Seattle’s Chinatown International District has faced a challenging year, and now, with the holiday season underway, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to throw curveballs at the businesses in the CID neighborhood. 

According to Valerie Tran, operations director for Friends of Little Saigon (FLS), the past nine months have been difficult for CID business owners, especially those who speak little to no English. “They have struggled to understand the rapidly changing mandates and restrictions that impact their operations and business,” Tran said. “Many of them have had to learn how to apply for grants and loans in order to stay afloat.” 

But these businesses didn’t have to struggle alone, with help coming from FLS as well as the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Association (CIDBIA) and Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda).

With this aid, many businesses have shifted their practices to include delivery, more take-out options, and curbside pick-up. “Some restaurants have come up with creative partnerships or collaborations with other retailers or other restaurants,” Tran said. “They have hosted pop-ups, sold combo packages, or have served as a point of sale for others.” 

For example, Pho Bac Sup Shop began using a Pho Mobile, which was formerly a parking enforcement vehicle purchased at auction, and has partnered with Mangosteen Boba Bar.  A few blocks away, Crawfish King has offered at DIY model, selling both a cooking pot and a crawfish mix all together. 

Crawfish King has made their Vietnamese Cajun seafood pots available by to-go and pick-up orders. Enjoy the spice and flavor in your own home. Photo by Jill Wasberg

Tran reports that many CID businesses have boosted their online and social media presence to improve their connections with customers. “However, many businesses in the CID still lack access to technology or the internet and do not have experience building an online presence,” she said. “The CID Biz Relief Team (CIDBIA, SCIDpda, and FLS) is embarking on an effort to achieve greater digital equity in the neighborhood, and supporting businesses in getting online and bringing in sales that way.” 

These strategies have allowed Oasis Tea Zone to offer a boba kit, and Chengdu Memory is now selling a hot pot to-go, as well as a combined hot pot plus milk tea.  The neighborhood staple grocer, Uwajimaya, has shifted to curbside pickup.  

Uwajimaya began offering curbside pick up. Photo by Jill Wasberg.

Meanwhile, Moksha, a clothing and gift shop that moved from the University District to the International District in 2017, has pivoted toward offering yoga classes and sound therapeutic sessions that they call the Biom Experience, involving meditation to the sound of gongs and crystal singing bowls. “Before the pandemic, we were planning on opening a new yoga/meditation studio in another building,” co-owner Robin Guilfoil said. “When we had to close Moksha for the lockdown, we decided to give the Biom concept a chance and we renovated the inside of Moksha instead.” 

While the pandemic is a new experience, creative marketing has long been a strategy for Moksha. “To bring people into our store, we have always hosted art events of all kinds,” Guilfoil said. “The Biom Experience is what we can offer our community this year, as it’s a safe and therapeutic environment designed for the restrictions imposed by lockdown.” 

Moksha owners Robin Guilfoil and Karleen Ilagan set the meditative mood with sound therepy using crystal bowls and gongs in their shop on King Street. Photo courtesy of @mokshaseattle on Instagram.

This redirection has been key to survival for a business that relies on walk-in customers and in-person sales.  “We also take a trip to Bangkok each year to buy for Moksha and we were not able to do that this year,” said co-owner Karleen Ilagan.  “We are not considered an essential business, and it has been hard to focus on fashion and art when there are so many other crises going on this year.” 

The most recent set of guidelines has been particularly discouraging, but Guilfoil and Ilagan have applied for the latest round of grants. “Tending to our plants brings us peace,” Ilagan said. “Practicing patience and listening has been our philosophy this year.” 

Tran reports that other businesses have persevered, including hosting a $6 Food Walk throughout the CID that was held on November 28.  And numerous new businesses braved the challenge of opening in 2020, including Phin Vietnamese Coffee, Chengdu Taste, Susu, Phnom Penh Noodle House, and Hello Em Viet Coffee & Roastery, while Dochi reopened to sell its Japanese Mochi donuts. 

And another anchor of the CID, the Wing Luke Museum of the Pacific Asian American Experience, has also pivoted to address the pandemic. “With a concerted effort from our staff, we were able to create a Digital Wing Luke page that showcased our new online programs including Virtual Tours, online shop, and online artist talks and programming,” said Shaun Mejia, marketing manager for the Wing Luke Museum. “Our Historic Hotel Tour and quarterly Food Tours have been thoughtfully reinterpreted to an online format and allows for higher attendance from the comfort of home.”

The leadership at the Wing Luke Museum saw that the pandemic impacted the Chinatown International District neighborhood not only financially, but also socially. “During this time, we ran campaigns and partnered with organizations to help uplift the neighborhood and bring folks in safely,” Mejia said. “We ran a Takeout Bingo with SCIDpda to help support restaurants and partnered with some neighborhood chefs for our virtual Dinner Date with History food tours.” 

The Wing Luke Museum also maintained its emphasis on the creative arts.  “We ran a Love Letters to the CID campaign to have folks send in art about the neighborhood, which later became a temporary outdoor exhibit in Canton Alley,” Mejia said. “Beyond our different virtual programs like Instagram Artist Chats that we used to showcase APA artists, we are also planning an exhibit around COVID-19 and gathering stories from the neighborhood opening sometime in the Spring of 2021.” 

The Museum’s exhibits are closed, per the current state closure guidelines, but its Marketplace remains open this holiday season on Fridays through Sundays from 10 AM to 5 PM each weekend.  “We hope to open back up December 15 depending on the Governor’s mandates,” Mejia said. “We remain optimistic as we head into 2021.”     

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