It’s Start-Over Time for NYC’s Chinatown
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A decade after taking over at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a century-old Chinatown restaurant in New York, former Morgan Stanley insurance analyst Wilson Tang is back in startup mode.
As the city slowly emerges from its coronavirus lockdown, Tang’s neighborhood is recovering particularly painfully from a collapse in business that began in January with early reports of the virus’s spread in China. Tang, 42, can hardly recall a tougher time in New York, even after the financial crisis that decimated Wall Street in 2008-09.
Since Nom Wah reopened on May 17 after a two-month shutdown, Tang has been driving his sedan to deliver dinner boxes to nearby apartment buildings, where he organizes bulk orders for tenants. He also drives about 10 miles (16 kilometers) to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn in the mornings to pick up his staff, who are wary of taking the subway because of the infection risk.
After a long day’s work, he drives them home again.
“So I am just going back to my early days of trying to get the word out and trying to leverage technology,” he said by phone. “This is probably the most difficult I’ve seen in my life.”
Like much of Manhattan, Chinatown’s dependence on a mix of tourists and high-earning professionals knocked away its economic foundation during the pandemic. Travelers haven’t returned in significant numbers and few white-collar workers are making the trip downtown because the city is only in its early stage of reopening. Overall, the effect on Chinatown seems tougher than on many of the island’s go-to areas.
On a recent weekday afternoon, just a handful of pedestrians and cars peppered the normally bustling Canal Street. Street vendors, who’d usually be trying to sell counterfeit designer handbags to tourists, were nowhere to be seen and many storefronts were boarded up.
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As of the week through June 5, only 46% of the neighborhood’s almost 300 restaurants had reopened, said Wellington Chen, executive director of Chinatown Partnership. That compares with 63% in New York City as a whole, according to data from Womply, a business software provider.
Thomas Sung, founder and chairman of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, said the community lender fielded a record level of requests for deferrals on home loans at the height of the pandemic — though he explained that’s partly because people initially misunderstood New York’s 90-day mortgage relief order. As a silver lining, he expects most to repay their mortgage interest in full eventually because Chinese borrowers tend to have high savings.
The pandemic has mercilessly exposed long-standing problems for New York’s Chinatown: mom-and-pop stores that face succession challenges, an aging population because residents are mostly older people who lack the language skills to live elsewhere, and the neighborhood’s dependence on low-margin businesses in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Dimas Vargas, general manager of the building that houses the New York Jewelers Exchange, said about 55% of his tenants remain unable to pay rent and are in wait-and-see mode about their future.
He pointed to a TV panel of real-time security camera images from the stores. “Do you see any customers?” he said. “I feel for them.”
Zhongyi Wang opened the Jisu Vegetarian Restaurant last August and hasn’t decided when he’ll reopen after running up more than $50,000 in pandemic costs, including rent and wasted inventory. Lingering on Canal Street with his wife, he wasn’t encouraged.
“We are on the street today to see which restaurants are open, and to what extent things are recovered,” he said. “Looks like most are locals and not tourists. The locals look like they are just in a hurry to buy something and head back.”
Nothing to Lose
To be sure, Chinatown has a history of reinventing itself. At various times since the 19th century, it’s been a garment center, a transit hub and a food wholesale district. Now, with tourism unlikely to recover fully for years, some businesses see a chance for modernization — simple things like creating a website, accepting Venmo payments and delivering to customers outside Chinatown.
Patrick Mock, a 26-year-old manager of 46 Mott Bakery known for its sticky rice, herbal tea and buns, is trying initiatives that his elders would usually discourage: he’s partnering with nonprofits, exploring a gift-card system and delivering free meals to homeless and the elderly, many of whom are his frequent customers.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “And you take that as an opportunity to try everything you’ve never tried before until something works.”
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