SCIDpda volunteers deliver groceries and food to people in the CID in 2020 during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of SCIDpda.

On January 15, Chinatown community leaders in New York City, Toronto, Calgary and Seattle discussed their communities’ responses to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in an online event entitled RESILIENCE! The discussion coincided with an exhibit titled WHAT REALLY DEFINES US? …IT’S COMPLICATED, on view at the Chinese American Arts Council in New York.

In  New York City, Chinatown businesses have suffered, with a loss of millions of tourists and business workers downtown who would ordinarily patronize the area, said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Restaurants had to close in March, but most were not suited to take-out, instead specializing in communal dining, and many stayed closed. Business is down 80 percent throughout the neighborhood.

“This is unprecedented. The losses are huge,” Chen said. While there has been an outpouring of donor and volunteer support for Chinatown, Chen hopes Congress will act soon to provide more small business relief. 

Jennifer Tam, head of marketing and communications for Welcome to Chinatown in New York added that the neighborhood would benefit from more targeted relief from local government, as the neighborhood is divided between zip codes.

In Toronto’s Chinatown, fears of xenophobia abounded. “Asian people were wearing masks first to protect others, but this was almost seen as a self-marker of otherness, in many ways,” said Shellie Zhang, a member of Friends of Chinatown Toronto (FOCT). Chinese bakeries were fined for being self-serve, demonstrating a lack of in-language outreach to these businesses from the city, Zhang said. 

FOCT organizes around concerns about gentrification. Large projects that are unaffordable to residents and business tenants continue moving forward during the pandemic, Zhang said.  “The city has pushed forward on development, seeing it as a priority.” FOCT is advocating for a requirement that new housing in the neighborhood be 100 percent affordable, an eviction moratorium, and protection of legacy businesses, many of which have shut down. 

The closure of community centers impacted seniors, said Annie Wong, another FOCT board member. “Many seniors in Chinatown already face social isolation, and so the pandemic has had numerous social-emotional effects.” 

Calgary’s Chinatown has suffered business shut-downs and vacancies, but not to the extent of others, said Terry Wong, executive director of the Calgary Chinatown Business Improvement Area. The organization has not heard of any business owners or residents in the neighborhood catching COVID-19, Wong added. 

The BIA initiated an aggressive promotional campaign to welcome people to the neighborhood, which has become increasingly popular for young people.

Wong criticized the city government’s COVID-19 response. While federal and provincial officials visited the neighborhood to show support, it took two months for City Council or the Mayor to visit, and they visited a restaurant instead of talking to local organizations, he said.

Some in the neighborhood remain concerned about gentrification, and the willingness of the City to allow massive projects in the neighborhood, said Alice Lam, director of I Love YYC Chinatown Society.

While Lam and Wong agreed with Calgary’s goal of increasing density — which in turn leads to tax revenue for the city — “the flip side is, communities are not just property values, communities are not just taxes,” Wong said.

While the federal government and province provided business loans, many Chinatown businesses could not prove their eligibility, Lam said. In addition, high delivery fees from companies like Doordash meant that even if businesses maintained high revenue, their actual profits shrank. Many businesses opted to stay closed until the lockdown is lifted rather than accept these losses.

Jamie Lee, director of community initiatives for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), spoke about the CID neighorhood’s challenges early in the pandemic. SCIDpda had to adjust quickly, learn how to sanitize its buildings, and support businesses by helping translate information about grants and regulations, as well as provide director relief. When marches against systemic racism ignited in Seattle, a group of vandals smashed over a dozen businesses in the CID, adding to the challenges.

Businesses were likewise smashed in New York City’s Chinatown, said Chen of the neighborhood’s BIA, but they started a Go Fund Me and got them repaired. The neighborhood adjusted to outdoor dining, lining the streets with planters as a traffic buffer. The organization went on local Chinese-language radio to spread information about PPE and available business grants and loans.

The neighborhood contains a community land trust, part of the larger NYC Community Land Initiative, with a goal of reducing property tax increases and preserving affordable housing, with the collaboration of Chinese family associations and business owners. The land trust could advocate for property taxes to be deferred during the pandemic, Chen said. The City probably wouldn’t like it, but otherwise the neighborhood will owe hundreds of millions of dollars each year during the pandemic, Chen said.

In Toronto, FOCT distributed posters in Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese with information about Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit (which provides financial support to Canadians impacted by COVID-19), legal advice, and information about community housing and food banks.

A group of friends created a community fridge and pantry in Calgary, and worked with a Chinese community association to help feed seniors. Many live on a fixed income and spend little on food, which leads to an unbalanced diet, said Lam of I Love YYC Chinatown.

In Seattle, after Asian Counseling and Referral Service closed its food bank location in the CID, food security was a concern, said Lee of SCIDpda. The organization and others started delivering bags of groceries around the neighborhood and beyond. The CID Restaurants and other Small Businesses Relief Fund launched and raised over $800,000 since March of 2020.

Business guidance from Washington has not been available in other languages, and so SCIDpda’s business outreach team helped translate the information. One silver lining: “Our relationship with our businesses is probably the best that it’s ever been,” Lee said.

Lee worries about what will happen when moratoriums on utility payments and rent run out.  “We know that commercial businesses will probably owe tens of thousands of dollars to their landlord,” she said. In addition, a number of small property owners — who Lee said help keep the neighborhood from becoming gentrified — still have to pay their property taxes.

At the end of the discussion, the panelists were asked to share their most positive Chinatown memories from the past year.

Chen in New York was struck by the outpouring of love and warmth for the neighborhood. For Lee, doing outreach to businesses helped create a sense of community. When SCIDpda started contacting them about grants, some business owners wept over the phone. For Wong in Calgary, the silver lining has been unification of young and old in the community. “It’s like a rebirth of a community that’s come out of the ashes.”    

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