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Protecting Chinatowns

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America’s Chinatowns

There are plenty of memorable places in the United States where immigrants and their descendants have their own communities. The Chinatowns built around the US are prime examples.

When we think of Chinatowns, we often think of their culture, delicious foods, and restaurants. They are also places where we learn about American history. Many people work in Chinatowns, including cooks, shopkeepers, dentists, doctors, nurses, database administrators, bankers, tea shop owners, receptionists, and social workers.

Chinatown is one of my favorite places to go in New York because it makes me feel connected to Chinese American culture, and I know many special people who are Chinese American, including two of my cousins.

Chinatowns at Risk

However, since COVID-19, many Chinatowns in America are in crisis and are on the brink of disappearing. When the pandemic gripped New York, Chinatown’s workforce was impacted more than the rest of the state. At the beginning of the pandemic, some restaurants and shops in Chinatown lost as much as 80% of their business because people were afraid to go there, believing they could catch COVID-19.

Tourism dropped and, according to China Daily, local businesses lost 57% of their culinary service jobs. Chinatown also lost 28% of retail careers. By 2021, visits to Chinatown plummeted by 50%.

One of the main reason why Chinatowns are in danger of disappearing – and why many people there are unemployed – is that racism and hate crimes continue to be a threat. Because the pandemic started in China, Asian American people have been targeted by racist attacks. It’s hard to imagine what many Asian Americans, including those in Chinatowns, have been dealing with. The anti-Asian hate crimes are a prime example of how bigotry can lead to severe consequences. However, it’s good to know that people are taking racism and discrimination very seriously.

Helping Chinatowns

Although Chinatowns are shrinking, preservation groups like The National Trust for Historic Preservation are doing whatever they can to preserve and save them. For example, Di Gao, senior director of research and policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, hosted a roundtable in February 2023, bringing preservationists, planners, researchers, storytellers, Chinatown organizations, and others to discuss the future of Chinatowns and how to save them.

Group leaders are doing everything they can to grow and support cultural preservation efforts. Every Chinatown is unique, but people are creating a connection between Chinatowns to share solutions and overcome many problems. It is also important to ask and answer questions about what it means to preserve a thriving community, what methods and policies we have to protect Chinatowns, and what will happen if we lose them.

I interviewed Grace Young, a friend of my family’s and award-winning cookbook author, culinary historian, and filmmaker who is Chinese American. Grace is committed to getting Chinatowns back on their feet.
What do you do for a living?

Grace: Before the pandemic, I was a food writer and cookbook author specializing in Chinese cuisine. I’m known as the Stir Fry Guru and the Wok Therapist. Since the pandemic, I am called the “Accidental Voice of Chinatown” because of my advocacy for America’s Chinatowns.

How are you connected to Chinatowns?

Grace: I grew up in San Francisco, and my family and I had close ties to Chinatown. Uncles and aunties owned businesses in Chinatown, and my father was a liquor salesman who worked in Chinatown. When I arrived in New York City, I immediately went to Chinatown. Since then, I’ve gone there at least two or three times a week to eat and shop.

What problems are Chinatowns facing?

Grace: 98% of the businesses in Chinatown are mom and pop restaurants and shops. In this day and age, it is enormously challenging for any mom and pop business to survive. The businesses in Chinatown operate with razor-thin profit margins. So when you have inflation, you have supply chain issues, and you have dramatically less tourism and foot traffic.

In addition to that, locals are fearful of anti-Asian hate crimes, which are a major part of why businesses are struggling. Chinatowns across the country are all reporting less business at night because locals are scared to come out. In New York City’s Chinatown, we’re also dealing with the city’s plan to to demolish the current jail in Chinatown and erect a mega jail.

What are you doing to raise awareness for Chinatowns?

Grace: I partnered with the James Beard Foundation on three social media campaigns. The current one is #supportchinatowns, and that grew out of other campaigns, #LoveAAPI and #savechineserestaurants, which started in the Fall of 2020. Now I’ve raised money to support restaurants to feed those in need, and provide personal security alarms and for workers and seniors.

At the start of the pandemic, I did a video series, called Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, to raise public awareness of the struggles of businesses in New York City’s Chinatown. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve taken the media into Chinatown to educate the public on what’s happening. I’ve talked to the PBS NewsHour, the BBC Radio, All Things Considered, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and CBS Mornings.

How does your cooking play a role in your efforts to save Chinatowns?

Grace: I think my background as a Chinese American cookbook author made me an ideal advocate to speak up for America’s Chinatowns.

What changes would you like to see to protect Chinatowns?

Grace: First, for New York City’s Chinatown, I would love to see the end of the city’s plan to demolish the jail in Chinatown and to erect the new mega jail. Second, I would love to see federal and state funding to Chinatowns across the country to support these mom and pop businesses. Third, I’ve been raising public awareness of the importance of not taking Chinatown for granted. It’s also important to show our support of Chinatowns by patronizing restaurants, markets and shops, since they’ve been struggling for three years.

I think diversity in America is important because each and every one of us plays a major role in influencing positive change, as well as learning to appreciate one another regardless of our differences. If we lose Chinatowns, it will be like losing our identity and erasing a part of what makes America, America. But if we help save these communities, it’ll play a major part in restoring hope to the people living there, as well as our country.

Grace says, “Chinatowns are the ultimate American story. Long before the Chinese came, the Irish, Italians, Germans, and the Jews lived in New York City’s Chinatown. This place tells the American immigrant story.”

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