In February 2020, lion dancers paraded through Boston’s Chinatown to honor the Chinese New Year in what turned out to be the last time before the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic and shut down society.
On Saturday, the beloved spectacle returned to the neighborhood to mark what Chinatown hopes will be a more prosperous era now that COVID-19 has loosened its grip.
“Come to Chinatown,” yelled Gilbert K. Ho, a director of the nonprofit Chinatown Main Street, as he posed for photographs Saturday afternoon with performers underneath the Chinatown Gate.
The event, organized by City Councilor Ed Flynn and several neighborhood organizations, was the first of four lion dance performances planned to be held in Chinatown on all Saturdays in June. In addition, on July 3, a farmers market is scheduled to be held at the Chinatown Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Ho said.
“What this day means for us as a community is bringing people together, letting people know that Chinatown is open,” said Flynn, whose district includes the neighborhood. “Our best days are yet to come in Chinatown.”
Since coronavirus first took hold in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, Chinatown has had to navigate months of illness, economic hardship, and a wave of anti-Asian bias stoked by Donald Trump. Between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28 of this year, the national coalition Stop AAPI Hate said it received 96reports from Massachusetts of anti-Asian hate and discrimination.
But even before the first COVID-19 case was detected in Massachusetts in February 2020, Chinatown began feeling the virus’s effects as fears of the illness kept visitors away and forced the cancellation of many Chinese New Year banquets that traditionally draw crowds.
“The businesses were really impacted early on from coronavirus,” Susan Chu, executive director of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England, said Friday in an interview. “If you took a walk through Chinatown it was like a wasteland.”
The ban on indoor dining during the opening of the pandemic dramatically impacted restaurants that power the neighborhood’s economy, and two or three businesses sold their operations to new owners, said Debbie Ho, executive director of Chinatown Main Street.
Even some efforts to ease the restaurant industry’s troubles didn’t quite work in Chinatown. The narrow streets made it difficult to establish outdoor dining spaces that flourished in places like the North End, Chu said, and some restaurants didn’t have enough money to buy extra furniture. Finding staff was also challenging because some laid-off workers hesitated to go back to work, she said.
“The enhanced unemployment benefits were an impediment to hiring people,” Chu said. “The workers were making more money on unemployment.”
Organizers chose lion dances as a way to promote the neighborhood because the ritual is thought to bring good luck and fortune.
“We try to use this symbol to signify we are chasing the coronavirus away,” said Gilbert Ho.
Rose He of Charlestown watched the dancing with her 5- and 10-year-old daughters. During the pandemic, He said she lost a part-time restaurant job, but continued to teach at a day care and has hope for the future.
“A healthy year and a lucky year is coming soon,” she said.
At the corner of Beach and Tyler streets, the restaurant Waku-Waku hosted a soft opening on Saturday. The ramen restaurant replaced a sushi spot that closed, said Dixon Leung, a manager.
“I see people coming out, having normal life, having dim sum, not doing takeout anymore,” he said. “They’re bringing the kids, bringing their grandma, grandpa out, [and having] dinner, which is a good sign.”
In its windows, Waku-Waku displayed signs that said the restaurant was hiring workers, and when the dining room reached capacity, Leung directed patrons to line up outside.
Susan Nguyen and Michael Chow, a couple from Medford, were among customers waiting outdoors.
“We wanted to try this new place,” said Chow. “The city is definitely more crowded and lively.”
It will take time for some segments of Chinatown’s customer base to return, like tourists and international students, according to Chu and Hung Goon, the association’s English secretary. The district also has to compete with Asian enclaves in the suburbs.
“In Malden and Quincy, their business is picking up,” said Goon, a Brighton resident. “Another issue here is parking. It’s hard to park.”
Lien Vo, an instrumentalist with the Boston Nam Pai Lion Dance Team, said performing on Saturday felt “different but the same.”
“The few times I’ve been here during the pandemic it was very dead. It didn’t feel like Chinatown,” said Vo, 23, a Dorchester resident. “But today with the crowd, with the music, it felt a little bit more familiar.”