Through Pandemic and Anti-Asian Violence, My Chinatown Restaurant Is Holding On

We have also started selling our frozen dumplings across the country a partnership with Goldbelly. It started out pretty easy, only 20 orders a week. We were so conservative about what we thought we were selling. Throughout the winter, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, New Years to Valentine’s Day, it was gangbusters. We packed hundreds of orders every day. My business partner at the Nolita location and I popped these orders every day.

That didn’t make up for the 80 percent. We have eaten up our savings. We conclude contracts with our landlords. We have reduced the staff. I’ve cut massively. All of these things together got us through the season.

This year there wasn’t much celebration for the lunar new year. I don’t think it was justified with COVID. There was no parade. There was nothing. As a small group of restaurants, we did what we could. We made the auspicious foods. We had a lion dance group that came to ward off the evil spirits and bring good luck to the restaurant. But the streets were pretty quiet. The restaurants close early because the staff has to go home. With hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community on the rise in recent months, no one wants to stay outside after 6pm. A few weeks ago one of us was stabbed to death. Business in Chinatown was already hurting, and now everyone is scared for their lives.

The stakeholders in this community step in to see what they can do. Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee, the founders of Welcome to Chinatown, did a phenomenal job advocating for small businesses here. There is this guy Karlin Chan– He lives in Chinatown all his life and always organizes Chinatown Block Watches to patrol the streets like the Guardian Angels. Patrick Mock from 46 Mott is great. Jenny Low is an activist who has spoken to the media about ways to help. You have all done so much for the community.

I’ll be the first to tell you: I don’t know how to make a difference yet. I still take care of my head. And I am listening.

I am a therapist in the restaurant and take care of any problems at home or at work. This is how I hear about the kind of racism my employees are exposed to. Someone is going to tell me, “Oh, that person was spat on.” Another will share: “So and so was pushed onto the train.” These are the stories I hear, but when I sit down with those who have lived this, they say, “Oh, it’s okay.” I think Chinese Americans and Asian Americans in general are humble. They suck it up and take care of it. But I want to make sure that my employees have someone to come to, either myself or my management team, to talk about these things.

Since it was such a roller coaster, we got excited about the smallest things. As a few weeks ago, we were able to officially open for a dine-in capacity of 35 percent. We said, “Oh my god, we can bring seven more people into the dining room!” About 75 percent of my employees have the vaccine. We take these small profits.

This year felt so long, so much longer than 12 months. It was definitely the longest year of my life. The pandemic brought me back to the first day I ran a restaurant, pushing dumplings, and connecting with the community.

While I was packing these Goldbelly orders, I was reading the messages people are sending with them. They range from “Sorry, we couldn’t get together this year, but hopefully we can have a pig in Chinatown soon” to “Hey mom and dad, here are some dumplings” or even “Happy Birthday!” We couldn’t party but do you remember the great food we had at Nom Wah? “This is the news we got from Maine to Florida to Alaska to Hawaii. It was so heartwarming. It reminds me that people care about Chinatown. I feel urged to do more.

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