Whose Chinatown? “A Better Life?” Podcast

A sign in L.A. Chinatown’s Far East Plaza reminds visitors that Covid precautions are still in effect. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

In Los Angeles Chinatown, local shops and restaurants eagerly welcome back customers as they return to business after the height of the pandemic shutdown. But the neighborhood’s rebound from Covid has been uneven.  The pandemic has shone a light on the divide separating the successful and the struggling, as well as concerns about anti-Asian violence.

In the latest episode of A Better Life?, executive producer Quincy Surasmith explores the starkly different visions for the future of L.A. Chinatown and the organizations promoting these competing ideas.

Customers line up at Phoenix Bakery in L.A. Chinatown, which first opened in 1938. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

When the Covid-19 pandemic first struck Los Angeles, Chinatown was one of the first neighborhoods to feel the impact. Business in Chinatown slowed dramatically as its usual customer base, visitors and downtown workers, stayed home.

A year and a half later, life has returned to many of Chinatown’s plazas and shopping centers. Legacy businesses like Won Kok and Phoenix Bakery now boast long lines as a result of campaigns to support Chinatown restaurants and shops.

Restaurants like Pearl River Deli, which opened as a pop-up right before Covid started, managed to weather the hardest times of the pandemic. “It was a little challenging when the city decided to also get rid of outdoor dining and just forced all restaurants to go completely takeout,” said owner and chef Johnny Lee. “And we were ready for it.”

Pearl River Deli opened right before the pandemic restrictions, and managed to draw crowds for both outdoor dining and takeout service. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

Lee was able to keep his business going by keeping his team small, and connecting with customers on social media to promote specials and take out orders. “Because we’re a small restaurant, we’re able to maneuver fairly fast,” said Lee. Pearl River Deli is now set to move into a larger permanent space.

George Yu, Executive Director of Chinatown Business Improvement District. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

Pearl River Deli is one of many thriving businesses in Far East Plaza, owned and managed by Macco Investments. Macco’s principal representative is George Yu, who is also the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, an organization that promotes business development in Chinatown.

“Certainly, the pandemic … introduced new challenges for all businesses,” said Yu. “Was there any challenges that could not be overcome? I don’t believe so,” he added.

Across Los Angeles, Asian-owned businesses have been hit extra hard by the pandemic. According to a survey by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the Asian Business Association of Los Angeles, over 60% of respondents had reported a large negative impact. More than half had to close at some point, and nearly a third reduced their operating capacity by more than 50%.

Yu maintains that the pandemic, alone, was not responsible for businesses closing. He argues that some business owners were already heading toward retirement or moving to new locations outside Chinatown. But there are many who see a direct connection between the onset of Covid-19 and increased economic hardship experienced by Chinatown businesses and residents.

Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) organizers in their office. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) is a group calling attention to the neighborhood’s vulnerable residents: seniors, residential tenants, struggling businesses, and unhoused people. CCED acknowledges that these groups faced challenges long before Covid arrived. But they say the pandemic has made life even harder for them.

During the pandemic, CCED organized lists of local businesses to support and created a coupon book to point customers their way. They also partnered with Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) to create a mutual aid program in Chinatown, distributing over $60,000 in financial assistance, along with 5,611 meals, 1,500 bags of produce, and 2,461 bags of supplies to over 500 community members in Chinatown.

Chinatown restaurant Plum Tree Inn closed permanently in 2020. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

Despite efforts to support businesses in the neighborhood, some have permanently closed. Plum Tree Inn, which had been in Chinatown since 1979, closed its doors permanently in 2020. The shuttered storefront stands in stark contrast to Blossom Plaza, a new residential development across the street.

Zen Mei Bistro’s business dropped by 80% since the pandemic started, and has reduced its staff to two. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

Even for businesses that have not closed, trying to rebound has not been easy. Michelle Liu, who runs Zen Mei Bistro, says that her clientele has dropped by 80% since the pandemic started. She’s had to let go of two workers, leaving just two remaining–and she says even that sometimes feels like too many.

Liu adds that her business has been able to hang on thanks to the support of local organizations. The Chinatown Service Center helped them apply for federal aid. She also named CCED as a key supporter.

CCED has also been meeting with small business tenants who are finding themselves evicted or looking for cheaper spaces, as shopping centers and swap meets in Chinatown are sold to developers.

Dynasty Center, a shopping mall housing small Chinatown businesses, was bought by Redcar Properties in 2021. Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith

In recent years, Redcar Properties has bought shopping center properties including The Shop and Dynasty Center. CCED has been sharing some of the experience of these shop owners on their instagram account.

CCED’s vocal opposition to new developments and gentrification has regularly brought them into conflict with some of the new businesses in Chinatown. “What it’s going to take is for these businesses and gentrifiers, residential or commercial, to feel uncomfortable and to hear these stories about what’s actually happening to community members,” said Janis Yue, an organizer with CCED.

CCED and BID are two of the most visible examples of a deep philosophical divide over Chinatown’s future.

“I think back to the roots of Chinatown as this place that was for working class folks, working class immigrants, to really thrive. And so I think that we want to continue to honor that vision of Chinatown,” said CCED’s Janis Yue. “And it’s a Chinatown where everybody, no matter who they are, has what they need to thrive.”

George Yu, however, sees the need to bring in new business and new residents willing to spend money and invest in Chinatown. Yu insists that any fear of dramatic change in Chinatown is overblown, as many legacy property owners and organizations still remain in the neighborhood.

“Chinatown needs to be a balanced community in order to be sustainable. If Chinatown was solely for the old family association, why would the younger generation come back?” asks Yu. “A subsidized community just cannot work. There has to be people paying the freight.”

A Better Life? and Feet in 2 Worlds are supported by the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, an anonymous donor, and readers like you.

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