinatown neighborhoods. John Yang visited New York’s Chinatown to learn more.
The pandemic threatened business districts across the country, but misguided fears and rhetoric about Asian Americans made things particularly hard for Chinatown neighborhoods.
For this report during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, John Yang visited one of the nation's most well-known Chinatowns in New York City.
It's part of our ongoing Race Matters series.
Dim sum carts stacked with bamboo steamer baskets, bustling kitchens, board games in the park. These days, Manhattan's Chinatown looks a lot like its pre-pandemic self.
Grace Young, Author, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge": It was very, very eerie during…
And walk through the heart of the neighborhood with cookbook author Grace Young and the scars of the pandemic are evident.
This was a family-owned supermarket and it closed during COVID. It had been there for years and years, and they just didn't have the business.
As we come along, here is Lung Moon Bakery. This was the place to go for custard tarts, and their moon cakes were just out of this world.
What else is lost when a business like that disappears?
So it's not just about the wonderful food. It's about our memories. And so many people talk about the fact that they have been going to Lung Moon ever since they were a child.
And I believe, when you lose a place like Lung Moon, you lose a part of yourself.
Young, known as the Stir-Fry Guru, grew up going to San Francisco's Chinatown with her father, a Chinese American liquor salesman.
I grew up just loving that small town feeling about Chinatown, that feeling of belongingness and home.
But in the four decades she's lived in New York, Young says she had come to take this historic Lower Manhattan neighborhood for granted.
Because of my work, I would be in Chinatown once or twice a week shopping for groceries, eating food, but I never introduced myself. I came and went and did my own thing.
That all changed in early 2020 with the pandemic.
Because of misinformation and xenophobia, people stopped coming to Chinatown.
Young started sharing the struggles of mom-and-pop businesses on Instagram and Facebook and helped create two social media campaigns, #SaveChineseRestaurants and #LoveAAPI.
She launched a video project with a Korean American videographer, Dan Ahn, for the New York museum Poster House, telling the stories of Chinatown shop and restaurant owners.
Business is down even worse. And I can see that I'm down pretty much from 50 to 70 percent.
Bill de Blasio (D), Former Mayor of New York:
It is time to take more dramatic measures.
Hours after Young conducted those interviews, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a citywide lockdown, bringing business to a virtual standstill.
By 2021, a survey found that more than half of Asian-owned businesses in New York state reported that their revenue had dropped more than 75 percent.
Dennis Chung, Restaurant Owner:
COVID, this time, it takes really, really long, for really serious damage for our business.
Dennis Chung was born in what was then called Saigon and, since 1995, he's owned Pasteur Grill and Noodles, a Vietnamese restaurant that's one of the many legacy Chinatown businesses that isn't Chinese.
The downturn in business during the pandemic has put them behind on their rent. And, today, he's facing another challenge.
Looks like the business back to normal, but you don't forget one thing, everyday inflation right now, that the price of everything is — go up right now.
Tony Chung, Son of Dennis Chung: This was his American dream. And COVID turned it into a nightmare.
Chung's son Tony is getting his master's degree in biomedical science this summer and is applying to med school.
Watching his dad struggled during the pandemic, he wanted to help, offering ideas about the decor and the menu and applying for federal aid.
A lot of these businesses are owned by people who don't speak a word of English, except maybe they know how to say some food items on their menu.
So it's close to impossible for them to apply for PPP and all these all these government grants.
And on top of everything else, the Chungs, along with other residents and business owners, have had to deal with increased anti-Asian harassment.
Sometimes, I see people coming into our restaurant yelling slurs and just giving us trouble. And I see my dad trying to be strong, but I worry about him deep down.
The history of American Chinatowns is rooted in racism, as Chinese immigrants arrived in the mid-1800s to mine gold and build railroads.
Cookbook author Grace Young:
The Americans wanted cheap labor. But even as they wanted cheap labor, they did not want the Chinese to live among Americans. So the Chinese were segregated to live in their own ghettos.
And that's how Chinatowns formed.
Just as some made Asian Americans scapegoats in the early days of COVID, in the 19th century, they were unfairly blamed for smallpox outbreaks in some cities.
Stanford University historian Gordon Chang:
Gordon H. Chang, Stanford University:
The Chinese became targeted as a population that was not just undesirable in taste or in preference, but as biologically dangerous, and thus should be eliminated and moved out of the core of the city lock stock and barrel and moved into some corner or kept out of country entirely.
In recent decades, historic Chinatowns have faced new challenges, like gentrification and an aging population.
Vic Lee sees it in New York's Chinatown, where she lives.
Vic Lee, Co-Founder, Welcome to Chinatown: The authenticity that is here comes from the residents, many of which are low income.
And for them to be this integral part of the community, but also be unable to stay, this is what's really at risk for the authenticity of Chinatown and what it's going to look like.
For Lee's late grandmother, Tymli Chang (ph), who couldn't read or speak English. Chinatown was her piece of America.
I have such fond memories of scooping rice into the rice bowls, carrying it back to the dinner table. And once she sat, we would all, like, bend their elbows and eat.
And I actually have a tattoo where it's 135, which stands for her apartment building.
During the pandemic, Lee co-founded the nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown, which has given almost $600,000 to small businesses.
We are focused on uplifting our communities' entrepreneurs, because we know that they're what grounds this community.
Are you optimistic about the future of Chinatown?
I'm cautiously optimistic. There's still a lot more that needs to be done in this community. But where I am optimistic is seeing how much people care.
And I'm really excited about that.
Cookbook author Grace Young, recently recognized by both the James Beard and Julia Child foundations for her work supporting Chinatowns, is still worried by what she sees on the streets of Chinatown.
How do you feel when you see empty storefronts?
It completely terrifies me. And I feel that we have to do everything in our power to save and protect Chinatown. Everyone has to do our part. And history will thank us for that.
For Young, her part is raising awareness across the country on social media, but it's also doing what she can for businesses in her own Chinatown.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in New York.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Maea Lenei Buhre is a general assignment producer for the PBS NewsHour.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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