Chinatown Businesses Struggle Amid Coronavirus Fears

By TuAnh Dam and Caroline Chen

The butcher at Boky, a restaurant in Chinatown, studied the rows of roast ducks hanging in the window. He rotated them carefully before selecting a particularly glistening one on the far right. Swinging his cleaver, he cut up the bird on his well worn chopping block before neatly placing it on a nearby plate and pushing it to the side.

The duck was cut, the tables set, and the waiters ready—but the food sat there waiting. Boky, like many other Asian restaurants, had no customers to serve. Despite no confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York City, Chinatown restaurants in both Manhattan and Queens have lost business.

“Workers are just standing here with nothing to do,” Hung Ngo, the manager of Boky said. “We’re hanging on, but if we don’t have customers, how are we going to stay open?”

Since the Lunar New Year on January 25, some restaurants in Chinatown have reported between a 45 to 70 percent drop in revenue. Last Saturday, which marked the end of the Lunar New Year celebration, would typically have been one of the busiest times in Chinatown. But many  tables sat empty, leaving owners and managers cutting staff hours and figuring out ways to stay afloat.

“Restaurants and other small businesses have small profit margins and survive month to month,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.“So this loss of revenue is really bad for them.”

Staff at restaurants are bearing the brunt of the business decline. Lijuan Ma, a waitress at Yi Feng Yuan, a family-friendly restaurant on Main Street in Flushing, said she’s dealing with lower income due to a  50 percent decline in business in the first two weeks of the Lunar New Year, when the Shanghainese restaurant expected to be packed with diners. Around 60 to 70 percent of the customers, who were mostly Chinese, canceled their reservations, according to Ma. “No clients is equal to no tips,” she said in Mandarin.

Henry Yang, manager of First Lamb Shabu in Flushing, said the restaurant lost nearly 80 percent of its business. On the weekend, the hot pot restaurant typically serves at least 15 full tables each day. But last Saturday, the end of the Lunar New Year celebration, only one table came. Yang said he usually gets paid $300 to $400 a day, tips included. But since the coronavirus outbreak, he has only been able to earn a little more than $100 a day. “The impact is huge,” he said, “We’re just sitting here all day.”

While some employees are getting fewer tips during normal working hours, others are being forced to work less or are even getting laid off. Steven Ip, the manager of Yin Ji Cheng Fen Rice Noodle, said that the restaurant has lost roughly $2,000 to $3,000 per day for the last two weeks. The restaurant forced waiters to take up to a week off of work and limited their hours.

Few customers could be seen at Pho New York Restaurant in Chinatown last Saturday / Photo by TuAnh Dam for NY City Lens

Few customers could be seen at Pho New York Restaurant in Chinatown last Saturday / Photo by TuAnh Dam for NY City Lens

Pho New York Restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant on Mulberry Street, cut its staff in half, offered a discount for customers, implemented a special lunch menu, and gave away extra food, both to save money and attract customers. Dennis Phuong, the owner, said he made the changes to try and save the business. He said he invested hundreds of thousands into the restaurant, which opened in October, and if it closes there is no back-up plan. said that all 27 tables in the restaurant were typically filled on weekends. Now at most, Phuong said, he fills four or five tables.

“We are under the water and we don’t know if these changes will help,” Phuong said. “We can close at any time.”

Phuong said that restaurants regularly rely on customers not only from New York but also New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. But with news of more and more coronavirus cases around the world everyday, people are being more cautious about coming to Chinatown, which is not just affecting restaurants, but also other small businesses.

Last Saturday evening, Xiaomeng Chi finally greeted the 50th customer at Tiger Hill, a bubble tea shop in Flushing. It took a whole day for Chi, a part-time employee, to reach that number, which was only a half of Tiger Hill’s usual number. At leaast more people are ordering online, Chi said. It has been like this for the last two to three weeks, according to Chi.

Flushing’s Busy Mall, where there were few customers over the weekend, is also having a hard time. Haily Ng, the owner of Inch Look, a 24-year-old clothing shop in the mall, said 95 percent of her customers were Chinese, and they have been avoiding Flushing since the start of the Lunar New Year, due to fear of the coronavirus. This has wreaked havoc on her business, which has suffered a 60 percent decline in revenue in the past two weeks. “The rent here is cheap. Even if I will have to use my savings and pay for three months’ rent, I can still manage,” Ng said in Cantonese, “But for others out there, I think it must be very difficult.”

In 2003, the New York Times reported that the SARS epidemic unleashed the same fear and economic impact on Chinatown businesses. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a 2003 news conference that  ”there are some people that are worried because of SARS. But there are only 10 cases in all of New York City, not one of them was contracted locally, and I think people should not worry about it. I don’t worry about it, my family doesn’t. It’s a great time to come to Chinatown. You can get a table, the food’s spectacular.”

Rigie said that one of the ways to help Chinese businesses during this scare is for community leaders to encourage people “to go eat out and shop in these communities,” like Bloomberg did 17 years ago.

In fact, city officials are doing some of that. Last Wednesday, city officials launched a program called “Show Some Love to Chinatown.”

“We want to make sure New Yorkers know that they can come out and support all these small businesses, because they are the backbone of the city’s economy,” said Gregg Bishop, Commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services.

“There’s nothing to be scared about, nothing to, you know, to panic about,” said Tony Au, president of Better Chinatown USA, the organizer of the annual New Year parade last Sunday in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “We just go on our live as usual, our routine, just going out for lunch and dinners in Chinatown or everywhere in New York City.”

Morgan Jones and Duquette Johnston were traveling from Birmingham, Alabama to New York with their five-year-old son during the Lunar New Year, and they were staying in Chinatown like they usually do.

“It’s silly,” said Johnston, referring to the idea of avoiding Chinatown because of the coronavirus. He thought it was important for his son to experience different cultures at this special time of the year. “I don’t want him to live in fear and I want him to still explore,” Jones said. “Don’t be scared especially making, like, cultural assumptions. That’s really narrow-minded and ill-informed.”

If there is a confirmed case of coronavirus in the city, though, all bets are off. Ngo said that nothing will help  then.  Restaurants are anxiously monitoring an already tenuous situation, he said, that could get worse for everyone.

“We’re all sitting in a boat,” Ngo said in Vietnamese. “If the boat sinks, we’re all sinking together.”