Over the summer, Connie Lai was having dinner with her dad Shu Cheung Lai, the owner of Go Believe Bakery in Manhattan's Chinatown. The bakery had closed in the spring due to the pandemic, and sales were still down 75%.
"Are you doing anything to market the business?" she asked him.
"Not really," he responded.
So she revived the bakery's Instagram account she started and began posting photos of buns and mooncakes, and then jumped in to research potential online delivery services. Lai, who works in the tech industry, said she had never been involved in her dad’s business before, but wanted to find ways to help.
“I can't make bread,” she told Gothamist/WNYC. “That's not my skill. But I just knew that this is something that he loved and I wanted to support him in the way that I can.”
It’s just one example of how second generation Chinese New Yorkers are trying to help businesses in Chinatown establish an online presence and adapt to the pandemic. Some had been working in their family businesses for years, but the bleak economy has pushed those efforts into high gear.
“I think it has taken it to a new level that there's a sense of like, ‘I really want to help my family's business now and I need to take a proactive effort,'” said 30-year-old Victoria Lee, co-founder of the merchant support initiative Welcome to Chinatown.
Lee said it’s about more than helping a single business. She and her friends see the neighborhood as part of their cultural identity. Lee said she remembers going to Chinatown every weekend as a kid, even after her parents moved to Brooklyn.
Listen to WNYC's Katherine Fung's report on struggling businesses in Manhattan's Chinatown.
“There used to be VHS stores that you would rent Hong Kong television shows,” she said. “So we would do that, grocery shop and we'd spend the whole day in Chinatown. Then it’d all culminate where it would be at my grandmother’s house, we’d all have dinner.”
"Not having that option, if I have kids, that [would be] just so devastating to me," she added.
Small businesses across New York City have struggled since March, when the pandemic spurred a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses. But for restaurants and stores in Chinatown, the economic downturn started even earlier, in January, as fears of the virus and xenophobia kept customers away.
At least three-dozen Chinatown businesses have shuttered in recent months, according to the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation. Faced with lower revenues and months of closures, other merchants are now operating at a loss and are tapping into their savings in order to stay open.
Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, said the pandemic has been disastrous for the neighborhood, which had already seen the loss of popular longtime establishments over the years, as immigrant business owners retired and their children didn't take over. In the current crisis, more business owners are shutting down, taking their skills and expertise with them.
Back in August, Helen Ng told the Chinese newspaper Sing Tao Daily that she didn’t see a way for her now-shuttered restaurant Amazing 66 to survive. “No visitors or tourists come to Chinatown now,” she said. “I think the business won’t recover at least for half a year or a year. So we decided to give up.”
Lee is hoping to combat that trend. Back in March, she and a friend noticed that New Yorkers in other neighborhoods were buying gift cards to support businesses, but places in Chinatown weren't equipped to sell them.
“A lot of Chinatown businesses are cash only, so we started Welcome to Chinatown as a way to try to set them up on some type of gift card platform,” she said.
Since then, the group has grown to about 50 volunteers who design merchandise for stores and restaurants and launched a fund that’s awarded $5,000 relief grants to dozens of businesses.
Norina Li, 36, received one of those grants for her parent’s variety store, K.K. Discount, a fixture on Mulberry Street for the past three decades. She said sales for the store, which specializes in tableware and cookware, have fallen by half this year, and the money from the grant went towards rent.
Her dad Ken Li said recently he's also been getting younger customers, something he attributes to social media campaigns from Welcome to Chinatown and another group, Send Chinatown Love.
"A lot of people are learning about our store, and that gives me a sense that tomorrow will be better," he said. "This support from young people —we've never experienced anything like it before."
But community leaders point out that while grassroots support for Chinatown’s businesses has been heartening, it can only go so far. Chen, whose organization has been working with restaurants to set up heaters for outdoor dining, said with winter here, indoor dining shut down and COVID-19 cases on the rise, he expects many more businesses in Chinatown to close over the next several months.
He thinks the only way small businesses in Chinatown—or anywhere—can survive is with more federal aid.
“That is not GoFundMe or any promotional campaign,” Chen said. “Yeah, that's very nice to draw people in. That's not going to solve that issue.”