Grace Young has been a cookbook author, a wok therapist and a stir-fry guru. But last year she became something she hadn’t expected to be: a Chinatown activist.
In early 2020, New York City’s Chinese restaurants saw a decline in business amid the pandemic, by as much as 80%. Manhattan’s Chinatown was hit especially hard, with a few long-standing legacy restaurants closing forever. The decrease has been attributed to everything from a lack of tourists to xenophobia. Thankfully, Young stepped in and partnered with Welcome to Chinatown to raise funds for Chinatown restaurants so they could provide meals for the community’s food-insecure. When she saw how the local, state and federal governments weren’t helping businesses, she partnered with the James Beard Foundation and created the Instagram hashtag #SaveChineseRestaurants, which has expanded to include all Asian American and Pacific Islander restaurants. Currently, she and the group Asian Americans for Equality are raising money to distribute personal safety devices to the AAPI community.
In the beginning of January 2020, I was going to start working on a new cookbook. I have not gotten one sentence written. I have been working almost 24/7 on Chinatown.
When I get freelance jobs from food magazines and food websites, and I always ask, “Oh, can we do a Chinatown story?” Even when I’m doing a freelance job, I’m trying to squeeze in an opportunity to raise the public awareness to what’s happening to Chinatown and the AAPI community. I’m not the kind of person who goes to rallies. I’m a pretty passive person that way. I’ve never been a big community organizer. This is a completely new role. It is really overwhelming at times. Sometimes I can’t keep straight all the things I’m working on. I have never worked harder in my life.
How the pandemic has changed Chinatown
There were many, many times when I was in Chinatown in the last year where it was just a ghost town. A lot of the people who work in Chinatown work in Chinatown seven days a week, 10-14 hour days. Nobody is afraid of working, but if there are no tourists, downtown workers, jury duty, university students and subway riders, they’re standing in an empty store or an empty restaurant. I just felt that they had no voice and they had no ability to get the word out that this was a crisis situation and we needed to show up. I really feel as though I have been in a very unique position, in that because I’m a known food writer and cookbook author, I have contacts in the media.
“With the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, locals are hesitant to be in Chinatown once it’s dark.”
I had been doing Zoom talks for different organizations. Oftentimes when questions come up, I call locals to ask their perspective. I want to make sure that Chinatown is represented correctly. So I’m very respectful.
When New York City reopened officially in June 2020, there were definitely restaurants that never opened again. We lost some very important legacy restaurants — restaurants that had been a part of Chinatown that were over 40 years old, like Hoy Wong. We lost one restaurant WK that was 65 years old. We lost a bakery Lung Moon that was over 50 years old. We lost Hop Shing, which was a part of the community for over 50 years.
There were some really heartbreaking losses. The older ones are really the heart and soul, they have so much character. And you realize they aren’t just places you eat; they hold your memories. A lot of them are from a bygone era and they represent a way of life. They hold our memories in a way a newer restaurant never will. For the fundraiser I did with Welcome to Chinatown, I requested that the restaurants that prepare the food for these meals be from the oldest restaurants, because I want to make sure we protect them.
We normally had 300,000 downtown workers [total], but nobody has been coming to work. In 2019, we had 66.5 million tourists in Manhattan. If you think about it, even if one-third of them came to Chinatown or one-half of them came to Chinatown, can you imagine, if you just missed 1 million tourists, how much business you’re losing? That’s 66.5 million tourists — and that whole customer base vanished.
Pre-pandemic, I would say every single neighborhood in Manhattan had become gentrified, and Chinatown remains the last ethnic neighborhood south of 96th Street. I think that’s why it’s even more important than ever to protect and save Chinatown. It remains like small-town USA. It’s a little community, and you go from one shop where you buy your sponge cake to another shop where you buy your fruit.
“The best way to help the community fight anti-Asian hate is to show up and to support not just the restaurants. When we’re all together, we’re stronger.”
It’s definitely better right now that the weather is warming up, [and as of May 7] we now have 75% indoor dining permitted. In Chinatown, because the streets and the sidewalks are so narrow you can only set up a few tables unlike the rest of the city. As the weather warms up, I’m hoping there’s going to be more tourists coming to New York. But with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, locals are hesitant to be in Chinatown once it’s dark. Chinatown is pretty busy during the daytime, but come around 6 o’clock, a lot of shops are closing earlier because they want their employees to be able to get home while it’s still daylight. The restaurants are still open and they need us to show up more than ever.
What you can do to help
Now with the hate crimes rising, any AAPI restaurant needs our support. It’s really important to not just order a meal — whether or not you’re sitting there and eating it or getting takeout — but think of buying takeout for lunch for the next day. It’s nicer to pay cash and to tip generously. Whenever I go to Chinatown, I ask my neighbors or my friends, “Can I pick up anything for you?” I try to make the order bigger.
I’m not just going to Chinatown to eat at the restaurants. I’m also buying my produce. I’m going to the local market. If you think about it, Manhattan’s Chinatown is a place where you can find everything at really reasonable prices. I spoke to a local and he said to me, the best way to help the community fight Asian hate is to show up and to support not just the restaurants. When we’re all together, we’re stronger.
Forty-three percent of the businesses in Chinatown do not have websites, but you can write Yelp reviews and Google reviews. Those reviews really do make a difference. There’s a wonderful Chinatown tea store called Grand Tea and Imports, and they started a website within the last year. One of the oldest supermarkets in Chinatown is Po Wing Hong. They just started an online shop. [Note: Both places ship nationwide.] I think for a lot of people all across the country, when they’re looking for some Asian ingredients, some of them buy from Amazon. It’s much nicer to support a multigenerational business.
I know the work I’ve done has made an impact. Through #SaveChineseRestaurants, I think a lot of people found out for the first time how much these businesses were hurting and didn’t realize it, and started showing up to their local Chinatown or AAPI mom and pop eateries and shops. I think it has made an enormous difference.