Chinatown Needs Your Love More Than Ever Right Now
I live in New York City within easy walking distance of Chinatown, and I shop there at least once a week. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, in Wuhan, China, I’ve been coming more often to see how things are going. For sure, the neighborhood has lacked its usual liveliness. I’ve missed jostling with the old ladies shopping for produce, so last week, I was relieved to see more people on the streets and in stores, giving me hope that we are returning to “normal.”
Then I walked around the corner onto Mott Street and saw the shuttered storefront of the usually bustling Hoy Wong, one of Chinatown’s oldest restaurants. Normally the window is filled with racks of roast duck, soy sauce chicken, and roast pork that make my mouth water and distract me from the dilapidated façade of the 100-plus-year old building. Hoy Wong was the real thing: a throwback to old Chinatown, part of the bedrock of restaurants and shops on which the Chinese community depends. It was one of my go-to spots for sandpot chicken or take-out roast pork. I loved the old-world atmosphere where customers were never rushed and the food was authentic and consistently delicious.
I stood staring in disbelief at the darkened storefront before noticing a woman emerging from the front door, carrying an armload of shopping bags. I felt I had to speak to her. Reluctant to talk at first, she told me that she was a friend of the owners. She said that over the past few weeks, coronavirus paranoia had decimated the restaurant’s business. The lease was coming up for renewal, and after considering their options the owners concluded that they had no choice but to close up for good.
Three stores down, in stark contrast to Hoy Wong, is Keki Modern Cakes—a spare, gleaming, modern storefront seemingly made for Instagram with its photogenic “bouncy cheesecake.” For the last few years, trendy places like Keki, novelty ice cream, mochi, and bubble tea spots, have begun making major inroads into Chinatown. I was already concerned about the danger that these changing tastes pose to venerable businesses like Hoy Wong and Chinatown itself. Now I worry that COVID-19 might just be the final blow.
The next day on Eater, I saw a headline proclaiming that the mall-friendly chain P.F. Chang’s will be opening a 2,000-square-foot take-out / delivery / catering-only “restaurant concept” in the Financial District. Then a perfunctory paragraph, headed “In other news” stated that “42-year-old Chinatown institution Hoy Wong has closed up shop.” It made me think, if food media doesn’t understand the significance of Hoy Wong’s closing, who does?
The New York I fell in love with when I arrived in 1979 is fast disappearing. The unique little stores, diners, coffee shops, boutiques, indie bookstores, movie theaters, and cafés that gave the city so much charm and character have been replaced by big-box chains, ever proliferating bank branches, fast-food outlets, block-long drugstores, and high-rise luxury condos. The city government gives plenty of lip service to supporting small businesses, but legislation that would put teeth into it has been stuck in political wrangling for 35 years. Gentrification is stripping New York of its heart and soul.
It’s definitely happening in Chinatown. On the corner of Elizabeth and Grand Streets stands a huge, brightly illuminated GNC store at the base of a new apartment building. I’ve yet to see it packed with Chinese customers. As rents rise, and residents order more and more items online, mom-and-pop shops will falter. Beautiful old buildings will come down, paving the way for businesses that have no natural place in Chinatown.
Now, with gentrification already under way, the COVID-19 panic and the xenophobia it has engendered may very well spell the end of Chinatown as we know it. Family businesses that were already hanging by a thread could be wiped out. Hoy Wong may be the shape of things to come. Since the epidemic in far-off Hubei province hit the headlines, business in Chinatown has dropped between 40 and 80 percent. Patronage by locals has collapsed and China’s travel ban has virtually destroyed Chinese tourism. To put things in perspective, this year in the United States, millions of people have been sickened by the seasonal flu, and thousands have died and yet businesses remained unaffected. In contrast, the coronavirus panic has led to a severe loss of customers in Chinatown’s shops and restaurants. How long can any business sustain such a steep drop in income?
According to Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, 98 percent of Chinatown’s economy consists of small businesses. Historically, profit margins in Chinatown are razor thin. At New Shing Hing produce I can buy a pound of the freshest baby bok choy for $1.60. At my local supermarket it’s $3.99 a pound, and at the Union Square Greenmarket in the summer, a small bunch weighing less than a pound sells for $2. The Chinatown business model is dependent on volume, and when customers spend 40 to 80 percent less than usual, profits evaporate.
Chinese restaurants are even more vulnerable. They have long struggled because Chinese food is perceived as a “cheap meal.” But once the owner has paid for the ingredients, labor, rent, insurance, property and business taxes, water, electricity, and sanitation, how much profit could there possibly be in a $6.50 bowl of wonton soup? Necessarily, the Chinese business model is based on volume, but if customers avoid Chinatown, more restaurants will succumb to the fate of Hoy Wong.
Labor costs have risen dramatically in recent years, further shaving already slim profit margins—one of the many reasons for the steady decline in Chinese restaurants nationally. Restaurant work is labor-intensive and grueling. Chen says, “The average Chinese restaurant can easily have 10 to 20 employees, each earning $30,000 per year.” In the past few weeks, with so little money coming in, many Chinatown business owners have been forced to pay their staff’s salaries from their own savings. Often the employees have been with them for decades and are almost like family themselves. But business owners can’t absorb the downturn too much longer.
Addressing the coronavirus devastation, local politicians have been promoting a new campaign called Show Some Love For Chinatown. I totally appreciate the sentiment of “Dine, Shop & Support” our local merchants, but I’d say it’s much more dire and urgent. At this moment, Chinatown is on life support and needs more than our showing up for an occasional meal or visit to shop. We need to be there regularly, supporting the restaurants and all the small businesses and cultural institutions in any way we can.
These days, my Chinese-American friends Mel and Richard Young have been eating at all their favorite Chinatown restaurants much more often, leaving tips that exceed the cost of the meal. “We know they’re suffering,” say my friends. You don’t have to follow their extravagant example, but it’s that kind of attitude that will boost morale and help Chinatown recover.
“You can find just about everything in Chinatown,” says my friend Jan Lee, who—like his father—was born and raised here. “I can walk one big circle and I have everything. Restaurants I’ve been eating at all my life, my doctor, dentist, ophthalmologist, lawyer, accountant, pharmacist, butcher, fishmonger, produce guy, fruit vendor, barber, shoe repairman, tailor, food market, eye glass store, bakery, hardware shop, bank, and even the place where I buy my appliances are all within an eight-block radius.”
He continued, “Recently when my uncle died, we used the funeral home which is around the corner. Chinatown spoils me. We are a neighborhood cradle to grave. It’s a delicate balance, a unique experience. Still and all, you can live here your whole life and not know Chinatown. There are always new things to discover.”
For me, Manhattan's Chinatown is the last bastion, the last real neighborhood in New York that transports us back to the way the city used to be. Like San Francisco’s Chinatown, it’s a link to the past. The newer Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn offer great dining destinations and food shopping, but they don’t vibrate with the ancestral rhythms of Manhattan’s Mott, Bayard, Baxter, Pell, and Doyers Streets, where you find an age-old sense of community and history.
I believe in Chinatown’s resilience, but it can’t bounce back on its own. We’ve taken Chinatown for granted, assuming it will always be there, but if we don’t come to the rescue right now it could slip away. What we are saving is one of the most important centers for Chinese cuisine and culture in this country and a historic neighborhood that represents the American immigrant story. For those of us who love Chinatowns, wherever they may be, this is our time to step up.
A Highly Opinionated Chinatown Guide
You can bolster Chinatown’s economy in so many ways. Like my friend Jan Lee I rely on Chinatown for everything. It’s not just about eating. Here’s a collection of some of the cool and quirky places I love.
Note: There are plenty of places to buy woks in New York’s Chinatown but as a native San Franciscan I have to give a special shout out to Tane Chan, the owner of The Wok Shop in my hometown, which has been in business on Grant Ave for 52 years. On February 24, 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi awarded The Wok Shop the Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for outstanding and invaluable service to the community.
Housewares, Staples, and Services
Po Wing Hong
Since 1980, a family-owned food market that’s my go-to for Chinese pantry staples and herbs, as well as my new obsession, Taiwanese Brown Sugar Boba Ice Cream Bars.
49 Elizabeth St.
KK Discount Store
KK Discount Store is the pride and joy of Mr. & Mrs. Li who have been in business for over 30 years. It’s a Chinatown mom-and-pop version of Target selling rice cookers, cleavers, steamers, and housewares items—a one-stop-shop for all your daily needs.
78 Mulberry St.
In front of the store, a vendor sells the most popular items from the shop like fresh rice noodles, pristine mung bean and soybean sprouts.
212 Grand St.
Lin Sister Herb Shop
The widest selection of traditional remedies, with English-speaking staff who can explain the finer points.
Mee Li Fruits and Vegetables (57 Elizabeth St.), Hung Lee (79 Bayard St.), and New Shing Hing (141 Mott St.) for high quality fresh produce.
Mulberry Street just south of Canal for sidewalk vendors offering the most incredible selection of tropical and seasonal fruits.
Mark’s Wine and Spirits
A liquor store that includes an extensive selection of Shao Hsing, white, and herb wines.
53 Mott St.
An old world experience for buying beef and pork jerky.
58 Mulberry St.
New Hai Can Seafood Corp. (71 Mulberry St.) and Aqua Best, Inc. (276 Grand St.) for fresh and live fish and seafood.
Wing On Wo & Co.
Chinatown’s oldest store, founded in 1890, is still run by three generations. The store specializes in classic porcelain tableware and is also home to The W.O.W Project, an art space and center for community lectures.
26 Mott St.
Ah Bao the Cobbler
Repairs shoes while sitting on a little stool on the sidewalk (he also sharpens knives and scissors) at super reasonable prices.
120 Elizabeth St.
Ting’s Gift Shop
The last old-fashioned souvenir shop in Chinatown, in business for more than 60 years.
18 Doyers St.
Repair Watch & Jewelry
A sidewalk watch repairman works from a makeshift stand 7 days a week, replacing watch batteries and watchbands for under $10.
NE corner of Mott and Grand Sts., next to 205 Grand St.
Renew Day Spa II
This spa has five plush leather chairs so you and your friends can get a foot massage after you’ve finished shopping or before your meal. It’s reasonably priced and rejuvenating.
10 Bowery 2nd Fl.
Restaurants and Prepared Foods
For restaurants and prepared food shops, these are just a few favorites of mine and of my Chinatown friends. This list only begins to scratch the surface of Chinatown’s riches. You just have to come, wander around, and explore. Every time I’m in Chinatown I discover something new and unexpected.
Malaysian-French cuisine where you can enjoy chicken satay, a bowl of seafood laksa with a glass of wine and finish the meal with a lavish French fruit tart.
121 Baxter St.
Double Crispy Bakery
One of Chinatown’s best Portuguese-style egg tarts.
230 Grand St.
A combination butcher shop and roast-meat take-out. My friend George Chew, born and raised in Chinatown, is a huge fan of their soy-sauce chicken.
124 Mott St.
Known for their Hong Kong-style dim sum, crabmeat crunchy fried rice, and prawns with walnuts and XO sauce.
22 Mott St.
Mei Lai Wah
Some locals love the cha siu bao (baked barbecued-pork buns) so much they buy them by the dozens.
64 Bayard St.
A favorite of famed Chinese-American photojournalist Corky Lee. When you’re in the mood for retro Chinese restaurant food, they have the best egg foo yung in town, hands-down.
69 Bayard St.
The waiters here know their patrons (and their patrons’ kids) by name. Unapologetic American-Chinese food.
17 Mott St.
Carries on a long family tradition (for over 80 years Fong On Too was the oldest tofu shop in Chinatown) making superb artisanal tofu, tofu pudding and soy milk.
81 Division St.
Green Garden Village
A newcomer that’s been a hit with locals since it opened. Enjoy their Cantonese barbecue items, the roast pork has extra crisp skin with juicy, tender meat, lobster fried glutinous rice and salt and pepper shrimp.
216 Grand St.
Established in 1968, this classic Cantonese institution was a favorite of Anthony Bourdain. People will drive for hours to enjoy their crab or lobster Chinese style.
21 Mott St.
Yi Ji Shi Mo
Rice rolls shops are springing up everywhere in Chinatown. At this little take-out, you can watch them making the rice noodle on the stainless-steel steamer. Within a minute it’s cooked and a filling like dried shrimp or barbecued pork is added before it’s rolled up.
88 Elizabeth St.
Wu’s Wonton King
This popular spot is known for their baby roast suckling pig, ethereal wonton served in homemade broth and stir-fried snow pea shoots with dried scallops.
165 E. Broadway
Wonton Garden is a tourist favorite that serves excellent suey gao dumplings, fried chicken wings, and bitter melon and beef on rice.
56 Mott St.
This mom and mom cafe is the place to go for Nyonya cuisine—snacks like curry puffs, belacan chicken wings, and sambal sautéed water spinach are soooo good.
151 East Broadway
Locals love their chiu chow-style duck and chicken.
80 Bayard St.
Delectable Malaysian food; the beef rendang and “drunk man” noodles are super popular.
11 Mott St.
Golden Fung Wong Bakery
A throwback to old Chinatown, with moon cakes of every kind.
41 Mott St.
Lung Moon Bakery
Known for their curry puffs and sesame balls with sweet bean filling.
81 Mulberry St.
Taiwan Pork Chop House
Old timers love their beef stew noodle soup. Season it to taste with their incredible homemade condiments.
3 Doyers St.
Outstanding shrimp wonton noodle soup and braised beef brisket tendon lo mein.
13 Mott St.
Known for their xiao long bao (soup dumplings) with paper thin wrappers and minced chicken with pine nuts.
21 Mott St.
Yin Kong of ThinkChinatown.org pointed out to me that Bayard Street from Elizabeth to Mulberry Street has become a “dessert walk,” and what a lineup it is.
Mango Mango Dessert
This is heaven for mango lovers. Every kind of drink and dessert, from snow white mango slush to mango mochi.
63 Bayard St.
Malaysian favorites including apam balik, a crepe filled with pulverized peanuts, sugar and butter.
64A Bayard St.
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
Famous for their lychee, taro, black sesame and red bean ice creams.
65 Bayard St.
Huge selection of traditional and modern desserts and drinks including tofu custard, black sesame paste with glutinous rice balls, and stewed papaya.
67 Bayard St.
Many swear that the individual sponge cakes are the best in town and they’re still only $1!
83B Bayard St. and 118 Baxter St.
Terrific matcha mochi donuts and boba milk tea cream puffs. Their bite-size munchkin donut holes are made to order and served piping hot.
89A Bayard St.
A delicious, milky-tasting soft-serve ice cream with unusual syrup toppings like hazelnut or mint.
69A Bayard St.