Peter Lee is the owner of Hop Kee restaurant in New York City, known for its Lobster Chinese Style, Chicken Lomein, Beef Chow Fun, and other classic Chinese dishes.
The restaurant which opened in 1968 by Lee’s father, is near and dear to the Chinatown community. Lee says he started to see the first economic impacts of the coronavirus in January of 2020, but it wasn’t until March that business went down 50% to 70%. On any given day, Hop Kee would have 40 to 50 covers, but by March, he’d consider himself lucky if he could even get 20 covers a day.
When the pandemic hit, Grace Young, who lives in New York City, saw the impact on her beloved Chinatown and decided to do something about it. On March 15th2020, she began Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories an oral history project with videographer Dan Ahn, in collaboration with Poster House, documenting the stories of how Manhattan’s Chinatown has been impacted by Covid19.
Most of Lee’s employees have been working at the business for 10 to 15 years. On March 15th, when Grace Young interviewed Peter Lee, she learned because of the pandemic, he had made the difficult decision to close the restaurant after 52 years. “I’m not happy about this, but the situation is leaving no choice but closing”, said Lee with tears in his eyes.
The emotional video testimonial is just one of the many that Grace Young is gathering in an effort to save Chinatown.
A Chinese American writer and author, Grace Young is one of the leading experts in Chinese cooking in the country. She has devoted her career to celebrating wok cookery through her cookbooks and videos. Young’s accolades include a James Beard Digital Awards for her video comedy Wok Therapist, a James Beard cookbook award for Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, and an IACP award for the cookbook The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, among many more awards.
“In March, April and May, Chinatown was looking like an empty Hollywood set”, Young said. With many Chinese workers refusing to come to work afraid of getting Covid19, or afraid of violence from hate crimes against them, Chinatown was facing one of the biggest crises in its history.
Hate crimes against the Chinese people increased dramatically since the pandemic hit. Calling the Coronavirus the China virus is irresponsible rhetoric.
The community is losing legacy businesses that have been in Chinatown for 40 to 50 years. Last month, New York City regulators permitted indoor dining with 25% capacity. But for some restaurants in Chinatown, 25% capacity means they only get to serve a few tables.
If restaurants could compensate for other sources like delivery or take out, maybe they could survive, but in many cases, restaurants don’t even have a web site. You can’t even order online. “These restaurants are operating as if they were back in the 1950s. And this old way of conducting business contributes to the problem”, Young said.
The Chinese business model for a restaurant is based on volume. Once the owner pays for all the costs, how much profit can they make by selling a soup at $6.50 a bowl? The profit margins are so low, you have to sell hundreds of bowls of soup to make a profit.
But these days, New York is missing 67 million tourists, 300,000 lower Manhattan office workers, and 4 million subway riders every day. Chinatown is on life support and it’s quickly slipping away.
Young is afraid that if we lose Chinatown, we’ll start seeing the big blockbuster stores come in, and Manhattan will lose one of the most important cultural and historic centers. And why does it matter?
It matters because Chinatown represents diversity and inclusiveness. Many Chinese immigrants came to this country in search of the American dream. Chinatown has historically been the gateway for Chinese immigrants giving them a foothold into this country. More importantly, Chinatown tells the story of what it means to be American. They are linked to the past, and when we lose the past, we lose a part of ourselves.
If you’d like to support Chinatown, be sure to patronize all the small mom and pop shops in addition to your favorite Chinese restaurants. Your help could be the next step toward keeping this community alive in New York City, and in other Chinatowns around the country.