Why Grace Young is trying to revive Chinatown businesses

Cookbook author Grace Young says restaurants in Chinatown

Cookbook author Grace Young says Chinatown restaurants “need a steady, loyal business if they want to survive.” (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals; Design by Zana Kaba)

In early 2020, Grace Young was preparing to start writing her fourth cookbook. The award-winning author’s first three books contain beautifully detailed recipe collections filled with historical and traditional references and personal stories that bring cooking in the American-Chinese kitchen to life. But when it became clear that New York’s Chinatowns were in dire need early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Yang put the project aside to help advocate for Chinatown residents and small businesses.

JPMorgan Chase was hit hard early on, reporting that the average revenue at Asian-American businesses fell by more than 60%, more than any other group, and many of them saw even steeper declines. For Young, just walking the streets made it clear that the community was struggling. She had to do something about it.

When Grace Young saw New York's Chinatowns struggling during the pandemic, she had to help.  (Photo: Jenny Keller Hals)

If Grace Young sees New York’s Chinatown struggling during the pandemic, she’ll have to help. (Photo: Jenny Keller Hals)

Through documentary videos, social media campaigns, fundraising for nonprofits, and building good old-fashioned relationships within the community, Yang has become a powerful advocate for New York City and Chinatowns across the country. In 2022, she will receive the eighth annual Julia Child Award from the Julia Children Foundation for Food and Culinary Arts for her advocacy for Chinatown residents and small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating anti-Asian violence in the area .vigil young author fried to the sky, She was also named a 2022 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year for her work.

Chinatown’s long road to recovery

Young and I had lunch at Pasteur Grill and Noodles, the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where she told me about the challenges the community faces and continues to grapple with as people move on from COVID-19.

“We need to remember that most restaurants and shops in Chinatown are family-owned and unique,” Yang said. “If they’re going to survive, they need our steady, loyal business.” The sheer number of small, family-owned businesses in Chinatown means that entire businesses nearby are more likely to fail due to financial stress.

Yang said it's not just Chinatown restaurants that are struggling: Grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses need support.  (Photo: Jenny Keller Hals)

Yang said it’s not just Chinatown restaurants that are struggling: Grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses need support. (Photo: Jenny Keller Hals)

Frustratingly, Chinatowns across the U.S. have taken the longest to recover, with many Asian-American businesses still operating at a fraction of the size they were pre-pandemic and struggling to stay afloat on already thin profit margins. Many businesses also face massive debt and rent arrears that have rapidly accumulated during the pandemic. For many small business owners in Chinatown, there are other barriers to accessing financial help, including language, technology and difficulties eligibility for assistance.

In addition to the struggle to make ends meet financially, violence against Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) has increased rapidly in the wake of the pandemic, resulting in less time for residents and tourists to linger casually or avoid Chinatown altogether. Reduced foot traffic due to safety concerns and racial stigma poses as much threat to these communities as the aftermath of the COVID-19 virus.

fight for chinatown

Young launches video series at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic Coronavirus: A Chinatown Story In collaboration with Dan Ahn and the Poster House Museum, we showcase several small businesses that are struggling to figure out what to do next. Since then, her work advocating for Chinatowns everywhere has grown exponentially.

She has partnered with the James Beard Foundation on several social media campaigns, including #saveChineresstaurants, #LoveAAPI, and #supportChinatowns, encouraging diners to support local Chinese restaurants and speak out against growing anti-Asian violence across the country.

Not only has Young’s work brought greater attention to the issues facing Chinatown, but her fundraising efforts with Welcome to Chinatown and Asian Americans for Equality have provided more than $65,000 in 2021 alone to help protect, Feed and support Chinatown residents and businesses. With fundraising support, Welcome to Chinatown was able to successfully launch the Longevity Fund, which provides grants to small businesses in Chinatown.

Pasteur Grill and Noodles was one of the longevity fund’s early recipients and is a prime example of irreplaceable small businesses struggling to stay open in Chinatown. With a Welcome to Chinatown grant, the family-owned Vietnamese restaurant was able to make capital improvements to the dining room and outdoor seating space, and teamed up with artist and designer Jenny Acosta to create a new beautifully illustrated menu and website.

Yang said lunchtime traffic in Chinatown had improved as businesses reopened after the pandemic, but he said most restaurants remained empty at dinnertime.  (Photo: Jenny Keller Hals)

Yang said lunchtime traffic in Chinatown had improved as businesses reopened after the pandemic, but he said most restaurants remained empty at dinnertime. (Photo: Jenny Keller Hals)

Many of the cosmetic upgrades are overdue, but they’re also good-hearted efforts to lure diners back into the neighborhood. In an area with heavy lunch traffic, many diners have returned during the day since offices in lower Manhattan began reopening. But dinnertime crowds remained thin as local residents’ safety concerns after dark and rising inflation prompted people to cook at home more often. Pasteur Grill and Noodles is also located next to a major new urban construction site, which presented another unexpected obstacle to the restoration, as many tourists and regulars found the area inaccessible.

Restaurants, some of Chinatown’s most visible businesses, are showing signs of distress, but Young emphasized that restaurants are just one area of ​​serious economic hardship facing the community. “Many people think of Chinatown as a gourmet paradise, but you can find almost everything you need,” Yang said, “from hardware stores to pharmacies to markets selling non-Asian groceries and staple foods.”

Get more support with Julia Child Award grants

Young’s 2022 Julia Child Award comes with a generous grant of $50,000, which Young has chosen to split equally between five organizations in New York City, Boston, Oakland, San Francisco and Honolulu. “In each city,” Young said, “a $10,000 grant will go to a nonprofit in Chinatown, which then distributes the funds to restaurants that feed those in need.”

“It’s a win-win situation for restaurants to get much-needed business and for those facing food insecurity to receive meal support,” she explained.

“I am humbled and honored by the Julia Child Foundation and James Beard Foundation awards,” Young continued. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s still unreal that I get so much recognition. My advocacy for America’s Chinatown and AAPI mom-and-pop is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. I just wish I could have done more big change.

Young’s work makes a big difference in the communities she serves, but it’s the little things that help keep the community going, she says, that help the most. “Chinatown locals demand good quality and low prices, so shopping in Chinatown is a great way to generate income while supporting mom-and-pop businesses,” Young said. “I often offer to pick up takeaway or groceries for my friends and neighbors so I can provide more support to businesses.”

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