Red lanterns and festive decorations adorn many store fronts along the narrow streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, where Lunar New Year celebrations are well under way.
Longtime resident Karlin Chan, unfazed by the frigid February morning, nods to bundled up locals carrying grocery bags and chats with store owners.
“Everyone is optimistic about the future,” Chan said. “A new year signals a new beginning and we are going to build on that.”
In many ways, Chinatown’s experience mirrors that of Asian-American communities across the United States during the pandemic: businesses were shunned and verbal abuse and attacks rose to alarming levels.
As the pandemic enters its third year, however, interviews with business owners, activists and residents revealed a sense of hope in the historic New York City neighborhood as the Lunar New Year began last week.
“Despite all of the predictions of doom and gloom, I think there’s a certain hopefulness,” said Amy Chin, a longtime community organizer. “And you can see the resilience and also the resourcefulness of the community.”
National attention on hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) gained wide attention in March when a man opened fire in three Atlanta-area spas, killing eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent.
Despite a nationwide outpouring of alarm and support, the violence and verbal harassment have continued. In San Francisco, preliminary statistics released in January showed a six-fold spike in hate crimes against AAPI communities in 2021.
In New York, anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 shot up 361%, according to data released in December by a New York Police Department (NYPD) task force.
Experts attribute the heightened racism in part to incendiary, false rhetoric that blamed Asian Americans for the spread of coronavirus.
“We know that this is an ongoing and persistent issue,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, which counted more than 10,300 hate incidents from March 2020 to September 2021.
That is the “tip of the iceberg,” Kulkarni said, noting the underreporting of incidents, opaqueness about what constitutes a hate crime, and language barriers mean the actual number is likely far higher.
The NYPD has added patrols to Asian communities, including additional undercover officers, while neighborhoods have launched watch programs to enhance the sense of security.
“You’ve got to go on living, you’re not going to hide at home in fear,” said Chan, who founded the Chinatown Block Watch early in the pandemic.
‘LIKE A RENAISSANCE’
Jimmy Fong thought the worst was over when droves of tourists returned to Chinatown’s Mott Street last summer and fall. Once more, customers filled his restaurant, Cha Kee.
“Then Omicron hit,” said Fong, 43.
Foot traffic dried up, even as prices for food and other goods rose rapidly, he said. Cha Kee has survived thanks in part to government assistance, but others have closed for good.
Restaurant spending slumped 96% in Chinatown in 2020 as tourists dwindled, versus an 85% decline citywide, according to a report by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.
Financial aid from federal and local agencies has provided some relief. New York City’s Department of Small Business Services said nearly $10.1 million was awarded in loans or grants to Chinatown businesses through the pandemic.
But community leaders cite hurdles that have curtailed access for some Asian-American businesses, ranging from language barriers to how aid programs were set up.
Disbursements, initially by zip code, meant some Chinatown businesses that share their code with the wealthier neighborhoods of SoHo and Tribeca were excluded from a city loan program for small businesses in lower income areas.
Funds available through the federal Paycheck Protection Program could not be used for rent and other operational costs that AAPI leaders said were critical for small businesses.
“I think this pandemic has really shown the flaws in our system,” New York City Council Member Christopher Marte said in an interview.
Some businesses – even new ones – are nonetheless making it. Elizabeth Yee opened Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodles in October 2019, five months before New York City shut down.
“The first couple of months was very scary,” said Yee, 27, at Tonii’s, a long and narrow eatery on a tightly packed Chinatown block.
Yee’s family poured their resources into her business. Community organizations and volunteers helped her access financial aid and establish the restaurant’s online business.
“I feel community has a much deeper meaning,” she said.
For Yin Kong, director and co-founder of non-profit Think!Chinatown, the pandemic led many people to become more involved in their community and culture.
“Just like a renaissance of the Asian-American movements,” Kong said. “I’m very optimistic for our community.”