New York's Chinatown pulls together to brighten the Covid darkness

Diana Hubbell
·7 min read

Last spring, Patrick Mock, the manager of 46 Mott Bakery, stepped out of his shop and into darkness. Mott Street, in the middle of Manhattan’s Chinatown, would normally have been bustling: from the bars on Doyers Street to restaurants such as Wo Hop, a Cantonese stalwart opened in 1938. However, racism towards Asian Americans – driven by unfounded coronavirus fears – had devastated local businesses. Even the normally raucous Lunar New Year celebrations had seen less than half the usual crowds.

Related: ‘People are scared’: New York City’s Chinatown takes hit over coronavirus fears

“By January [2020], we’d already lost 60% to 70% of our business, whereas if you went across the street to Little Italy, they were still busy and booming,” says Mock. “The Lunar New Year is normally our busiest time, but because of xenophobia and racism, we lost all that. The month after was the shutdown. It was hit after hit.”

After New York banned on-premises dining on 17 March to slow the spread of Covid-19, the city’s bars and restaurants frantically pivoted to takeaway service. Establishments that lacked the digital platforms or financial resources to do so struggled: nearly 90% of businesses in Chinatown halted operations altogether. One of the few to remain open was 46 Mott Bakery.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, I was giving out free hot meals to anyone who needed it. When everyone started to see what we were doing, they wanted to chip in,” says Mock.

Hot meals helped, but Mock knew it would take more than that for local businesses to weather the economic hardship. Covid has devastated New York’s restaurant industry, and Chinatown’s restaurants – with their modest profit margins, minimal digital platforms and limited space for outdoor dining – are especially vulnerable. Even during the summer, as business began to rebound elsewhere, Chinatown’s normally bustling streets remained all but deserted, especially after dark.

“All the shops were closed and the street lights, especially on Mott Street, were broken, so after 5pm it was pitch-black,” says Mock. “I thought, we need more lighting, because no one wants to go down a dark street. I wanted it to become a group project that would bring the community together.”

That idea was the start of Light Up Chinatown, a permanent art installation of fuchsia, gold and flame-coloured lanterns that first brightened Mott Street on 23 December. Just as Mock had hoped, it took a united effort to make it happen. Volunteer group Send Chinatown Love raised more than $48,000 for the initiative, Broadway retailer Pearl River Mart provided the lanterns, and local artists commissioned by Think!Chinatown, a nonprofit advocacy group, painted custom designs on each one. Rooted in Chinese history, yet with a modern twist, the lanterns are a fitting symbol for the way a new generation of grassroots activists are stepping up to help out.

“This is us giving back to a community that’s given us so much,” says Justin McKibben, founder of Send Chinatown Love. “It’s our love letter to Chinatown.”

The lanterns are a fitting symbol for a the way a new generation of grassroots activists are stepping up to help out

Prior to the shutdown last March, McKibben, a software engineer who lives in Chinatown, saw that 88 Lan Zhou, one of his favourite spots for dumplings, appeared to be closed. As he skateboarded around the area, he noticed other closures going unreported by the media. McKibben posted on Instagram that he wanted to raise money to support restaurant owners. One by one, friends-of-friends reached out and Send Chinatown Love was born.

Since then, Send Chinatown Love has grown to more than 200 part-time volunteers, who provide financial relief to independent businesses, donate meal vouchers from restaurants to food pantries and nursing homes, and promote individual walking food crawls of Chinatown via their Instagram account. And while it wasn’t able to save 88 Lan Zhou, it did raise more than $20,000 to donate 1,000 bags of frozen dumplings and offer a lifeline to the owner’s family.

Welcome to Chinatown, founded around the same time by Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee, has raised nearly $650,000, much of which has been given out in the form of donated meals and $5,000 grants to businesses.

“Both of us are children of immigrants and women of colour. This experience has led us to believe that the power for Asian Americans to mobilise is there,” says Tam. “At the same time, the work is far from done. The impact [of Covid-19] on the neighbourhood is so great.”

This is partly because US government schemes such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) have failed to provide adequate aid. Last November, New York City launched the $35m NYC LMI Storefront Loan programme. LMI stands for low-to-moderate income (relating to zip codes), but a large swath of Chinatown found itself ineligible because it shared a zip code with the affluent neighbourhoods of Tribeca and Soho. Yet, 24% of residents in Chinatown live below the poverty line – double the average for New York – and nearly 47% have used food stamps within the past year.

“Chinatown is one of the last working-class neighbourhoods south of Central Park,” says Tam. “Part of the reason why business owners in Chinatown keep their prices so low and their profit margins so thin is so that locals can afford these reasonably priced meals. It’s a testament to the resilience of this community and the fact that people here care about one another.”

Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest in the US, with a history stretching back to when the first Chinese crew members began arriving on trading ships in the 1820s. At the time, New York was a booming port town and the demand for fine silks, porcelains and lacquerwares from China was high. By the 1870s, around 500 Chinese immigrants were living in present-day Chinatown, not far from the loading docks of lower Manhattan. Many of these early arrivals hailed from the rural areas near what is now Guangzhou, although Chinatown’s makeup has always been a cultural mix.

“That’s what makes New York City distinctive,” says Prof John Kuo Wei Tchen, author of New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture. “It was such a large port and you had this intermingling of languages, of cultures, of foodways. Chinatown was always a part of that port culture.”

In 1880, the New York Times dubbed the area around Mott, Doyers and Pell Streets “China Town”. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 brought immigration from China to a standstill, the neighbourhood became increasingly isolated from the rest of Manhattan. It also served as a sanctuary for Chinese immigrants and Asian Americans, who faced discrimination elsewhere in the city. After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Chinatown grew tenfold thanks partly to newcomers from Hong Kong and Vietnam. Today, the area sprawls over roughly 50 blocks, spilling into parts of Little Italy, the Lower East Side and Two Bridges.

While much of Manhattan has gentrified, Chinatown has managed to retain its cultural identity, even as its borders and cultural makeup have shifted. There’s a vibrant arts scene, showcased in events such as the annual Chinatown Arts Week. “The grassroots arts in Chinatown is really the soul of our community. We need to continue the cultural practices in order to keep them,” says Yin Kong, co-founder and director of nonprofit Think!Chinatown.

At the moment, Kong and her colleagues are assembling new year activity boxes for the start of the Year of the Ox, with materials for cooking classes, traditional crafts, and virtual storytelling at home. Even with social distancing measures in place and indoor dining banned for the foreseeable future, Kong wants to keep the traditions alive. And next month’s Lunar New Year is sure to be brighter: an additional 100 lanterns are to illuminate the section of Bayard Street between Mott Street and Bowery on 26 February, the day of the Lantern festival, making for a total of 350 orbs.

“We want to make the Lunar New Year as festive as we can,” says Mock. “I don’t want us to just focus on the bad. The community needs that light at the end of the tunnel.”