Fear Factor

SARS has barely touched S.F. Yet tourists and others are staying away from Chinatown in droves.

"There has been a decrease in the restaurant business, and one main reason we know people are not coming is because people associate Chinatown with Asia and SARS," says Cathie Lam of the Chinatown Community Development Corp. "The 'Scrub Down,' this activity is to boost the tourist activity. To say, 'Let's come back to Chinatown. It is still as vibrant as ever, the food is as good as ever ... why not come visit and enjoy yourself as before?'"

Some restaurateurs say they believe the worst is over, and they are hopeful that business will pick up as summer approaches. "I think now it's back to normal because summer is coming," says Kinson Wong, manager of the R&G Lounge on Kearny Street. "SARS is the past tense; I don't think it will be a big problem for Chinatown."

Still, many Chinatown eateries are struggling. Insiders point to Louie's Restaurant, an upscale Washington Street dining spot, as an example of the straits that some businesses face.

Louie's opened its doors last year, after owner/chef Guo Sheng Lei sank several hundred thousand dollars -- his life savings from working as a Chinatown cook for more than 20 years -- into remodeling the restaurant. But business has since plunged an estimated 30 percent.

"This is [Lei's] dream," says Kenneth Lee, a manager at Louie's. "When you don't have an education, especially when you're from China, you work in a restaurant and you dream that someday, somehow, you will own your own restaurant. ... He has spent three-fourths of his life working so hard to save enough to start this business. It's quite something, and it's really bad timing."

To attract customers, Louie's slashed the price of dim sum plates; during the height of the SARS scare, it switched to using disposable wooden chopsticks so customers would feel safer. To cut costs, several employees have been laid off, and on a recent visit, the back half of the restaurant was completely dark -- employees had turned off all the lights to save on the electricity bill.

"We try everything," says Harry Leung, another manager at Louie's. "We try to make everything as clean as possible. Even if there were no SARS, the economy is bad. SARS is like a [negative] bonus."

Shirley Fong-Torres, the tour guide, says she is concerned about Louie's and other friends in Chinatown. "Instead of tourists going into restaurants hungry," she says, "the restaurants are hungry for [tourists]."

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