It’s lunchtime on a recent weekday at New Jumbo Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown, and manager Wei Song Lin is bored. The tables are empty. The seafood tanks hold a few listless crabs. It’s the lead-up to Lunar New Year — the holiday is Friday — and restaurants would ordinarily be inundated with reservations for family parties and banquets. “There’s no need to make a reservation this year,” Lin says through interpreter Bik Ng, a Chinatown activist and longtime cultural and culinary tour guide to the neighborhood. He gestures around the deserted room with a rueful laugh. “Any time, we’d be happy to have you.”
Business is down 80 percent, he says. Before the pandemic, the restaurant used to be full. Now, each day, they only serve five or six tables and prepare eight to 10 takeout orders. “It’s really bad,” he says. “I just hope this will pass soon and business will build up again.” New Jumbo’s future is uncertain: According to Licensing Board records, the restaurant recently petitioned to transfer its liquor license to another operator at the same location.
The story is repeated across the neighborhood. Brian Moy, whose family has owned China Pearl since the late ’80s, and who also runs Ruckus and Shojo, says restaurants throughout Chinatown are down around that same 80 percent. At once-bustling dim sum emporium Hei La Moon, there are just six people eating in the upstairs dining room. The downstairs is closed. Two tables are seated at Penang Malaysian Cuisine, where the mouthwatering aroma of beef curry fills the air. At Hong Kong Eatery, the barbecued meats hang behind plexiglass barriers and a dispenser sprays disinfectant into the air. The dining room is closed, as are many in Chinatown, but there is a slow stream of customers getting food to go. At each restaurant, staffers say the same thing: There are so few customers. Business has plummeted.
“The restaurants are hurting,” says Chinatown Main Street executive director Debbie Ho. “I don’t know how much longer they can survive. I really don’t. Everybody’s trying their damnedest to do whatever they can to bring some business in.”
The pandemic is crushing independent restaurants citywide. But those in Chinatown were among the first to feel the pain — beginning in late January 2020, when some of the traditional Chinese-American customer base began to stay home after hearing about the virus from contacts overseas. Even before Donald Trump first used the phrase “the Chinese virus,” racist incidents targeting people of Asian descent were on the rise. In February of last year, Massachusetts Restaurant Association president Bob Luz estimated Chinatown restaurants had already seen business drop 30 percent to 80 percent.
Although anti-Asian racism continues to escalate in the United States, including several recent attacks on the elderly in California, those in Chinatown say they have not seen a recent surge. “It’s less about people being scared of physical assaults these days, and more a lingering worry that our community will continue to be invisible long after the pandemic is over, when we are still living with the scars and emotional and economic impacts,” says Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. “Our businesses will need a lot of help to recover.”
Today’s holiday ushers in a 15-day celebration of the Year of the Ox. But the usual festivities won’t be taking place, the banquets hosted by family associations called off. “There are maybe 30 to 34 family associations, and each would hold their own celebration at all these big restaurants. That’s all gone,” Ho says.
At Jia Ho Supermarket, where manager Jeric Wang says business is down 25 percent to 30 percent, Peach Farm owner Mui Ling Leung is doing her shopping. “There used to be a lot of reservations to welcome in New Year’s,” she says, as Ng translates. “The whole week was really full. Now there are no reservations. Hopefully there will be takeout orders.”
Wedding banquets are another important source of revenue. China Pearl hasn’t hosted one since 2019. “We’re not going to be able to do any this year, and we’re not sure what is going to happen next year,” Moy says. “It’s definitely gotten to the point of looking at our bank account and saying: How many more months can we lose? Can we survive until what month? It’s ultra-scary for me, because China Pearl has always been my foundation. No matter what hardships China Pearl has gone through in the past, it’s been brief and something that’s fixable. This is just out of our control.”
The restaurant now only opens Friday through Sunday. There’s just not enough foot traffic during the week: no lunch and after-work crowds from nearby offices, no student crowds from nearby universities. On snowy days, newer residents from the luxury towers used to show up to eat, but that demographic hasn’t returned at full strength, Moy says: It’s really the core traditional families of Chinatown that are supporting the neighborhood’s restaurants right now.
Forced to scale back, those restaurants are operating with bare-bones staff. China Pearl had a crew of 30 people in the kitchen. That’s now down to two. Ho recently visited Hei La Moon: “There were only two waiters for the whole place,” she says. “The ladies who used to push the dim sum carts, they’re all gone. Those bussing the tables, they’re no longer there. Those are all immigrant workers.”
Some of those who lost jobs are eligible for unemployment. Many are not. Before the pandemic, 29 percent of Asians in Boston were living in poverty, according to the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. The loss of restaurant jobs compounds that. Chinatown Main Street joined forces with longtime nonprofit Fair Foods to distribute $2 bags of fruits and vegetables at St. James the Greater Church; they’ve served more than 1,000 people thus far.
Chinatowns across the country are experiencing similar trials. “What’s at stake right now is the survival of Chinatown. San Francisco’s is almost dead. It’s struggling for its life. Manhattan’s is in the same position,” says cookbook author Grace Young. In October, partnering with the James Beard Foundation, she started the #savechineserestaurants campaign to do just that. The concept is simple, she says: Post a photo on Instagram of your favorite dish from a local Chinese restaurant, using the campaign hashtag, and ask a friend to do the same.
“The next month or two months can make or break Chinatown,” Young says. “My rosy scenario is if we could just get them through the next couple of months, then maybe there’s enough people that are vaccinated and then weather warms up and maybe there’s a little bit more normalcy. It’s not just saving Chinese restaurants. It’s saving a historic immigrant community that represents the American story.”
On that recent Friday in Boston’s Chinatown, there is a bright spot. Ho Yuen Bakery, opened in 1974 and shuttered by the pandemic, has just reopened in time for the holiday season. Its regulars are overjoyed. “The pineapple buns are the best,” says customer Wing Yee Hom. “People come just for that.”
Chinatown just needs to make it to the other side with legacy businesses like Ho Yuen, China Pearl, Hong Kong Eatery, and Peach Farm intact. “We have to go in right now. We can’t go in once a month,” Young says. “If you really love Chinatown, you have to show up a few times a week.”