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In a Chinatown With Fewer and Fewer Asians, Many Fear What the Future Will Be

By Russell Oh                                                                                                                                      

On that Friday in July, just five paying customers came through Lucky Beauty Salon at what, before COVID-19, was one of the busiest intersections in Chinatown.

“I close now at five to five-thirty these days. I’m afraid to open up for so long. People are not around. You open up and people are not around,” Shu Rong “Jessie” Gao, 40, said as someone translated her Cantonese dialect into English.

In the two years that she’s operated her salon near the intersection of East Broadway and Catherine Street, she’s watched the number of vacant stores once run by Asians rise.

She is among Chinatown residents, longtime and relative newcomers alike, who are unsure what will become of their historic enclave and whether they have a future there. The make-up of Chinatown’s people and places has been changing at a pace that disturbs many longtime residents. A survey in 2019 revealed that the Lower East Side, which mostly is comprised Chinatown, had declined to 33% Asian, while the white population had risen to 30%.

Grayson Chin, 46, a Chinatown resident since 2006, describes a common practice in his own apartment building, where many Asian residents are in rent-controlled or rent-subsidized apartments But when longtime renters move out, and new tenants move in, landlords will completely gut renovate apartments and raise rent up to market value.” The people moving into these apartments, Chin said, mostly are Caucasian.

“It was easy for them (her parents) to go there because people like them lived there,” said Shuet Moy, 52, who spent her childhood in Chinatown before moving to New Jersey when she became an adult. With Chinese people moving out, and other ethnicities moving in, Chinatown might cease to be the neighborhood that welcomed thousands upon thousands of Chinese immigrants. 

Chinatown is not only undergoing demographic changes, but also economic changes. Moy said she could only think of one business that has remained open since her childhood, a supermarket where her mom bought Chinese sausage to make sticky rice. Before, Moy said, “You saw a lot of more down to earth mom-and-pop shops. Now, they’re more corporate, more commercial. ”

Among the biggest losers, as Chinatown changes, are its restaurants. Restaurants reached a record low average monthly revenue in March 2020 when New York City went into COVID-19 lockdown. More than 1,000 New York restaurants have closed. Things got so bad that famous chef and cookbook author Gwen Young, in partnership with Welcome to Chinatown’s Sik Faan/Let’s Eat Fund, raised $20,000 to support local Chinese restaurants.

But as pandemic restrictions are being lifted, some Asian-owned businesses are among those re-opening. Part of what kept them afloat throughout the pandemic was New York State’s temporary ban against foreclosures and evictions of those who fell behind on mortgages and rents.

“Business is coming back,” Chin said. “But businesses are still, on average, eight to 10 months behind on rent. Soon, Chinatown won’t be Chinatown if gentrification keeps happening. They’re pushing the Chinese out with higher prices.”