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Dining Out in Chinatown: Navigating Asian Hate

Dining Out in Chinatown: Navigating Asian Hate

Chatham Seafood was a bright and welcoming dim sum house with an entrance that was always congested with hungry patrons waiting to be seated. Being a BYOB spot, people gathered to celebrate birthdays, graduations, and weekend dinners. Every Saturday morning, I would be awakened by my grandma once she belted, “Yum Cha!” which translates to “drink tea” in Chinese. I’d spring up from bed and look forward to devouring chicken fingers and siu mais.

Having dim sum every Saturday morning was a customary thing in my household, and normally, we go to Chatham Seafood house where more locals rather than tourists eat. It’s right across the Confucius plaza and three blocks away from the Manhattan bridge arch. As long as I can remember, my family and I would typically spend two hours gossiping about relatives while ordering parcels of savory and sweet dishes. I would zone off and look at the Chinese artwork depicting cherry blossoms and mountain tops that reached heaven.  I remember celebrating my acceptance letter from NYU by ordering mounds of lo mein and chicken feet. The best part was that celebrations were common at the restaurant, so people were always screaming and laughing, which would otherwise be rude in other restaurants.

However, at the beginning of the pandemic, Chatham Seafood’s gold tablecloth tables remain almost idle, with only four occupied tables. The tea leaves soaked in piping hot water as waiters stood around in a restaurant either staring at the restaurant door or into space. I had dim sum with my mom one morning, but it was strangely different from its usual liveliness. The lively restaurant had turned docile with only a handful of tables taken and slight low chatter—the opposite of what I was used to.

My mother waved the stamped dim sum ticket, but the owner, Andy, told his employees that he got it. She greeted him with a warm smile since she knew him when they were neighbors in China. He came to America during the 1980’s and worked as a chef before opening his dim sum house. He came a decade before my mom, but as kids they attended the same school in the southern province of China, on the outskirts of the city. It was common to see my mom recognize classmates and neighbors when she greeted them with, “when did you leave the country?” And it strengthened the social bonds for Chinese immigrants to recognize each other in a foreign country.

Two elderly men sitting beside us ordered steamed black bean chicken feet, Singapore mei fun, and baked char siu baos. One of the men wore a “Turnt Up” baseball cap and talked on his iPhone, while the other scooped mei fun onto his plate while his eyes were glued to his newspaper.

The man with the iPhone declared, “What do you mean where am I? I’m in Chinatown eating dim sum.” He paused for a second and then exclaimed, “Death, I fear not!”

Andy approached our table and asked, “Enjoying dim sum today? Kind of late, no?”

“You’re one to talk. Every time I ordered a dish, they said they didn’t have it.” my mom responded.

“It is what it is. We don’t want to waste food.” Andy admitted without shame.

“I know. It’s crazy what’s happening now. Are you planning on shutting down?” He shrugged and watched as the waiters downsized by storing several tables for more space. If this were the case, Chatham Seafood would be added to the long list of restaurants closed in Chinatown.

*****

Lunar New Year is considered the most festive time of the year in New York City’s Chinatowns—it’s notoriously jammed-packed. However, the victorious drumming on the tanggu echoed down streets with sparse crowds. Chinatown’s famous and oldest restaurant, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, housed only a handful of tables compared to its usual bustling overflow. A mysterious fire destroyed archives of historical documents at the Manpower Project, an organization dedicated to economic development and educational programming in Chinatown.

With much chaos occurring in one of lower Manhattan’s Chinese ethnic communities, a pandemic virus spreads across the world, igniting fear and racism. Also known as Covid-19, the Coronavirus is a respiratory illness that can cause pneumonia, organ failure, and even death. Initial cases were reported in Wuhan, a city of eleven million people in China’s Hubei province.

Since the outbreak, Chinatown restaurants and stores have slowed down drastically in sales, and it is believed that locals and visitors are taking precautions in light of the situation. The neighborhood’s largest dim sum house, Jing Fong, was one of the first restaurants to temporarily close due to the initial ban on all large venues with a capacity of holding five hundred people must close in efforts to protect the health of New Yorkers.

It was eerie walking down the streets of Chinatown that lacked its usual liveliness that Saturday night. Each time I passed a restaurant, I caught a glimpse to see what business was like. At most, there were five tables occupied. A measly number for a restaurant of 20 tables. Chinatown was often filled with tourists and locals scattered amongst the streets. Bar goers stood outside speakeasies for a smoke, families hogged the streets with multiple strollers, and tourists stood with craned necks in the middle of foot traffic. It was a hangout spot whether you craved Chinese food or bubble tea.

*****

I used to work for Chinatown Partnership, an organization that focuses on promoting Chinatown businesses and community engagement after 9/11. My job required surveying every business in Chinatown for analysis. Although it was tedious working in boiling temperatures, it was home. I felt more rooted in my culture working in the neighborhood, getting to know the owners of mom-and-pops. As I made my rounds, there were visitors around the world lining up outside of Joe’s Shanghai, teenagers scooping their soft swerve ice cream, and people taking “instagrammable” photos of Doyer’s colorfully chalked streets.

Lamgen Leon, the officer manager at Chinatown Partnership, agreed to an interview at the Chinatown kiosk a couple of days before lockdown. Revisiting the kiosk brought back memories of answering visitors’ questions, dealing with rude people, and guiding conspicuous customers on where to get the best massage. Lamgen, a tall man in his mid-fifties, greeted me with a warm smile and folded his hands. He seemed eager to hear my questions and had no problem with me documenting the negative impact of the coronavirus on Chinatown businesses.

“It has affected a lot of Chinatown businesses. Many big restaurants like Jing Fong closed temporarily due to lack of customers while other opened restaurants struggle to stay open because not a lot of people are coming. However, the bars in Chinatown were packed. One bar over here on Baxter was packed during lunchtime. That just shows people are not coming to Chinatown for Chinese food anymore.”

That bar he spoke of was Whiskey Tavern which is a hole-in-the-wall dive on a block of predominantly bail bonds. While nursing a drink on one hand, I observed the bar which wasn’t super crowded as Lamgen suggested, but it was a moderate-sized group with roughly fifteen patrons in a bar with a small lounge area, strung up Christmas lights, and a photo booth to document unflattering drunken memories.

One of the bartenders told me that business was usual, with maybe more people coming in due to stress from the news. He said that he believed that the coronavirus was a conspiracy for people to get tested and waste money on toilet paper. I was surprised at his relaxed attitude as he wiped down the bar with a wet raggedy towel. One holiday he was particularly excited about was Saint Patrick’s Day, where there would be live bagpipes and special prices on Irish car bombs. I left my tip and, ironically on my way out, on the back of the bartender’s shirt, read, “Thank you for coming to Chinatown!”

Lamgen had raised his concerns on how Asians and Asian Americans were being represented in the public eye. “Media has been harmful because they put a photo of Flushing in the news when talking about the coronavirus in NYC. Why do this? The first case was an Iranian woman, yet Asians are being plastered on the front page. Why post Asian or Chinese neighborhoods?”

On March 1st, The New York Times published an article, Coronavirus in N.Y Manhattan Woman Is First Confirmed Case in State shows a picture of two Asian women wearing surgical masks in Flushing’s Chinatown. Due to the backlash, The New York Times soon edited the article and replaced their front image with a picture of a busy street of what looks to be Broadway. His final statement was, “Anyone can be affected by the coronavirus. It doesn’t matter what your race is or your blood type. It can happen to anyone so take precaution, but don’t let fear rule your perception of Asians.”

I scrolled through numerous videos of Asian restaurant owners expressing their pain of bearing the brunt. Some users expressed condolences while other phrases like “dirty dog meat-eaters” and “bat eaters.” To add insult to injury, former president Donald Trump has called it “the Chinese Virus”. Instead of addressing the recent attacks on the Asian community in the US, President Trump’s words reinforce the belief that since the virus originated in Wuhan, all Chinese are carriers of it, therefore placing Chinese people at risk for danger. The “Chinese virus” ties a disease to a specific ethnicity, creating a stigma that propagates fear and xenophobia.

Empty golden seats at Chatham Seafood (Mar 2020); Stop Asian Hate campaign in NYC – photos by Judy Chin

His rhetoric fueled anti-China sentiment and perpetuated racial abuse. Hate crimes towards Asians isn’t a new hashtag on the trending list. For centuries, Asian Americans were harassed and labeled as “foreigners” simply because of their appearance. A surge of elderly attacks on Asians emerged across the country. A non-profit organization called, ‘Stop AAPI hate’ unite Asians to stand up against racism towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Asian Americans protested on NYC streets demanding justice for the victims of the Atlanta shootings that took place on March 16th. Staying silent is no longer the solution.

My friend, Zoey and I dined at Kong Sihk Tong, a Hong Kong style cuisine on Bayard St. Customers stood outside of the Chinatown ice cream factory with their melting ice cream. We waited a few minutes as employees cleaned up after previous customers. My craving for glutinous dumplings filled to the brim. I carefully scooped up the dumpling from the steaming broth.

“There’s nothing we can do, sis. We are Chinese so we have to be extra careful.” Her comment disrupts my attention from devouring the dumpling which would have otherwise seared my tongue. Learning to be street smart is a given in the city, but what does she mean by extra careful? Does that mean I have to intermittently look over my shoulder? Do I have to cross the street if I see a stranger walking towards me? Two days after dining there, an Asian woman was sucker punched in broad daylight. The 55-year old victim suffered from facial injury and the attack was reportedly unprovoked. The suspect was a homeless man who was charged with assault and criminal mischief. I texted my friend Zoey about the news and reiterated her statement when we had dinner.

*****

In June of 2020 I returned to Chinatown Partnership after Lamgen to distribute safety masks to essential businesses provided by The New York Department of Health. I woke up at eight am on Friday morning and headed to 49 Madison. A volunteer and my previous supervisor loaded the cart with stacks of disposable masks of a hundred. The streets were quiet as we went from one business building to the next. At first, employees were skeptical and barred us from entering the offices. Once we told them about the organization and handed them free masks, they smiled and thanked us in Mandarin. The heat picked up, so we took a break before finishing in the late afternoon.

A photo of a revived Chinatown / inside the Chinatown Partnership Office – photos by Judy Chin

I picked up an iced coffee at a local Chinese bakery that was open and checked out Chatham Seafood. It’s been three months since I last stepped foot inside, so I peeked into the restaurant hoping that they were getting ready to reopen. The brown paper covering up the tall glass windows, with a sign that read “For Lease” told me they fell victim to the store closures due to lack of business. I passed the kiosk where I envisioned two tour guides sitting behind the glass window. Instead, the kiosk was empty and locked, but its outside was plastered with “show some love for Chinatown” and paper heart cut-outs. Further up the block, Whiskey Tavern remained boarded up.

Pell Street, Chinatown – photo by Judy ChinA year later, the neighborhood was revived with artists displaying colorful portraits of Asian Americans with quotes, “I am not your scapegoat” and “I still believe in our city.” Earlier this year, Light Up Chinatown Project hung up glowing paper lanterns upon Mott, Canal, and Bayard St. to honor the community’s resilience. Groups piled outside of Wo Hop on a sweltering summer day in the middle of May 2021. College students walked triumphantly in their colored gowns and tasseled caps with their families in search of a restaurant to eat in. Indoor dining returned at full capacity and curfew hours are no longer in effect. As New York City lifts mask mandates, more people are coming out to Chinatown to reconnect with friends and dine out. I thought to myself, New York is not dead. Not anymore at least. And neither is Chinatown.

______________________

Judy Chin is a nonfiction writer based in New York City. She is a freelancer and her work has been published in NYU literary magazine, Dovetail. Aside from writing nonfiction, Judy enjoys hiking and takes pride in being an elite yelper.

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