Despite Lack of Coronavirus, Chinatown Grapples With Lost Business

Chinatown banquet halls in particular have had to deal with cancelled reservations.

Far East Cafe is unusually quiet on a Tuesday afternoon in early February. 

It’s toward the end of lunch hour and only a handful of people are seated in its regular restaurant space. The empty place — with its dark wooden walls, intricate chandeliers, and high ceilings framed in crown molding — looks hollow.

“Normally, lunchtime is so busy,” Wing Pau, a manager at Far East Cafe, says. “Right now, even the tour people won’t come to Chinatown.” 

2020 marks Far East Cafe’s 100th anniversary. It’s a monumental occasion, especially when Chinatown’s banquet halls are struggling to stay afloat in a gentrifying neighborhood. 

But as panic grows within the Chinese American community over COVID-19 — colloquially known as coronavirus — in China’s Hubei province, the new year is feeling a lot more solemn than celebratory. Paranoia has led to numerous cancelled reservations — and banquet halls like Far East Cafe are unsure of what comes next.

The upstairs banquet room at Far East Cafe in Chinatown on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

It’s a scene that has been repeated several times across Chinatown’s restaurants. During a Thursday lunchtime, New Asia boasts only a few full tables in its large room, where people push dim sum carts between empty seats. Maybe that’s typical for a weekday lunch, but according to New Asia’s manager Hon So, the room is normally packed.

“Normally our restaurant is full,” So says. “Business is even worse at night now. No one is coming out.”

In fact, the busiest part of the restaurant on this mid-February day is the  press conference hosted by District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, where he, Chinatown leaders, government employees, and Chinese language newspapers have gathered. It’s an attempt to quell fears about the coronavirus. 

Later, on Feb. 25, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency for San Francisco. Though there are no confirmed cases in the city’s residents as of press time on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on the same day that American outbreaks are inevitable. 

“I understand that there is fear in many communities, including this community,” Peskin said during his press conference. “But Chinatown is absolutely 100 percent open for business.” 

Lunar New Year is meant to be one of the most lucrative times of the year for Chinese restaurants. Big banquet halls like Far East Cafe earn much of their yearly revenue from January through early February, when family associations and other parties host large banquets that can include hundreds of people. 

So when they’re cancelled, that means hundreds of lost customers.

It’s an especially damaging prospect for places like Far East Cafe, which doesn’t require deposits, even for large parties.

“We have good relationships with them — we don’t have a deposit or anything,” Pau says. “If they say ‘cancel,’ it’s cancelled here.”

That also means Far East Cafe has no safety net. Pau estimates that over 200 reserved tables have been cancelled since the Lunar New Year started. By his guess, that’s over $100,000 lost in revenue. 

It’s a problem that Imperial Palace, another banquet hall in Chinatown, has also been facing. Gibson Yee, who helps his mother manage the restaurant, says that most of his Lunar New Year business doesn’t come from family association reservations, but smaller party bookings made by families or groups of friends.

Yee believes that they’ve lost about 100 tables in total from coronavirus fears, something that’ll affect their “whole year of operation.” It’s crucial for them to make profit during the Lunar New Year, but it hasn’t happened.

He says that his mother, who manages the place, has suffered from several sleepless nights because of the stress. Yee compares this situation to the SARS outbreak of 2003, believing the current panic is worse, something Pau agrees with.

“SARS period was better than this year,” Pau says.

A golden throne sits in the entryway at Imperial Palace Restaurant in Chinatown on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

What happens next?

As for next steps, Yee isn’t sure what they can do to make sure Imperial Palace can survive.

“We might have to cut down on workers. We might have to ask the landlord if we could get a rent decrease or something,” Yee says. “But that all depends on the situation. If it continues like this, I don’t think we’ll be able to manage.”

Potential layoffs and cut hours are reflections of how fragile the situation can be for working class communities, who are inevitably affected disproportionately when it comes to these wide-reaching crises. 

“Everybody depends on this place for their paycheck, for their kids’ school fees, tuition, rent, insurance,” Yee says. “It all comes down to effect. This is not just us alone — this is a whole community.”

So doesn’t plan to cut any hours or lay anyone off from New Asia. “They have families too,” So says. 

But cut hours have already happened at Far East Cafe, well before the coronavirus really hit mainstream news. Pau says that on Jan. 1, Far East Cafe went from opening seven days a week to six, closing on Mondays because of a pre-existing situation: an increasingly gentrifying Chinatown.

Chinatown banquet halls were already in precarious situations, with several closures leaving only two large-scale halls open (Far East Cafe and New Asia). Moreover, the new banquet halls that have been rolling in — like the highly anticipated Empress by Boon — don’t serve the Chinatown community, says the Chronicle

The interior of Far East Cafe in Chinatown on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Chinatown businesses in panic

Chinatown banquet halls haven’t been the only businesses impacted by coronavirus worries. AA Bakery, a shop on Stockton Street that sells flaky egg tarts, cakes with frosted roses, and other desserts, was the center of a WeChat rumor that halved business temporarily, according to its manager, Henry Chen. Someone — Chen doesn’t know who — said that someone at AA Bakery had the coronavirus. “Wishing peace and good health for everyone, and happy new year,” the message ends.

“It was a terrifying situation,” Chen tells SF Weekly. But business bounced back after a few days. “It was like there was never a rumor at all.” 

Understanding how coronavirus paranoia comes about is twofold. For people relying on stereotypes of Chinese people, it’s easy to categorize their fear as xenophobia and racism.  “They are afraid of Chinese people,” Pau says.

That may be what’s contributing to the decrease in tourist foot traffic, something that businesses like the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company relies on. 

“We lost 75 percent of our business because of the coronavirus since Jan. 25, the new year,” Kevin Chan, owner of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, says. “Normally, in the new year, Chinatown is packed with people and happiness and firecrackers and with noise. But now it’s just dead.”

Equating San Francisco’s Chinatown to Wuhan is also a symptom of xenophobia and racism. “A person’s risk for this virus depends on travel history, not on race, ethnicity or culture,” the Department of Public Health wrote to SF Weekly in an emailed statement. But  Kevin Chan feels like there’s not much they can do.

“We cannot control people’s minds. To me, they’re totally wrong,” Kevin Chan says. “We’re in America. We’re not in Wuhan.”

Kevin Chan believes that the most recent rush of decreased business, coupled with pre-existing economic struggles, will have long-term effects for Chinatown businesses. 

“They are closing down. Because of the coronavirus, this will expedite the businesses closing faster,” Kevin Chan says. “They cannot handle it.”

The Far East Cafe in Chinatown on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Fear within the Chinese diaspora

Earlier, I mentioned that the coronavirus fear was twofold.  Part of the fear comes from within the Chinese-American community. That’s when things get a little bit more complicated.

The majority of Imperial Palace’s customers are Chinese, and business has decreased by 60 percent, Yee says. 

“Somehow, they just have that fear inside them,” Yee says in reference to his Chinese customers.

For bicultural communities, the fear can be exacerbated if you have personal ties to mainland China, where the virus is at its worst. 

“I believe a lot of people are getting information from their relatives in China, who are escalating the situation,” Yee says.

It’s hard to articulate exactly why there’s so much paranoia across the Chinese diaspora, even if you’re thousands of miles away from the outbreak. Much of this is probably due to social media — some videos and stories about people’s experiences with the coronavirus and quarantines have made it past the censors on WeChat.

“That puts the fear in them over here,” Yee says, in reference to news of quarantines. 

It’s something that I’ve seen over a Lunar New Year dinner in California, when someone explained to me that their high school teacher was one of the first to die from COVID-19. They discussed sending money back for his funeral and then warned me not to go outside too much, because that would increase my chances of getting the coronavirus — despite the fact that we both live oceans apart from China, and I knew of no one who had been there recently.

When I asked them about it again, they cited bits of information they had heard online, like people spreading the virus asymptomatically (there’s still not enough hard proof for this) or test kits producing inconclusive results.

For some, the fear comes from a personal place. Imagine that you — despite not having set foot on the mainland for years — have family or friends in China, who are understandably scared over the crisis. Every day, you see videos or news of crowded hospitals, or people self-quarantined, or “citizen journalists” — who have tasked themselves with reporting the outbreak — disappearing. You have old classmates who have fallen ill. Some of their parents have too, and they didn’t survive.

So despite being thousands of miles away, despite living in the Bay Area where the risk for getting the coronavirus is virtually nonexistent, the crisis still hits home. Because even though you are safe, the people you grew up with are not. 

Unnecessary consequences

So, how to quell fears? 

“It’s no use for me and you to go out and tell people,” Yee says. “They’re going to think we’re stupid.”

Yee believes that San Francisco government officials have to step in and come out to the community in person, and “tell them our streets are safe, our air is safe to breathe.” As the Department of Public Health stated before, the risk for COVID-19 isn’t dependent on race or ethnicity, but travel history. 

“If they don’t put a stop to this, or if they don’t try to help us out, or help the whole community out, I don’t know how long this thing is going to last in China,” Yee says. “I’m not talking about the virus. I’m talking about the fear. It’s going to keep spreading towards this side of the world.”

Public officials in San Francisco seem to agree. 

“Although there are still zero confirmed cases in San Francisco residents, the global picture is changing rapidly, and we need to step up preparedness,” said Mayor Breed when she declared the state of emergency in San Francisco this week. 

Other politicians have also tried to combat people’s paranoia. Supervisor Peskin and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have made visits to Chinatown in support of local businesses following the coronavirus scare, sitting down for dim sum lunches and speaking with Chinatown community leaders in attempt to quell fear. Mayor Breed was also spotted shopping for earrings in Chinatown. 

District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin at a New Asia dim sum lunch press conference with Chinatown community leaders and city officials. (Photo by Grace Li)

“I’ve been on the board during the SARS epidemic. I have been on the board during 9/11,” Peskin said during his February press conference. “I’ve seen national and international catastrophes and how they can impact our local economy.”

Francis Christian Chan, senior project manager for the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, also says that the city has pre-existing programs to support local impacted businesses in various ways: For example, the Legacy Business Program can give a business up to $500 per full-time employee annually.

Despite these efforts, Chinatown businesses are still struggling, as they have been for years prior to the coronavirus’ existence. It also seems that other economies are starting to feel the impacts — American stocks have been dropping, and some fear that a global recession is inevitable if the COVID-19 outbreak isn’t contained soon. Currently, over 79,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus, with at least 2,625 deaths and 24,944 recoveries, with the majority of these infections happening in China. As of Feb. 25, there are no confirmed novel cases of COVID-19 in San Francisco.

Preparing for a potential coronavirus outbreak in America means preparing how you would for the flu — washing your hands, staying home if you’re sick, getting a flu shot. Preparing for a potential coronavirus outbreak does not mean making inaccurate assumptions about San Francisco’s Chinatown. 

As long as people continue to do so, business for this city neighborhood will keep plummeting, and fears about racism will continue.

“For Chinese people in America, it doesn’t matter if you’re first generation, second generation, third generation,” Chen says. “You’ll still be affected if your skin doesn’t change.”

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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