[Columbia News Service]: "Volunteers Bring Their Digital Skills to Help Save Chinatown’s Restaurants"
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Originally published: November, 2020
In February, Justin McKibben, 28, set out on his skateboard to buy pork dumplings from 88 Lan Zhou in Manhattan’s Chinatown. He rode past the entrance twice before realizing he’d missed it. The security gate was rolled down. A sign read, “Due to the recent decline of our business, we have decided to temporarily close.” This was one of his favorite restaurants, so he was disappointed when he couldn’t find a GoFundMe page to support it. He tried phoning, but the call went straight to voicemail.
The next month, McKibben still had that closure on his mind as the coronavirus spread through the city. Chinatown’s businesses were hit especially hard; by one estimate, around 70 percent of its restaurants shut down by mid-March. McKibben, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent and works as a software engineer, wondered if he could use his tech and cultural fluency to support Chinatown businesses. When he floated the idea on Instagram, more than 40 people replied that they wanted to help, too.
The result was Send Chinatown Love, a volunteer-run organization using digital tools and donations to help businesses that were struggling through the pandemic. Now, with winter coming and restaurants shuttering all over New York City, the group’s 27 volunteers are determined to help Chinatown establishments hold out as long as possible.
Many of the 22 businesses they serve have older owners with limited English. Most are cash-only, with no internet presence and no experience using online delivery services. The group has raised more than $123,000 in direct donations and gift-card purchases for these businesses over the last six months and created websites and social media accounts for them.
Kelly Tan, 41, opened Happy Veggie Restaurant just three weeks before the citywide shutdown in March. In June, a Send Chinatown Love volunteer helped her set up an Instagram account, which she uses to share photos of handmade spinach dumplings and curry potato buns.
“I speak some English, but only a little bit,” Tan said. “When someone helps me with social media, I’m very happy.”
In September, Send Chinatown Love organized a month-long food crawl to draw attention – and customers – to 13 restaurants. Participants, following a map of restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops created by Send Chinatown Love, spent more than $29,000. But merchants worried about how they would keep up the momentum, especially in colder weather. Since tourism has dried up, attracting young people to Chinatown is key, said Patrick Mock, who works at the bakery, 46 Mott.
“Time is ticking, so we need to come up with something quick,” Mock, 26, said. “We’re going to need to start thinking outside the box.”
But outside-the-box strategies can be a hard sell to Chinatown’s businesses owners. In its first month, Send Chinatown Love phoned 50 businesses, offering donations. Only one called back, said McKibben. He believe that store owners didn’t want to feel indebted to anyone. So, Send Chinatown Love changed course, building an online system for customers to buy gift cards they could use at the restaurants in the future.
“In Chinese culture, people want to feel self-sufficient,” said McKibben. “If they’re not starving, they don’t want to accept free money.”
Even under the most dire circumstances, some businesses have resisted Send Chinatown Love’s efforts. In September, a fire and the resulting water damage ruined 40% of Grand Tea and Imports’ inventory, including rare teas that owner Zhong Ming Liu, 58, had kept there since opening in 2006. Two days later, donations at a fundraising page for the store, created by Send Chinatown Love at the beginning of the pandemic, jumped from $3,000 to more than $10,000. As of mid-November, donors had given $20,801.
Zhong Ming Liu, left, and Ling Liu of Grand Tea and Imports. (Photo/Send Chinatown Love)Though donations started pouring in almost immediately, Zhong Ming Liu’s daughter, Alice Liu, 26, waited to tell her dad until a few days later. At first, he insisted they could recover on their own and was skeptical about the donors’ generosity.
His daughter knew the feeling. When Send Chinatown Love reached out to her in March, Alice Liu worried about their lack of experience.
“It was run by a bunch of passionate youngsters,” she said. “Passion only runs so far in Chinatown, because there are a lot of hoops to jump through.”
Send Chinatown Love hasn’t been able to jump through all of those hoops. One major obstacle for local businesses has been a government aid system that, in many ways, is incompatible with Chinatown. Several business owners lamented that some documents weren’t available in Chinese.
John Chang, one of Send Chinatown Love’s merchants, said his PPP loan application was rejected because of spelling errors.
At a table in his restaurant, Lanzhou Ramen, Chang was wringing a napkin in his hands. At the beginning of the pandemic, he was freezing dishes and selling them to friends-of-friends in Long Island and New Jersey. He still delivers frozen food in Manhattan and hopes it will be a stable income source in winter. Overall, he said through a translator, he hasn’t had time to think about what could go wrong.
Meanwhile, Send Chinatown Love has called on officials to support the state COVID-19 Small Business Recovery Lease Act, which would offer an abatement on property taxes. Supporters say taking pressure off landlords would help the small businesses that rent from them. Local politicians and community leaders have also called for rent cancellation and a moratorium on commercial mortgages.
“This is not a compassion plea,” State Assembly Member Ron Kim said at an October rally in support of Chinatown’s businesses. “If you lose the workers, if you lose the small businesses, there is no economy.”
For some businesses, it’s already too late. The restaurant 88 Lan Zhou, which closed temporarily, managed to reopen amid the city’s limits on dining. Meanwhile, the owners finally agreed to let Send Chinatown Love put their restaurant on its list of merchants. But it wasn’t enough, and they announced the noodle shop would shut permanently on Oct. 31. In a final push to help them, Send Chinatown Love raised more than $20,000, using the money to buy more than 1,000 bags of 88 Lan Zhou’s frozen dumplings for local seniors.
Customers lined up to support 88 Lan Zhou in its final days. On Oct. 30, the store sold out of dumplings, then the last of its chili and soy sauces. The next day, the restaurant’s Instagram showed a photo of the empty storefront, its front door wide open. Longtime customers posted photos of their own freezers stuffed with bags of frozen dumplings and asked friends to ship bottles of sauce to California.
One Instagram user, Jonathan Randall, bought as many dumplings as he could.
“I had COVID, am doing a fraction of the standup and acting gigs I normally do,” he wrote, “but 88 Lan Zhou closing is what brings a tear to my eye.”
McKibben wishes Send Chinatown Love had been able to get involved sooner. “Had we been able to get them on board a month ago, I think we probably could have saved 88 Lan Zhou,” he said.
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story, as long as they adhere by these guidelines.