Asian American Businesses Owners Are Battling the Pandemic on Two Fronts and Searching for Answers at the Same Time
Asian-owned businesses were among the first to be impacted by the pandemic before it even took shape in the U.S., and now they're feeling the effects more than ever.
In 2005, Jason Wang's father founded Xi'an Famous Foods in Flushing, which, by then, had slowly become one of the largest satellite Chinatowns in New York City. The mission was simple: Wang's father would promote the food that he had known in central China, especially when Chinese food in America seemed to be only a watered-down version of Cantonese cuisine.
"He simply wanted to make a small living for himself while sharing his food with people who would enjoy it, and, at that time, he thought only Chinese immigrants like him would enjoy it," Wang said of his father.
Over time, the shop's success — thanks in no small part to an appearance by the late Anthony Bourdain — led to an expansion. Seven more chains opened up in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Along the way, the restaurant received accolades, even earning a glowing review in Zagat for its "banging" hand-pulled noodles and "insanely good" cumin-lamb burgers.
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Last year, however, operations came to a screeching halt. As the pandemic began to take shape in the U.S., restaurants and bars were forced to shut down indoor dining. While many struggled to continue to stay alive, none were, perhaps, more heavily impacted by the global health crisis than Asian-owned businesses. Not only have these establishments dealt with financial losses, they've also become unfairly stigmatized as carriers of Covid-19. In the weeks following news of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, Asian-owned businesses across the water — especially in the U.S. — began to feel the ripple effects of growing xenophobia and racism. Between February 2020 and April 2020, approximately 233,000 Asian-owned small businesses in the country closed, according to a UCLA study. By April of that year, half of the nation's Chinese restaurants had shut down "as a result of consumer prejudices and misperceptions," Restaurant Business Magazine further notes.
"We closed all stores in March 2020 due to Covid and didn't reopen some of our stores until around July 2020," Wang recalled.
And as much as Wang had been aware of the increased violence and hate against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, the issue didn't hit home until two of his employees were assaulted in the summer of 2020. According to Wang, both incidents occurred near public transit — one employee was attacked on his way to work, while another was attacked on her way home.
"My immediate reaction was to first make sure my staff is okay but [I was] feeling rather powerless in that I really can't do much to stop this type of thing from happening," Wang said.
"I was reluctant to speak up about it, and I am still a bit reluctant these days, especially as we've been seeing more and more attacks despite increased awareness, which leads me to believe that many are copycat attacks."
As a result, the Xi'an Famous Foods CEO, like so many other Asian shop owners, has been forced to adjust his business to account for rising hate.
"We shortened our business hours to close earlier (8:30 p.m. for all stores, instead of 9:30pm or 10:30pm for stores in the past) and also opted to close on Sundays, as there are less people around due to less commuters [and] less potential [of] help in case of anything bad happening," he said.
Chinatown businesses struggle to recover amid surge in violence
Nowhere has the effect of racism been more apparent than in Manhattan's Chinatown, a once bustling neighborhood that has, more often than not, attracted tourists from around the world. In the weeks leading up to the U.S. outbreak, the marked decrease in foot traffic has significantly hurt the area's restaurants, many of which rely on out-of-towners to stay alive. As of this writing, approximately 17 restaurants and 139 ground-floor stores — including Chinatown staple Jing Fong Restaurant — have permanently closed, Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District / Partnership told the New York Times in an interview last month.
At the same time, locals in the area have been randomly attacked. In March, a 66-year-old Asian man was punched in the face by an unidentified man who had allegedly yelled at him. The month before, a 36-year-old Asian man was stabbed in Chinatown while walking past a federal courthouse. The economic impact, combined with the uptick in physical violence, has left Asian-owned businesses on edge.
"We were very vocal that people were avoiding Chinatown specifically, especially given that other neighborhoods were still seeing many diners," Barbara Leung, who oversees marketing and operations at Nom Wah Tea Parlor (which has been in business in Chinatown since 1920 and has opened locations in surrounding neighborhoods) said. "I mean if you take a look at our Nolita store, which is right by SoHo, business was steady there — so it wasn't so much that people were not eating Chinese food, but rather, they were not coming down to the neighborhood."
Leung added that Nom Wah's flagship store in Chinatown suffered between a 70% and 80% decline in revenue year-over-year since the pandemic occurred. The restaurant has also been forced to take precautions to ensure all of its employees are safe, regardless of the location they work.
"We listen to our employees to make sure they know we are here for them," Leung said. "With the Nolita outpost, we either carpool home or make sure that staff are following through with the buddy system. And for the Chinatown restaurant, it's evident in our hours — we open at noon, when the streets are a little busier, and we close at 8 p.m. to make sure that folks aren't traveling home too late."
In light of the challenges, Asian-owned businesses, especially in Manhattan's Chinatown, have tried to support one another.
"We see this especially within the small businesses we've partnered with; they aren't just thinking of themselves and their well-being but the well-being of their neighbors and fellow small business owners too," said Jennifer Yu-Tam, who co-founded the grassroots organization Welcome to Chinatown. "And in many ways, this is also why we think Chinatown will survive these tough times. The neighborhood has battled difficult endeavors many times before (9/11, Hurricane Sandy, as a couple examples). And yet, it still stands strong; it's incredibly resilient."
Since its inception last year, Welcome to Chinatown has distributed over $225,000 that it has raised to 45 businesses to date. The money comes during a particularly stressful period. In a survey conducted by the organization, 88% of shop owners in the neighborhood revealed that they had experienced a 50% decrease in business before New York City was shut down. This year, in response to recent headline-making violence — notably the Atlanta shootings that left 6 Asian women dead — and stagnant foot traffic, 84% of respondents added that they, like Wang and Leung, have had to reduce their business hours.
"I've been asking myself where we go from here and how we, as Asian Americans, carry on," Yu-Tam admitted. "The best I've come up with is to channel this fear, anger and worry into action by investing further into the incredible work we're doing within Welcome to Chinatown, whether it be helping the elderly in our neighborhood secure their COVID vaccine appointments or working with our small businesses to continue to amplify their stories."
Asian business owners fight for tolerance and acceptance
For Milk and Cream Cereal Bar co-founder Cory Ng, the marginalization of Asian-owned businesses is an ongoing issue that has long affected Chinatown. While the neighborhood has attracted tourists, it has also brought in a new wave of young non-Asian residents and business owners who are drawn to Chinatown's allure but care little about its backstory. As a result, the gentrification of the area has masked the struggles that locals in the area have long faced, especially when xenophobia and racism come into play.
"Now, Chinatown's hot," Ng said. "All the yuppies, they want to come and live in this area. Right? It's kind of cool to go to an underground fucking Chinatown bar or Chinatown karaoke, and they're kind of like, "Oh, this shit is cool.' But [for] us, it wasn't like that. It wasn't like this cool, trendy thing to do. We did it because this is what we [had to do.] These are our businesses."
The fact that Chinatown — once a bustling tourist destination and inspiration for so many non-Asian business ventures (including Chinatown Market) — has become a ghost town amid the current pandemic is an irony not lost on Ng.
"You know, a lot of our jobs [have been] lost," he said. "Our community is in fear. Chinatown holds everyone down with the food, culture and fun … you guys come to us for that. So, I think it's wack that we've been feeling [the pandemic] the longest and we're still feeling it now."
In the fight for acceptance, some Asian-owned businesses are turning the violence into an unmatched passion to further educate the public.
"Seeing the racism and xenophobia happening over the past year has made us reflect more on our identity as Asian American people and as an Asian American business," Cindy Ongko, one of the founders of the Asian-inspired dessert bar Kitsby (located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), said. "When we first started our business, we were honestly afraid of being "too Asian,' that using exotic flavors … would be unwelcoming to some. But with everything that's happened, we feel that if anything, these flavors are the core of who we are as Kitsby and as the people behind Kitsby."
Driven by a stronger purpose, Kitsby also recently held a competition featuring fellow Asian American bakers so that it could help promote their businesses.
"The best thing that we can do right now is to purchase from other Asian American bakers around us — local bakers who don't necessarily have the means or the facilities to create products that they can actually highlight and show their community," co-founder Amy Hsiao said.
Similarly, Gold House, a collective that empowers Asian American businesses, is responding to the Atlanta shootings by expanding its Gold Rush accelerator program and connecting female Asian American entrepreneurs with top venture capitalists for investment.
"In a time when API [Asian Pacific Islander] entrepreneurs – particularly women — are hurting the most, it is doubly imperative to invest in initiatives like Gold House's Gold Rush accelerator which has made unprecedented inroads in advancing API founders," said Julia Gouw, a Gold House partner and chairwoman of Piermont Bank, in a press release.