Now order some take-out, stat.

By Karen Shimizu
December 16, 2020
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Shanghai 21 Soup Dumplings
Credit: Sarah Crowder

This year has been a rough one for all restaurants, but Chinese restaurants have had it worse than most: they were hit first, and were hit particularly hard.

“All restaurants across the country are suffering, but all restaurants haven’t had the added burden of being shunned for being Chinese,” says award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher Grace Young. “Chinese restaurants are the only ones that have been singled out and blamed. They’ve been hurting since last January, when people were shunning Chinatown.”

Mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants have historically relied on low prices to draw a high volume of foot traffic, and were ill-equipped to pivot to a delivery-only model, Young says. “The Chinatown business model is stuck in the 1950s. That’s part of what makes it so charming. It’s so gutsy and gritty. In general, it’s a cash-only model—43% of Chinatown restaurants don’t even have websites. Many of them have just scanned a menu. And their razor-thin profit margins can’t do a delivery app on top of that.”

Ping's Dim Sum
Credit: Sarah Crowder

As she watched independent Chinese restaurants struggle to keep afloat while franchises like P.F. Chang’s secured millions of dollars in PPP loans, Young realized she needed to lend a hand.Young is doing everything she can to save Chinese restaurants, drawing attention to what makes them precious as well as what makes them vulnerable. She produced a video series, Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories which The Smithsonian featured in their recent Food History Weekend celebration, and has spoken up for Chinatown on ABC’s Localish, and All Things Considered and The World on PRI. At the end of this month, she’ll be part of a Zoom event at the Museum of Food and Drink exploring the tradition, for many Jewish families, of eating Chinese food on Christmas.

Her latest project is an appeal directly to the people on whom Chinese restaurants depend: all of us.

In partnership with the James Beard Foundation, Young launched the Save Chinese Restaurants campaign on Instagram, encouraging readers to order a meal from their local Chinese restaurant, and to post a photo with the hashtag #SaveChineseRestaurants, tagging the Beard Foundation.

“Many of these mom-and-pop establishments aren’t able to make their voices heard,” Young says. “They don’t do social media and can’t get the word out. The only thing that can save them is foot traffic.”

The campaign has drawn support from notable food writers and personalities, cookbook authors, and Chinese culinary experts, including Kenji Lopez-Alt, Maricel Presilla, Hsiao-Ching Chou, and Carolyn Phillips. Young says she has been moved—sometimes to tears—by the response so far. “In this time of COVID, it’s the stories from ordinary (in the best sense) people that are often most touching to read,” she says, like the grandchild who posted about eating winter melon soup for grandma’s 98th birthday at Kirin, in San Francisco, wondering if such Chinese banquet restaurants will survive the pandemic.

One post from London, about restaurants that have closed in that city, was especially poignant, says Young. “It’s a powerful reminder that we can never again take our mom and pop Chinese restaurants for granted.”

“[The post] mentions how so many restaurants there have permanently closed or are struggling to survive, but reminds us that gathering in a Chinese restaurant has become a traditional part of family life for so many of us, near and far," Young says. "Of course, we don’t know how all this will end, [since] as we live in a xenophobic world where some of these beloved eateries have actually, and unbelievably, been vandalized and closed. It’s a powerful reminder that we can never again take our mom and pop Chinese restaurants for granted.”

It may seem like a small thing, but every order counts, Young says. “I truly believe if we could get the public to participate in our campaign, it might bring enough business to help Chinese eateries survive.”

Young shared her favorite posts from the #SaveChineseRestaurants campaign—including posts from notable food writers and personalities, cookbook authors, and Chinese culinary experts—below. Taken together, they’re a love letter to Chinese restaurants across the United States. To participate, order from your local Chinese restaurant, take a picture of your order, and share it on Instagram with the hashtag #SaveChineseRestaurants, tagging @beardfoundation.