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The Pandemic And Racist Attacks Are Devastating America's Chinatowns

The coronavirus pandemic and a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans have significantly impacted the economies and cultural fabric of Chinatowns around the country, and are gravely harming the vitality of some of them, though rallying efforts are underway.

While racism is nothing new for Asian Americans, who have historically been the victims of the racialization of disease in the U.S., the length and intensity of this pandemic has fueled an economic disaster that is increasingly posing an existential threat to Asian American Pacific Islander neighborhoods. 

Occurring parallel to a pandemic that has claimed 582,296 lives in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the pandemic itself has disproportionately impacted Asian Americans in San Francisco, with the demographic accounting for 13.7% of the cases but also 52% of the deaths as of May 2020, according to the Asian American Research Center on Health. 

A wave of hate has accompanied the public health crisis. A 2020-2021 National Report from Stop AAPI Hate found that of 3,795 incidents of discrimination reported to the organization between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, Chinese are the largest ethnic group, targeted in 42.2% of the total incidents, and that businesses are the primary place where those attacks occur, 35.4% of the time.

“Because of the racist sentiment and fear of Covid, Chinatown got impacted much before everywhere else,” Oakland-based Chinese American Community Foundation Vice Chair David Lei said.

A crowd protests AAPI hate at a March rally in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Overt anti-Asian racism isn’t new. One of the earliest examples of America's systemic anti-Asian racism, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, created a federal law blocking the further immigration of Chinese workers, many of whom had come to California during the Gold Rush to work on projects such as the transcontinental railroad.

Such discrimination set the stage for the formation of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in the U.S., in the 1850s, when city officials restricted where Chinese Americans could live and work. The neighborhood’s subsequent growth over the many decades that followed eventually blossomed into one of the world’s most iconic cultural districts.

More than a century later, Jennifer Tam, who co-founded the New York nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown just over a year ago to help support local businesses and preserve the vibrancy of Manhattan's Chinatown, is worried about the twin risks of the pandemic and racism.

“The impetus for starting the organization stemmed from the fact that we saw Chinatown was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, far beyond what any other neighborhood in New York was experiencing, before Covid even made its way into New York City,” Tam said. “That was really a signal of xenophobia and racism impacting the neighborhood.”

The pandemic has exacerbated both the racism Chinese business owners face and their economic hardships. According to the Anti-Defamation League, then-President Donald Trump made numerous anti-Asian remarks, effectively racializing the coronavirus, including referring to it as the “China plague” during the presidential debates last year. The organization found that two days after the debate when Trump tweeted that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, there was an 85% increase in incidents of anti-Asian comments online.

Chinese American Community Foundation Vice Chair David Lei

Many communities have gone to great lengths to preserve these historic cultural districts. Family associations, district associations and nonprofit organizations — some that have existed since the 1850s — own about 70% of properties in San Francisco's Chinatown, according to Lei, who said that the neighborhood’s rents are one of the lowest in the city, in part due to legislation that was passed in 1986 to protect existing residents and the associations’ serving the community by keeping units affordable. 

Called the Chinatown Zoning Plan, the 1986 legislation designated the neighborhood as a mixed-use district separate from downtown with the aim of protecting Chinatown’s affordable housing by banning the conversion of residential properties into other uses, according to the University of California Berkeley Urban Displacement Project. 

In 1980, the city’s Residential Hotel Ordinance further protected the neighborhood’s supply of single-occupancy units geared for low-income residents. In April, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning retail workspaces in Chinatown to help maintain the existing retail district and neighborhood character.

The result is a dynamic district that has historically catered to a mix of immigrants, Asian American families, seniors, low-income households, tourists and a Financial District lunch crowd. 

But even with protections and this strong base in place, San Francisco's Chinatown is among those under threat. San Francisco-based Chinatown Community Development Center Director of Policy and Government Relations Matthias Mormino said his organization did a survey last summer that found a third of restaurant owners said if things didn’t change radically in about six months, they would have to shut down.

To date, Grant Street, San Francisco Chinatown’s central thoroughfare, is mostly devoid of activity, with less than 50 of its about 200 restaurants and stores able to remain open for business, though food markets on Stockton Street are faring a little better. 

For the 25K SF restaurant venues that serve as banquet halls for big celebrations, which are a cultural institution for the neighborhood, Mormino said extinction is an ever-present specter. Even after decades of activism to protect the neighborhood, the threat of losing a place where new immigrants can work, access healthcare and services is real. Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan echoed those concerns.

“Chinatown has been around for so many years and we've never seen anything like this,” Chan said. “So right now the concern is, how long can businesses hang in there? The city is also dealing with a revenue shortfall so many basic services cannot be provided.”

Welcome to Chinatown co-founders Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee

In Manhattan’s Chinatown, Tam said shopkeepers are worried about their staff being victimized, and businesses have been closing before nightfall and keeping doors locked even during the day, requiring customers to ring a bell for service as a security precaution.

While on his way to assist an assault victim in Oakland's Chinatown community in April, Chan was himself physically attacked on the street. The assailant shoved him to the ground, and Chan told Bisnow he temporarily blacked out and sustained minor injuries to his extremities.

He said the number of such incidents targeting Asian Americans in the city’s Chinatown began to escalate in January 2020, which he said was directly due to divisive political rhetoric. He estimated that over 80% of incidents go unreported because of a fear of retaliation. 

The impacts of these targeted attacks, which across the nation include stabbings, beatings, vandalism, victims being sexually assaulted, punched, kicked and pepper-sprayed while being verbally harassed with racist language, are dire in already struggling communities.

In Oakland Chinatown, some of the incidents happened in broad daylight inside stores, and businesses have been reducing hours or closing altogether as many customers, afraid of being targeted, remain at home, Chan said. Many of the district’s businesses are hanging on by a thread.

About 15% of Oakland Chinatown businesses have permanently closed since January 2020 and almost 100% of those that survived have reduced their hours, Chan said, adding that the outlook for the continued survival of these businesses is not optimistic.

In Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, all of its approximately 50 businesses are closed except for the Chinatown Garden, which has lost up to 90% of its pre-pandemic business, according to The 1882 Foundation Executive Director Ted Gong.

Foot traffic and sales in the neighborhood were down between 50% and 80% prior to the pandemic reaching NYC, Tam said. Welcome to Chinatown conducted a small-business survey in February 2021 that found 71% of respondents couldn’t pay full rent in 2020, 77% had reduced staff, 83% enacted reduced business hours and 44% said it was strongly unlikely, unlikely or unsure if their business would survive the next three months. 

Chan said that when he walks down Oakland Chinatown’s main commercial hubs between Eighth and Ninth streets and between Franklin and Webster streets, many storefronts are vacant and boarded up and have been so for months. He hopes that funding will come through by the end of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, to provide support to struggling businesses.

The situation is undoubtedly exacerbating Oakland’s tax revenue shortfall: Chinatown has long been the fifth-largest tax-generating district, according to Chan, and Manhattan Chinatown’s Business Improvement District generates $300M in real estate tax revenue annually, according to data from the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp. 

Oakland Chinatown has been hit especially hard by the impact of such rhetoric, leading to a press conference held by city officials and community leaders on Feb. 3 to denounce the violent attacks on Asian Americans.

“The intentional targeting of Asian merchants and residents is abhorrent,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said.

Schaff pledged additional police resources to help protect the Oakland Chinatown community at the Feb. 3 press conference, which included the appointment of new police Chief LeRonne Armstrong on Feb. 8. 

Armstrong later admitted that city budget shortfalls due to the pandemic led to a reduction in officers, but said that a community liaison officer and violent crime unit had been added to the department to help stem the increase in attacks. 

Financial aid has also been part of Oakland's recovery strategy: As part of Schaaff’s proposed $3.85B Just Recovery Budget, funds would be made available to a Chinatown Business Improvement District that is in the process of being formed. 

With no clear end yet in sight to the hardships wrought by the economic shutdowns, rising incidents of violent assault and harassment against Asian Americans are causing an existential threat to places like Oakland Chinatown. 

San Francisco State University Professor of Asian American Studies Jonathan H. X. Lee cited commonalities between the treatment of Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic and racism following cases of the plague that resulted in the burning down of Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1900 by public officials.

While it may be too soon to determine the long-term impact on property values, storefronts that would have only remained vacant for a few days in the past are now remaining so for lengthy stretches and for-sale properties are also staying on the market longer. 

Things are similarly grim elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.

“Here in Boston, one of the large supermarkets has closed and several other smaller restaurants have closed,” Boston-based Asian Community Development Corp. Executive Director Angie Liou said.

“The worry is that once they close, we wonder what's going to go into those storefronts instead. Is it going to be a mom-and-pop Chinatown type of business that caters to the immigrant residents there? Or is it going to be a high-end coffee shop or some other establishment that could accelerate the changes happening with gentrification in Chinatown?”

Angie Liou, center, with current and former Asian Community Development Corp. staff at the grand opening of Chinatown Backyard in Boston.

What is at stake extends far beyond Chinatown.

“For San Franciscans and the country at large, if we don't want to end up with neighborhood after neighborhood that looks the same, and that are only welcoming to one kind of person with one kind of ability and one kind of education. That's what's at stake,” Mormino said. “It's a place of safety, a place of strength, a place of belonging.”

Across the country, many Chinatowns provide social support, low-income housing, accessible healthcare and social services for seniors. Seniors have been among those most often victimized by violence, prompting the formation of volunteer patrols to help protect Asian elders and businesses.

Chinatowns are also a significant driver of tourism, and the rhetoric has had an impact on people wanting to visit Chinatown, Mormino said, though recent tourism data has not been released to illustrate the impact.

Chinatowns are historically a safe space for entrepreneurship and small-business ownership, something that has been a benefit in the past but has been an extra risk in the pandemic. A common theme running through the nine Chinatowns in the New York metro area is that small businesses are disproportionately struggling compared to the general population as is the case with many communities of color during the pandemic. About 94% of businesses in Manhattan Chinatown are small businesses, according to data from the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp. 

The number of self-employed people declined by 20.2% between April 2019 and April 2020, according to a report from the Small Business Administration about the impact of the pandemic on small businesses. The decline among the Asian American population was the second-highest, at 37.1%, next to the 37.6% drop among Black small-business owners. Restaurants and other food services declined by 31% and in metro areas the drop in self-employment was 21% compared to non-metros, which fell by 13%. 

In addition to brazen attacks, a threat of invisibility has also impacted Chinatowns and other Asian American communities. Although Liou said that Boston Chinatown has been getting press attention and donations, the Vietnamese community in Dorchester and the Cambodian community In Lowell have been largely ignored despite facing similar challenges.

Then there is the issue of inequities in accessing federal aid programs due to language barriers and a lack of banking relationships. Tam said a recent survey of small businesses in Chinatown revealed that of those that had applied for grant funding assistance, 33% submitted in Chinese and 25% opted to submit a paper application versus applying online.

“We have a pretty significant senior population,” Tam said. “A lot of them are living at the poverty line.”

Chan said that though money from federal assistance programs is not trickling down to help Chinatown businesses, the chamber is helping shop owners apply for grants to survive. Such efforts toward resiliency and recovery are spreading and range from planned spring and summer rallies against hate to a San Francisco Chinatown Renaissance 2021 Initiative sponsored by the Northern California Region of The Committee of 100 in partnership with the Chinatown Community Development Center and the Asian Pacific Fund to help revitalize Chinatown in San Francisco and other cities.

In addition to the work that organizations like Tam's are doing, the mutually supportive ecosystems that have allowed Chinatown to thrive over the years are providing an atmosphere of resiliency. Despite businesses severely struggling to stay afloat, many refuse to raise already low prices in an act of solidarity with longtime customers.

“The symbol of Chinatown as a destination for innovation and diversity and culture and business and life — that's going to always remain,” Chinese Historical Society of America Executive Director Justin Hoover said. “That's a story that I don't think we're ever going to let up. There's a history there of being champions of inclusion and diversity. I think that's what's important to recall and I think that's what's going to stay no matter what.