Published On: Tue, Jun 30th, 2020

‘Who Are We for?’ How the Virus Is Testing the Identity of Chinatown

Hop Kee is a basement Cantonese eatery offering $9.50 shrimp lo mein. Hwa Yuan Szechuan is a three-story, white-tablecloth restaurant where the whole fish with hot bean sauce is $45.

Both have long histories in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and a deep aversion to delivery apps.

Hop Kee’s owner could not afford the services’ high fees. Hwa Yuan’s owner, Chen Lieh Tang, 67, said his cuisine was meant to be eaten in one place: Hwa Yuan. “I don’t want people to eat the food cold,” he said. “It’s not my style.”

So, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down all on-site dining, almost no one was able to enjoy their food, forcing them to confront difficult questions about modernization and adaptation that may reshape businesses across the storied neighborhood.

Since its formation around the 1870s, Chinatown has managed to preserve its working-class immigrant character, even as wealth transformed nearly every neighborhood around it.

But some of the very traditions that kept Chinatown rooted to its history have made it one of the neighborhoods most heavily scarred by the pandemic. Now, the economic suffering has intensified a long-simmering generational divide, between younger people who believe Chinatown must get with the times to survive, and older ones who worry about it becoming a theme park of Instagrammable desserts and $18 Asian-fusion cocktails.

Chinatown had already seen sharp declines in foot traffic by Lunar New Year in January, typically its busiest season, because of anti-Chinese xenophobia linked to the virus and because of a slowdown in tourism. When the city shut down in March and customers largely stayed home, old-school Chinatown shops were particularly exposed.

Many could not rely on deliveries or curbside pickups, the only transactions permitted for businesses in recent months. (On June 22, the city began allowing limited in-store shopping, as well as outdoor dining, which is a rarity in Chinatown.) Only 38 percent of storefronts in Chinatown had an online presence, compared with more than 70 percent in wealthier neighborhoods like the West Village, according to an analysis by the mapping tech company Live XYZ.

Nearly a third of Chinatown restaurants are cash-only, according to data from the review site Yelp, and most shunned delivery apps because of their fees. They were accustomed to a business model reliant on high-volume, low-priced dishes like $7 noodle soups served to local residents and workers.

Some businesses like Hop Kee, which has been owned by the same family for five decades, are holding the line.

The restaurant’s cash register and waiters’ uniforms have stayed the same since the 1970s. Hop Kee doesn’t take credit cards.

Before the pandemic, it would be packed to capacity with 160 diners on a Saturday night. Now it serves about 20 takeout orders a day for diners who order in person or call Hop Kee’s phone number.

“It’s not about making money if you’re here for the long term,” said the owner, Peter Lee, 56. “If you go old-school style, people will look at you like, there’s more truth to this. There’s no sense of authenticity in the digital world.”

Other restaurants, including Hwa Yuan, are embracing the iPhone age, usually at the urging of younger generations.

Hwa Yuan has a special place in this country’s culinary history — Mr. Tang’s father was revered as the chef who introduced Americans to cold sesame noodles.

When the shutdown began, Mr. Tang’s son, James, 35, insisted that the restaurant sign up for delivery apps. Now Hwa Yuan can be ordered via Grubhub and DoorDash.

“We basically had to twist his arm,” said James Tang, an investment banker. The restaurant has suffered $1 million in losses during the pandemic, but, the elder Mr. Tang said, “at least there’s hope.”

All kinds of Chinatown businesses have been facing similar choices. Foot traffic was slow at Po Wing Hong, a specialty grocery with a focus on dried seafood and Chinese herbs, so Sophia Ng Tsao, 37, has persuaded her parents, who opened the business in 1980, to start an online store.

“It’s important to diversify your customer base, getting that younger customer, but we’ll do it slowly and organically,” Ms. Tsao said. “It’s a struggle for any multigenerational business.”

Before the virus, walking into parts of Chinatown was the rare Manhattan experience of feeling transported to a different country frozen in time. The sidewalks overflowed with tourists and local shoppers crowding around street vendors and seafood markets, a lively cacophony of sounds and smells.

At the pandemic’s peak in April, entire streets had become ghost towns of metal shutters. When Phase 2 of the city’s reopening began on June 22, only about half of the 46 businesses on a three-block stretch of Mott Street, the heart of Chinatown, were open. Barbershops offering $9 haircuts had long lines, while other stores had darkened interiors and employees lingering at their entrances.

Many businesses were unable to avail themselves of emergency, government-backed loans because of delays caused by an initial lack of translation of the paperwork, and because some businesses only keep accounting records on paper, according to community advocates.

Longtime residents say they understand when businesses try to survive by diversifying their clientele, especially if those customers explore other stores in the area. But they also worry about trendier establishments turning the neighborhood into a caricature of Chinatown.

“They do attract a crowd that’s less respectful of the culture or don’t appreciate it,” said Geoff Lee, 68, a lifelong Chinatown resident. “They look at Chinatown more as a novelty than a true identity.”

Perhaps no other business has been as boundary-pushing, and controversial to neighborhood stalwarts, as Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which opened in 1920 and was taken over by the previous owner’s nephew, Wilson Tang, in 2011.

“I’ve been told that I’m a sellout,” Mr. Tang, 41, said. “I’ve also been told I’m a beacon of light.”

At Nom Wah, an order of four shrimp dumplings costs $6, twice the price at some other spots nearby. Before the pandemic, it was one of the few Chinatown restaurants on Caviar, a delivery app for upscale restaurants. The restaurant markets its bottled chili oil on Instagram as if it were a sneaker drop.

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Nom Wah began selling frozen dumplings online during the pandemic, which helped the business stay afloat this quarter, Mr. Tang said. He hopes the coming release of his cookbook will provide a similar cushion in the fall.

He says that Chinatown businesses that can appeal to non-Asian customers are better equipped to weather the pandemic.

“Change is inevitable,” he said. “If you don’t morph and do better, you’re going to get left behind and die.”

There is no disagreement about the biggest threat to Chinatown: that businesses could close for good. The ripple effects could force small property owners to sell to corporate real estate firms that will increase rents and likely bring in stores that offer nothing for immigrant residents.

Geoff Lee’s family has owned properties on Mott Street since the 1920s. One of the tenants, a beauty product store, has not paid rent in at least three months, he said.

Developers have already been calling to ask if the family is willing to sell. (It is not, said Mr. Lee’s brother, Jan.) The neighborhood sits on valuable real estate in Lower Manhattan, surrounded by the wealth of SoHo, TriBeCa and the Financial District.

“We’re afraid that the pandemic makes that process of displacement much easier to happen,” said Jill Sung, 51, chief executive of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a community bank whose oldest branch is in Chinatown. “We don’t want things to disappear overnight. Where’s our history? It breaks that connection.”

The neighborhood has already been losing its Chinese residents, even as the Chinese and Asian population has grown citywide, with many settling in the newer enclaves of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens.

About 58 percent of Chinatown’s residents are Asian, according to the latest five-year survey by the Census Bureau, down from about 69 percent in 2000.

Local businesses are also struggling with the prospect that the neighborhood is becoming a retirement community. Among the Asians left in Chinatown, the only age group in which the population has increased is 65 or older.

Adding another challenge for reopening, the neighborhood’s restaurant workers tend to be older and live far from Chinatown.

Jing Fong, an 800-seat dim sum hall, could not begin takeout orders during the pandemic until this week, partly because many employees are in a higher-risk age group and were unwilling to commute in, said Truman Lam, the restaurant’s third-generation manager.

The staffing is also a reason the restaurant has struggled to update its computer systems to, for instance, accept gift cards, said Mr. Lam, 35. “It’s like teaching your parents how to use an iPhone,” he said.

Kenneth Ma, 35, whose family has owned optical stores in Chinatown for four decades, had pushed for the business to go cashless, but his family worried the switch would drive away older neighbors who depended on them for eye exams.

The stores, including Chinatown Optical and Mott Street Optical, have managed to straddle the old and the modern. They sell affordable metal glasses alongside trendy plastic frames. Every employee speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

Mr. Ma recently hired an expert in search engine optimization for Mott Street Optical’s website and is developing a way for customers to try on glasses at home. His mother and uncle became open to these changes, he said, after the pandemic halted foot traffic from young professionals.

“We always ask, who are we for?” Mr. Ma said. “We are for everybody that comes by Chinatown — whoever lives here, eats here, stops by on the weekend. That’s always changing.”

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