A year in loss, heartache, looming eviction — and rescuing itself — for Chinatown

Theres no way to do business like this, she said in Mandarin, adding that she and her husband, both in their 60s, work 12-hour shifts every day because they cant afford more employees. The reality is that we need relief for at least four months of rent to survive in the long run.
Don Lee, a longtime community activist who runs a senior center, said a majority of shops will likely shutter if the city refuses to grant rent relief to tenants and waive property tax for landlords. Neither idea has been seriously touted by Mayor Bill de Blasio or local officials.
Chinatowns merchants and workers are bound by geography because of unique language and cultural needs, Lee said, so protecting them from eviction is crucial.
Its not like they can just start again in another neighborhood, he said.
At the same time, young Asian Americans have stepped up to help save many of these businesses. Some 200 volunteers in their 20s run Send Chinatown Love, a nonprofit that builds websites for restaurants and organizes food crawls to bring back foot traffic.
Others, such as Jefferson Li, are putting their own careers on hold to preserve their parents legacy. For three and a half decades, his family butcher shop, 47 Division Street Trading Inc., has been selling meats at discounted rates to both chefs and seniors on food stamps. Closing isnt an option, he said, because itll trigger a chain reaction throughout the entire neighborhood. So hes putting in 14-hour work days at the store, taking orders, handling deliveries and using social media to woo younger, non-Asian customers.
If we shut down, what will happen to the regulars who rely on us? he said. What will happen to the auntie who makes $14,000 a year after rent and now has to pay $1 extra for a pound of meat?
In Seattle, a tight-knit, multigenerational community will be key to recovery
Last year, I-Miun Liu had three bustling enterprises in Seattles Chinatown-International District. But the financial strain of the lockdown forced him to indefinitely shutter his coffee shop, Eastern Cafe, and permanently close his cocktail bar, Dynasty Room. Only his bubble tea chain, Oasis Tea Zone, remains.
Now, even as restrictions on restaurants have eased, peoples desire to eat out has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, Liu said. This puts his establishments at a disadvantage, since they were designed to give guests memorable dine-in experiences and dont translate easily to takeout service.
Its not just the shaky economy thats impacted small enterprises. Local protests over the police killing of George Floyd spilled into the International District over the summer, leading to extensive property damage at dozens of Asian-owned stores. Compared to most other major cities, the protests in Seattle have bred longer and more violent confrontations between the police and protesters, leaving shop owners like Liu worried about the future.
Many merchants share the sentiment, said Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director at the nonprofit Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, which works with half of the neighborhoods 425 small businesses.
Theres a lot of anxiety right now, she said, noting that five months after Floyds death, many owners still havent unboarded their windows, and may not do so until early next year, given the possibility of post-election unrest. Were still wondering when we can transition from reaction to recovery.
Young people in Seattle have also been on the frontlines of helping Chinatown recover.
In February, activist Sarah Baker, 31, co-founded a Facebook group to share information about and help small shops in the International District. Support the ID – Community United grew rapidly in the first few weeks, and members raised more than $16,000 for restaurants and a local nonprofit to feed nearly 900 health care workers. In early June, some artists used the platform to organize a mural painting party for stores that had been boarded up. (Baker shut down the page in July.)
She said the multigenerational composition of the International District helps to keep it a tight-knit, self-sufficient community and that this will be a key to its recovery.
In addition to fundraisers, younger organizers have also arranged block watches of unarmed volunteers patrolling the streets at night and connecting homeless people with social services groups. Many of them grew up under the influence of, and modeled their activism off local leaders such as the late Bob Santos, a Filipino American who was widely regarded as the districts unofficial mayor, and Donnie Chin, a Chinese American known as its unofficial security guard.
We colloquially say that Seattle is a Little Big Town, Baker said. Being able to uphold and grow that legacy is really important to a lot of folks. Its a high bar to hit.
San Francisco: Theres going to be a swath of displacement.
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, one of the most recognizable fixtures in San Franciscos Chinatown, has been creating handmade fortune cookies for more than half a century.
Even before the pandemic hit, the store had been struggling to turn a profit, fighting against the twin threats of rising rent and corporate competitors that mass-produce cookies. By the time Lunar New Year normally the busiest week in the neighborhood rolled around, the coronavirus and rampant anti-Asian racism had driven daily sales down to near zero.
Still, when the lockdown was lifted in July, owner Kevin Chan remained hopeful that he could turn the business around. But barely two months later, megafires turned the Bay Areas skies an apocalyptic orange, reducing visitors to one or two people a day comparable to the scene in late February.