Businesses in New York’s Chinatowns Brace for another Slow Lunar New Year

Outdoor dining at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan. (Photo by Seiji Yamashita)

Normally around this time of year, Royal Queen, a Flushing restaurant, is packed with locals, tourists, musicians and lion dancers celebrating the Lunar New Year. Located on one of Flushing’s busiest streets, Roosevelt Street, the restaurant’s spacious ballroom with its open layout, high ceilings, fits up to 1,000 and it is usually filled to capacity. Last year, as coronavirus fears crept into New York City, these crowds disappeared.  The celebrations were muted.  The New Year portended the ominous year ahead.

Now, a year into the pandemic, Lunar New Year will be take-out only, and the crowds are not expected back anytime soon.

“You don’t feel like it’s New Year,” said Connie Zhang, owner of Royal Queen.

For many of New York’s Chinatowns, Lunar New Year accounts for a significant part of many businesses’ yearly revenue. The numerous parades around the city alone attract as many as 10,000 people from across the region, says John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, who is also a candidate for city council.

When New York City locked down for the pandemic, dozens of restaurants and businesses in Chinatown closed.  Others have struggled and many are doing what they can to adapt, according to Choe.  Businesses resorted to making deliveries, to setting up outside dining where possible, and even to selling merchandise or lines of frozen products.  Community organizations have tried to help as well, but, as the Lunar New Year approaches, many businesses’ resilience will be put to the test. The Year of the Ox promises to be a difficult one and Chinatown’s business advocates fear that if business does not improve, more small businesses will close.

“If the businesses here can’t get people to come and support them, a whole bunch more businesses will close and create a spiral of economic collapse here,” said Choe.

The importance of Lunar New Year to Chinatown’s businesses can not be underestimated. Choe likens Lunar New Year to Black Friday, explaining that many of these businesses rely on the holiday for a good portion of their yearly revenue.

Royal Queen’s Zhang, for example, said her restaurant lost 70 percent of its business during last year’s New Year celebration and incurred almost a 90 percent loss for the entire year. She’s worried about what’s ahead.

Similar losses were felt in other Chinatowns around the city as well. Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a 100-year-old restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown saw an over 50 percent drop in business in January and February, according to its owner Wilson Tang. Since reopening after a brief closure, the restaurant’s revenue is still down 60 to 80 percent.

To survive, many restaurants adapted their business plans. Royal Queen made the shift to delivery and takeout. Nom Wah Tea Parlor began selling merchandise and frozen products in addition to making deliveries and serving diners outdoors. After many employees opted to stay home due to fears of the virus, Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle, in Manhattan, leaned on family members to fill shifts, according to owner, Elizabeth Yee, which ended up bringing down costs.

Noticing their neighbors’ hardships, community organizations in many of the city’s Chinatowns quickly stepped in to support small businesses. Maxi’s Noodle in Flushing, for example, received a $100 check from the Flushing Business Improvement District to help pay for outdoor dining furniture, according to owner, Maxi Lau. And in Manhattan, an organization called Welcome to Chinatown has offered $5,000 grants to businesses in addition to offering help with branding, merchandise and social media campaigns to encourage people to visit Chinatown and shop local.

Initially, Welcome to Chinatown was concerned that local businesses would be reluctant to embrace their online effort because, for many Asian-American businesses, it’s uncommon to “put your name out there,” according to Jackie Wang, project manager at Welcome to Chinatown, a grassroots initiative aimed at helping Chinatown’s businesses. But to their surprise, businesses overwhelmingly embraced their help.

But concerns remain and the problems continue to grow. The combination of slow business coupled with rising rent and gentrification, which has been afflicting many Chinatowns in recent years, means many more businesses are at risk, says Choe from the Chamber of Commerce. Business owners are worried they won’t be able to make ends meet either. In the past, Zhang’s sales were well above the 10 percent recommended to keep aside for rent. Now she only makes enough to cover her rent. “How can I survive?” said Zhang.

In a twist of fate, Royal Queen’s ideal location in a non-Covid world—a busy shopping mall in Flushing’s busiest street- precludes it from having outdoor dining. The busy street and bus stop in front of the building’s entrance makes delivery difficult as well.

As the Lunar New Year begins, organizers like Wang, hope the darkest days are behind them, noting that businesses have already overcome the uncertainty of last year and at least now, many know what to expect. “This Lunar New Year I think we’ve really learned that like these businesses, and their owners are really resilient,” said Wang. “Even without us, they’ve found ways to adapt”.

Some, like Nom Wah Tea Parlor’s Tang, are even optimistic that this Lunar New Year might be better than expected. He trusts that residents in the area know the protocols, and after a tough year he believes they have cause to celebrate a new beginning. “This is the first time ever, but I have a good feeling about it,” he said. “I think New Yorkers will come out to support the community.”

Tang is also hoping for good weather, which seems to be the determinant of good business nowadays. Lunar New Year this year is February 12 through February 26.