The air was fragrant with the aromas of steamed buns, crispy prawns, and savory sauces inside China Pearl on Saturday, as servers rushed steaming dim sum carts through the Chinatown staple’s labyrinth of tables, each packed with diners busily spiking crisp shumai on the tip of a chopstick or gingerly dipping a bao into hot mustard.
It might have been any busy Saturday at the popular restaurant, where it’s not unusual to see a line out the door at lunchtime.
But in recent weeks, as fears of coronavirus have increased, along with reports of infections and deaths caused by the epidemic centered in China’s Hubei province, China Pearl and many other local businesses operated by Asian-Americans have suffered.
“Because the start of this coronavirus outbreak, and a lot of the misinformation — and, frankly, stereotypes around it — coincided right during lunar new year, which is usually the busiest time of year for [Chinese] restaurants, businesses have seen sales decline of 50 percent, 70 percent, up to 80 percent, one restaurant owner told me,” Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu said inside the restaurant.
The first death from coronavirus outside Asia was reported in France on Saturday, the same day Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand confirmed new cases. So far, more than 67,000 people around the world have been infected and more than 1,500 have died, almost all of them in China.
In Boston, only one person has been diagnosed with the virus, a UMass Boston student whose symptoms were not serious enough to require hospitalization, and local leaders are asking residents not to let fear keep them from pursuing their usual activities, including shopping and dining at Asian-American-owned establishments.
Wu worked with Quincy City Council President Nina Liang, other elected officials, and community leaders to organize Saturday’s dim sum brunch and bring attention to the challenges facing business owners.
Liang told reporters she was surprised by the event’s large turnout, and she hoped the throngs devouring dumplings inside China Pearl would spill out into the neighborhood after their meals.
“We’re not here just for this quick, two-hour dim sum in the morning,” Liang said. “We’re here to continue to [patronize] this area and go around to other retailers, walk around outside and go to some of the bubble tea places, grab some pastries, grab some other things.”
She said Quincy’s Asian-American-owned businesses so far don’t seem to have been hit like those in Chinatown, but she is concerned that could change.
“If you go up and down Hancock Street in North Quincy, all the way to Quincy Center, we’re still seeing people out at all different types of restaurants, including the Asian restaurants,” she said.
Wu said people’s fears of the virus are intersecting with stereotypical assumptions and racist ideas.
“People are worried and scared when they see the news," she said, “but unfortunately, it’s leading to a lot of stereotypes about Asian-Americans, that people who look a certain way must know someone who’s been to China and been to that city where the outbreak happened, when there’s really no more risk of coming into contact with coronavirus in Chinatown than anywhere else in the city.”
Wu said she has heard from Asian-Americans who have experienced racist treatment since the outbreak began, and her own family has seen strangers behave differently on the MBTA.
"When we’re sitting on the train, we kind of notice people shifting a little further away because they just aren’t sure about what is safe and what is real,” she said.
Bonnie Lai, a Brookline-based real estate agent, said fears of the virus haven’t affected her business yet, but she spoke recently with a Chinatown restaurant owner who said his business has been cut in half.
Any Asian person who coughs in public immediately attracts attention, Lai said, and a friend standing in line at a Lexington Starbucks was recently advised by a stranger to start wearing a surgical mask.
But, she said, “If you wear a mask, people are scared of you anyway. It’s a Catch-22 at this point.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston and the city’s Office of Economic Development are also encouraging Bostonians and visitors to support Chinatown businesses. On Thursday, the mayor’s office announced a new awareness campaign that includes a social media hashtag — #LoveBostonChinatown — and a Chinatown bingo card with neighborhood activities. The first block, in the upper left corner, says, “Try dim sum.”
“Our small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities, and you can help support Chinatown businesses as we celebrate the Lunar New Year,” Walsh said in a statement Thursday.
Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, speaking inside China Pearl, said the brunch demonstrates "that Chinatown is open for business, that Chinatown is a fantastic place to be any day of the week.” She challenged residents and visitors “to come back tomorrow, to come back on Monday and Tuesday and every day next week, and for weeks to come.”
George said community members need to work during this crisis and “every single day . . . to end those stereotypes” that have fed into fear of Asian-Americans.
Brookline Select Board member Raul Fernandez said the town’s recent lunar new year celebration “saw about a 50 percent drop in attendance.”
“It’s really due to these unfounded fears of our neighbors, our community members,” he said, adding later, “It’s really important that we keep showing up, that we are not afraid of our neighbors, that we’re not afraid of being in community with one another, in public spaces with one another. That is not the kind of community we want to have.”