Grace Young Continues to Advocate for the Chinatown Community
Support the historic neighborhood this Lunar New Year.
Last March, as Grace Young stood inside the legendary Chinatown eatery, Hop Kee, she was struck by the absence of the lively soundtrack customary to many Chinese restaurant kitchens: woks clanging, knives chopping, dishes rattling, and orders being yelled out. As she and videographer, Dan Ahn, toured the space for Young’s Poster House video series, Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, and interviewed the restaurant’s owner, Peter Lee, the usually bustling dining room also appeared at a standstill with the waitstaff mulling about. With Hop Kee and much of Chinatown already having experienced a significant drop in business for months, captured by Young and Ahn on that afternoon of March 15, Lee’s video recounts the heartbreaking decision he’d made to close his restaurant the following day (an unprecedented move at the time that he—along with 70% of Chinatown restaurants—had decided to make due to a decline in business). As Young took in her surroundings, she was moved by an empowerment to advocate for the plight of Chinatown with even more determination. “I saw those workers looking out at us, and I just felt like they had no voice. They have no ability to bring in foot traffic or talk to the media,” says Young. “They’re just going to go home and lose a job.”
Later that evening, to the shock of many New Yorkers—but not restaurateurs in Chinatown—Mayor Bill de Blasio announced what would be the start of NYC’s COVID lockdown, including the forced closure of onsite services of restaurants and bars.
To Grace Young, the Chinese-American James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, culinary historian, and Wok Therapist, the devastating effects Manhattan’s Chinatown suffered early on in the pandemic was “painful and unfair from the very beginning.” Although NYC had no reported COVID-19 cases until March of 2020, fear of the virus and anti-Asian sentiment had led to a devastating drop in visitors and business from as early as January, with some local restaurants experiencing a 70% decrease of sales by mid-February. “No other restaurant community saw their business impacted in January or February,” says Young. “All restaurants saw the economic impact by March 15 when the lockdown came.” Young’s first public pleas for the neighborhood came on February 8 via social media. Her early March Food & Wine essay declared the area “on life support,” and by March 14, Young proclaimed the situation as “dire,” noting “the Chinatown we love will not survive.” And now, almost a year later, with the citywide vaccine roll-out only in its early stages and the end of the pandemic nowhere in the near future, Young continues her fight in regaining a semblance of vitality for the neighborhood.
As one of the last remaining international enclaves in Manhattan, Chinatown’s origins date back to the 1870s. At the time, a concentration of Chinese men escaping racism and violence in America’s West (after immigrating there as laborers for the gold rush and American railroads) first settled in the area of Mott St. below Canal St. “You can feel the ancestral vibration as you come down Mott Street, Doyers, and Pell,” says Young. A stroll down any one of these streets in the 1920s would have included the sights and smells of roast chicken and pig, while shopping for produce from street carts set up by Chinese farmers from outside of the city who trucked in their crops daily.
Before the pandemic, there were an estimated 300 restaurants serving cuisines as diverse as some of its ethnically Chinese residents who immigrated from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and more. But at the onset of the pandemic, as global headlines and racist rhetoric from the previous administration made Asian Americans scapegoats, by late March, only 29 Chinatown restaurants stayed in operation. While more restaurants have reopened since then, the historic neighborhood’s businesses continue to suffer from a general sense of feeling forgotten, forcing popular eateries like 88 Lan Zhou, Hoy Wong, and others to permanently shutter. “I was just completely stunned at the immediate fallout,” says Young.
On the bright side, new initiatives to support area restaurants have popped up to help the community build back. Last summer’s DineOut NYC by New York-based design and architecture firm, Rockwell Group, provided outdoor dining setups at no cost to restaurateurs. And newly formed grassroot organizations such as Send Chinatown Love and Welcome to Chinatown have raised over $650,000 for merchants so far, in addition to helping them modernize operations by incorporating e-commerce and technology. A campaign to Light Up Chinatown in order to brighten its street with lanterns and promote foot traffic also helped the situation, in addition to Young herself spotlighting Chinatown’s causes through countless media interviews. Currently, she has a special fund in partnership with Welcome to Chinatown with a goal of raising $20,000 to aid struggling legacy businesses.
However, even with these positive efforts, the recovery of Chinatown is far from over, worsened by ongoing racism. Just this week, sparked by recent deaths such as Vicha Ratanapakdee’s, the ongoing national conversation about the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in America indicates a continued bias towards Asian Americans and their communities since the pandemic began. In NYC alone, the past year’s dramatic rise in attacks towards Asian residents, including an 89-year old Brooklyn woman set on fire, lead to the NYPD forming a special Asian Hate Crimes Task Force.
Pre-pandemic, Young often walked to Chinatown from her downtown Manhattan home to buy produce and ingredients for her cooking demos, mostly bypassing the neighborhood’s restaurants. “Because I’m trying to get people to cook at home,” she says, “the last thing I want is for them to be eating in a restaurant.” But everything changed on that fateful day at Hop Kee. Transformed ever since, she now tirelessly implores people to support all of Chinatown’s eateries, and her daily trips to the area include purchasing extra orders of takeout for neighbors, friends, and to have as leftovers the next day. In addition, during her daily trips, she buys groceries for two local elderly couples who have been sheltering in place since last March, stocks up on plants for herself and to gift to others, picks up knicknacks from KK Discount, and constantly seeks out ways to spend money in the neighborhood. “It makes me feel a little better to know I gave them a little business today,” she says.
As a neighborhood that’s dependent on tourists, it’s not just the loss of NYC’s 67 million out-of-towners and vacationers in the past year Chinatown is reeling from, but also the 300,000 residents who fled the city, the countless downtown Manhattan workers who are now working from home, swaths of college students, jury duty members from the nearby courts, and the many other countless groups who often flocked to the area to dine, shop, and sightsee. “There are moments where it really hurts like crazy,” says Young. She understands that the financial survival of local restaurants offering $6 bowls of noodles is dependent on them selling hundreds of orders a day, which is part of a customary Chinatown formula that often includes 10-14 hour workdays, seven days a week. For Young, these concerns are compounded by the vulnerable state that renown businesses like Ting’s Gift Shop (Chinatown’s last authentic souvenir store selling items like real silk slippers and paper dragons) or the restaurant Hop Lee (a spot popular with Chinatown chefs after finishing work), continue to remain in during this crisis.
“It just makes me more determined,” says Young. “The only thing that’ll help Chinatown right now is foot traffic. It’s been devastating to see so many great restaurants close. If the hemorrhaging continues, we will lose the heart and soul of Chinatown, one of Manhattan’s most beloved dining destinations.”
How to help:
Donate: Grace Young’s Support Chinatown Fund in partnership with Welcome to Chinatown.
Eat: Dine at popular eateries and enjoy dumplings for Lunar New Year.
Shop: Ting’s for authentic Chinese souvenirs, KK Discount (“Chinatown’s mom-and-pop version of Target”), Po Wing Hong for Chinese pantry staples, Lin Sister Herb Shop, Mee Li Fruits and Vegetables (57 Elizabeth St.), Wing On Wo & Co. (Chinatown’s oldest store founded in 1890), and all local businesses.