Food & Drink

Thanks for the Memories, Jing Fong

What the closure of this iconic restaurant means for Chinese-Americans like me.

Jing Fong
Writer Patty Lee and her son, Henry, at his first Lunar New Year at Jing Fong on January 26, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Patty Lee; Image by Maitaine Romagosa
Writer Patty Lee and her son, Henry, at his first Lunar New Year at Jing Fong on January 26, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Patty Lee; Image by Maitaine Romagosa

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park—one of NYC’s largest Chinese communities—dim sum was as much a part of my weekly routine as school and Saturday morning cartoons. Every Sunday, I’d eagerly wait for my mom to wake up and dial the number of a family friend to confirm a time and a place. Depending on where this friend lived, we’d meet on a nearby corner and meander our way to the week’s massive restaurant of choice—usually to what’s currently known as Pacificana, but occasionally to Park Asia or the now closed East Harbor.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I grew up in those Chinese banquet halls. With red-paneled walls, soaring chandeliered ceilings, and rows of giant round tables, the bustling restaurants are not only venues for countless celebrations—birthdays, weddings, and babies’ 100-day milestones—but act as a community hub, a place where news and gossip are shared, where introductions between recent and longtime immigrants are made, and where first-generation Chinese-American kids like myself try to maintain the oft-tenuous ties to our roots.

So when Jing Fong—the largest restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown that’s also considered a dim sum institution—announced in February that it would permanently shutter its Elizabeth Street dining room after March 7, it hit me harder than any other restaurant closing during the pandemic. It was partly due to timing: The Instagram message came a week after a Lunar New Year lacking in its usual festivities. Jing Fong had been the location of my family’s annual spring festival lunch (which was canceled of course), and that—coupled with news about rising anti-Asian hate crimes—was a stark reminder that Chinatown would emerge from this crisis scarred in more ways than one.

Jing Fong
Photo courtesy of Jing Fong

The announcement also came prior to the re-institution of indoor dining for the second time during COVID, but even at the current 35% capacity, according to Jing Fong’s third-generation owner Truman Lam, the numbers wouldn’t make sense. Due to both the xenophobia and dwindling tourism caused by the pandemic, traffic to the restaurant and surrounding Chinatown businesses had begun to dip even months before NYC first went into lockdown. And while Jing Fong’s unionized employees are also currently fighting against the closure, it appears that the legendary eatery dating back to 1978 will offer its last indoor service this weekend, Sunday March 7.

While New Yorkers can continue to order the restaurant’s food for pickup and delivery (Jing Fong’s Upper West Side offshoot will also remain open), the experience will be lacking. Dim sum isn’t really dim sum without the organized chaos and rituals—the jostling with strangers over the last steamer basket of chicken feet, the futile act of making eye contact with a server for your tea refill, or the bumping into an auntie you haven’t seen in years only to be peppered with increasingly invasive personal questions (Did you find a new job? When are you getting married? You’re definitely having a second baby, right?). It’s sad to know that when we’re on the other side of the pandemic, there will be fewer dim sum halls for all of this to happen in.

Over the years, my dad—himself an immigrant restaurant worker—would often remark that Chinatown was changing. What he rarely said, but his tone always implied, was that it was changing for the worse, that gentrification was taking away the Chinese mom-and-pops he knew and loved. There was also the issue of age. As immigrants from his generation who were part of the 1970s and '80s wave began to retire, they didn’t have anyone to inherit their stores and restaurants. More recently though, there had been some optimism in my dad’s commentary. First-generation kids—the same ones who had been nudged into white-collar careers to avoid the exhausting and low-paying service work our parents did—had returned to take over longtime businesses (Nom Wah’s Wilson Tang and Sophia Tsao of Po Wing Hong, for example), while others (like 12 Pell’s Karho Leung) were opening ventures that, while not necessarily traditional, were tied in some way to their Chinese-American and more specifically, Chinatown, upbringings.

Jing Fong
Photo by Tae Yoon for Thrillist

Jing Fong’s closing feels like another step back for a neighborhood that was already trying to navigate a complicated transition. Dim sum halls are a gathering place where Chinese-Americans of all generations could feel comfortable. For my parents and those who made the United States their second home, going to Chinese restaurants like Jing Fong not only brought a sense of familiarity, but also allowed them a sense of ownership and belonging where they could take charge. They have a waiter-friend who can help us skip the line; they can order food in a language they understand; and they know the etiquette and nuances of the experience.

I joined my family’s weekly dim sum sessions well into adulthood and only stopped when I moved away from Sunset Park post-college. I still drop in during special occasions, but dim sum has also evolved into an activity I share with other first-generation Chinese-Americans. Every now and then, when a craving for har gow (shrimp dumplings) and law bok go (turnip cake) hits, a small group of us would head to Jing Fong. We get our childhood favorites; we banter with the dim sum cart ladies; and we reminisce about the hours we spent in high school hanging out at Elizabeth Center across the street.

Jing Fong
Photo courtesy of Jing Fong

My last trip to Jing Fong was on January 26, 2020. It was my son Henry’s first Lunar New Year dim sum celebration and little did I know, likely our last at Jing Fong as it once was. But there’s no doubt that once everyone is vaccinated and it’s safe, one of our very first destinations will be a Chinatown banquet hall. My mom will probably find a way to skip the line, we’ll run into neighbors who will ask if I’m going to try for a girl, and my aunts will order more food than our group can finish—just like Sundays used to be.

Patty Lee is a Brooklyn native and Thrillist contributor.

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