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Chinatowns across the world have turned into ghost towns.
Underlying this viral panic is another dark symptom: increasing sentiments of racism and xenophobia towards Asian individuals and communities.
Hand sanitizer and face masks are sold out. Italy has closed its borders, and so too has the United States, as the number of Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases across the nation soar into the thousands.
As the coronavirus spreads, so too does fear over catching the disease. But underlying this viral panic is another dark symptom: increasing sentiments of racism and xenophobia—particularly towards Asian individuals and communities.
Chinatowns across the United States and the world have turned into ghost towns. “Most of the places have lost—if they’re lucky—50% [of customers]. If they’re not lucky, they’ve lost 80%, so a lot of restaurants cannot open at all.” Kenny Chang, president of KCAL, an insurance agency with a majority of Chinese clients, says of the deserted streets of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
Foot traffic in San Francisco’s Chinatown is reportedly down by more than 50%, and New York’s Chinatown has experienced losses of 50%. Anecdotal reports say that five restaurants have closed in San Gabriel Valley, an historically large Chinese enclave east of Los Angeles.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations with restaurateurs who are saying they might just go into renovation mode for a couple of months while they try to ride this out or they’ve had to furlough some of their employees and figure out alternate working schedules for a lot of them because they don’t want to completely lay everyone off right now,” Angela Chang, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Asian Business Association (ABA) in Los Angeles, says in a phone conversation. She also notes that Asian supermarkets have also seen fewer patrons lately.
A restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown closed just last week to remodel in response to the lack of business. The Chinese restaurant has been around for 20 years but decided to use the lull in customers to complete overdue renovations. The business owner, who declined to give her restaurant’s name, is not sure how long the closure will last.
“All the businesses are very quiet right now,” the owner, who wishes her name not be used, says. “What I heard is that a couple of restaurants are going to be closed for a couple of days or a week.”
She initially assumed that if people are afraid to be out in public, they might just order delivery instead. But delivery sales haven’t appeared to save Chinatown’s industry.“The Uber driver is going to stop over there in Chinatown, so [customers] are afraid to get the virus from the driver,” she says in a phone call.
A mere handful of tweets illuminate why these storefronts are seeing fewer customers than usual:
I haven’t ate Chinese food lately because I’m not trying to get that virus— Faith (@FaithLynnBaker) February 26, 2020
See why we need travel bans, libs? @realDonaldTrump should build a sensor that detects when anyone from China tries to enter the country & immediately sends ‘em back. Blago doesn’t wanna get the wonton virus. I’m afraid to even go out for Chinese food anymore... and I ❤️ Chinese!— BLAGO! (@GovBlago) March 9, 2020
I have completely turned off the news. Everything is doom and gloom and all Trumps fault. I will say this. I haven’t had any Chinese food PERIOD. I just don’t trust them from the origin of their food. Call me paranoid. I am a hermit anyway so this is right up my alley.— Craig “Sunsun” Allen (@just2muchfunfun) February 28, 2020
Bigotry and xenophobia have historically been a fixture in global pandemics. And despite it being 2020, racism has undeniably seeped into this new global crisis—a fact made abundantly clear by the way many refer to the virus as the “Chinese Coronavirus,” or similar names. Harris Ali, a sociology professor at York University, says the notion behind this is that “other parts of the world and other people are sources of danger and threat.” Ali also stresses that misinformation on social media about the virus has contributed to this economic decline.
Angela Chang answers all of the above to whether Asian businesses have experienced financial losses, fewer customers, and instances of racism. “There seems to be this lockdown mentality where everyone is just like ‘we’ll cook at home, we won’t eat out,’” Chang says. “The xenophobia is very painful to read about, but I do think as Americans we can rise above all of this. We’ve seen scarier situations happen and we’ve been able to rise together and help each other out."
Yet some individuals in the Asian community don’t want to make the business decline a racial issue. “People stay away more due to the virus than racism,” Eva Lee of Chinatown Merchants Association says in a Facebook message. Susan Au Allen, CEO of the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce, urges folks not to jump to accusations of racism just because a business is empty.
As Asian businesses continue to suffer, Congress members Grace Meng, Nydia Velázquez, and Judy Chu introduced a bill to help small businesses affected by the coronavirus concerns. The “Small Business Relief from Communicable Disease Induced Economic Hardship Act” will allow business owners to access loans of up to $2 million to assist with expenses. And Facebook announced it will help fund advertising campaigns for San Francisco Chinatown businesses to increase foot traffic and reduce concerns.
But as the outbreak escalates, Kenny Chang believes the worst is yet to come. “Right now is not the worst time. Right now is just the beginning. Maybe most of the businesses can survive for one month. But how many businesses can stay for two or three months with no income and heavy expenses? That I really don’t know.”
As Asian-owned industries are struggling over illegitimate coronavirus fears, the below tweet shows one way you can easily show your support: Eat Chinese food.
This is going to sound kinda mad, but this week, pls consider making your weekly takeout a Chinese takeaway. My family's businesses have all been impacted hugely by coronavirus panic 😭— Michelle Chai (@winyeemichelle) March 9, 2020