Fear Factor

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

Last Wednesday morning, Shirley Fong-Torres, who teaches Chinese cooking and leads walking tours of Chinatown, sat at a desk in her Commercial Street storefront, greeting customers arriving for that day's stroll. She had observed the principles of feng shui in positioning her desk so that it lay athwart a stream of energy that produces financial well-being. And for nearly 20 years, the cash has flowed nicely at Fong-Torres' business.

In recent months, however, even such precise arrangement of her furniture has not been able to protect Fong-Torres -- or numerous other Chinatown businesses with links to the food industry -- from financial setbacks arising from fears of contracting severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Though health officials say the epidemic is declining around the world, including in China, and only one confirmed case (contracted overseas) has been reported in San Francisco, Fong-Torres' recent tour reflects the lingering economic problems triggered by the public's fear of the disease. "It's not a bright picture at all," says Fong-Torres, a charismatic woman who regularly appears on the History Channel and the Food Network, as she eyes the half-dozen people waiting patiently for her to begin the tour. "Normally, we have 15 to 30 people."

After the little group is signed in, Fong-Torres rises from her desk to assure them they have nothing to worry about on their upcoming jaunt.

"I wanted to bring up a subject of something that is going on in Chinatown," she tells the tourists. "Even though I was recently featured in the latest issue of Bon Appétit, and I have been featured in national and international travel shows, tourism has been horrible. With this whole 9/11-dot-com bust-war in Iraq and SARS situation, it's a combination plate that I would like to return to the kitchen and throw down the garbage disposal! Get rid of it! It's been horrible for us and I hope that we will eventually get the tourism back.

"We need to embrace one another," Fong-Torres continues. "There is no SARS in Chinatown. Just because we're Asian doesn't mean we have SARS. If there were, I would certainly close my own business. So thanks for coming out today."

Like other Chinatown business owners, Fong-Torres believes that the epidemic, coupled with the sluggish economy, has delivered a serious financial blow to enterprises in the neighborhood, because tourists and local residents alike have unnecessarily avoided the area due to its imagined association with SARS.

"We work with several [student] tour groups ... and because of SARS, we have had six group cancellations in the past few months," says Sara Lim, owner of the Four Seas Restaurant on Grant Avenue, Chinatown's main thoroughfare. "What the tour leader tells me is that the students are afraid to come because they believe that all the people in Chinatown are wearing masks [to prevent SARS]."

To allay fears about the perceived connection between Asian restaurants and SARS, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick recently hosted a luncheon at a Richmond District Chinese restaurant, borrowing an idea from New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"Supervisor McGoldrick has heard from constituents who said they would not patronize Asian restaurants or businesses because they were afraid of catching SARS," explains McGoldrick staffer Julia Lin.

The San Francisco Chinatown Chamber of Commerce reports a 30 percent drop at most neighborhood businesses in recent months. But some restaurateurs say their numbers are even worse.

"We have been in business for 20 years and especially in the month of April, business was down by more than 30 percent," says Danny Cheung, a manager at Lichee Garden restaurant. "Usually, there are 60 to 80 people a night. There are 10 or 12 now. Sometimes it is only four or five people here in the entire evening."

"We have been down 35 to 40 percent," adds Stephen Chan, general manager of the Empress of China restaurant, known for its celebrity clientele and lavish banquets. "It has been bad economy since 9/11, the war with Iraq. With SARS, it was getting worse."

An aversion to Chinatown restaurants among both residents and tourists is not limited to San Francisco. Last month, Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, sent a letter signed by 54 House Democrats to President George Bush and the head of the Small Business Administration, asking the government to make low-interest loans available to businesses hurt by the SARS scare.

"We have been hearing that businesses have been severely impacted, especially the Chinatown restaurant and tourism industry, and that business has been down by 50 percent," says Wu staffer Cameron Johnson. In the meantime, business owners in San Francisco's Chinatown are devising their own strategies -- some of them surprising -- to win back customers.

Last Friday, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the city, launched "Chinatown Summer Scrub Down 2003," a campaign to clean up the crowded community's sidewalks, streets -- and restaurant bathrooms. Chinatown restaurants that meet certain standards for bathroom cleanliness -- including installing new toilet seats -- will receive certificates from the Department of Public Health that they can post in their windows to appeal to passers-by.

Though the campaign makes no mention of SARS, the public cleansing is aimed in part at easing lingering fears about the disease in Chinatown, say community organizers.

"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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