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The New York Times

A disastrous year for Brooklyn’s Chinatown: “It’s just so hard”

NEW YORK – First came the virus, which John Chan said cost his restaurant hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales. Then came the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes which made some people nervous and kept them away from home and from the restaurant, further hurting business. “It’s like heaven is playing tricks on us,” said Chan, a community leader in Brooklyn’s Chinatown and owner of the Golden Imperial Palace, a cavernous dining room. More than a year after the first New York pandemic, the streets of Sunset Park in south Brooklyn reflect the pandemic’s deep and unhealed wounds, entwined with signs of a neighborhood slowly trying to come back to life. Sign up for The Morning Newsletter from the New York Times. The sidewalks are filling with buyers and sellers, and more businesses are open to welcoming customers. But the owners are still struggling to pay the rent and keep their businesses alive, while many workers laid off after the city closed last year are still unemployed. And while the vaccination rate has increased significantly in New York, the coronavirus is still seeping through this crowded neighborhood. The zip code, which also includes Sunset Park, which is also home to a significant Latino population, had the highest rate of positive cases in Brooklyn in early April, almost twice as many as in the city as a whole. Some residents expressed skepticism about the vaccines, frightened by false information shared via TikTok and other social media. The spate of hate crime and violence against people of Asian origin in New York and across the country, fueled in some cases by racist claims that Asian Americans are responsible for spreading the virus, has added to the stress. “I’m telling you, if it doesn’t get better, I’m done. Really done, ”Chan said, describing his ongoing financial challenge. “And now we have to deal with this discrimination against us.” As he sat in his mostly empty restaurant in Sunset Park, the lyrics of an old Hong Kong pop song raced silently across the floor of a large LED screen. T-shirt boxes with the words “Stop Asian Hate” piled next to a banquet table. Nicole Huang, who runs a local relief effort and has strong ties to the business community, estimated that around three dozen establishments, including restaurants, clothing stores, and hair salons, had closed for good during the pandemic along Eighth Avenue, the neighborhood’s business hub. Chan said he laid off 80 of his 100 workers and did not recall any of them. Like other restaurant owners, he tried to dine al fresco and pitch tents in the parking lot. But after being damaged by strong winds last November, he took it as a bad omen and gave up. Bunsen Zhu, who runs a hair salon on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, closed the salon two weeks before the city’s official lockdown last year, alarmed after reading broadcasts from China. He also stocked up on face masks long before many other New Yorkers. Still, that did little to protect him from the financial onslaught of the pandemic. Before the outbreak, many of Zhu’s customers were temporary Chinese workers who spent brief time in the neighborhood before working across the country, usually in restaurants. But when the death toll rose in New York last spring, many of them didn’t return and still haven’t, which harmed businesses that depend on them. “It’s just so hard,” said 36-year-old Zhu as he stretched out on a couch in his hair salon. A clerk sat at the other end and was sound asleep. “Either you’re starving at home or you’re trying to make ends meet somehow.” Like most of the people interviewed for this article, Zhu spoke in Mandarin. Zhu used to have more than a dozen customers a day, now he counts them on the one hand. He’s managed to keep paying rent after his landlord gave him a small discount despite refusing to provide details and is depressed about what the rest of this year will bring. “We’re just waiting for this thing to be over,” said Zhu. At Pacific Palace, a dim sum parlor down the street from Zhu’s salon, customers are slowly streaming back, but not enough for the restaurant to make a big profit. The pandemic lockdown resulted in 40 weddings being postponed and all but four of the restaurant’s 60 employees laid off, according to its manager Janet Yang. “We tried so many things to survive,” said Yang. The restaurant is the first to offer take-away, which now accounts for a third of its business. Outdoor seating never attracted many people, partly because the restaurant is known for hosting large parties that were banned for months. “The noise level has increased again,” said Yang, pointing to the larger crowds on the streets. “But I have a feeling that the neighborhood as a whole has not recovered.” Justin Cheng, 54, is one of the restaurant’s four remaining employees, who was called back as a waiter last September after being fired in March. As the months passed, he remembered, “We were eating less and less and cheaper.” Pacific Palace turned part of its outdoor space into a market where a woman recently oversaw the sale of packaged goods such as Chinese biscuits and sachets of goji berries. There were only a few customers. Men haggled oysters and fish from styrofoam boxes, competing with the larger fishmongers whose containers of frozen seafood were spread across the sidewalk. Not far away a woman was selling black chicken and duck meat; It was unclear whether she was licensed to sell raw poultry. “It’s just a small business to make ends meet to have a few more sips of food,” said Ms. Jiang as she plucked stray feathers from a chicken. 61-year-old Jiang only gave her last name for fear of attracting the authorities’ attention. She jumped from the table where she was selling poultry to another where she was selling earrings and bracelets. She lives in the neighborhood with her husband and son, but was working in a Chinese restaurant in Florida when the pandemic broke out. The restaurant closed, so Jiang returned to Sunset Park. Not far away, Naian Yu, who runs a small clothing factory on the edge of the neighborhood, said he was diving into his savings and worried about how long he could keep up with his $ 8,000 monthly rent. Last year he switched from supplying clothing to department stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s to making personal protective equipment after signing an agreement with a company to supply them to local hospitals. The work became vital after the department store contracts dried up, but then the protective gear contracts were also terminated in December, abandoning him and his staff. “It was our lifeline,” said Yu. Orders from department stores have resumed, but they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Tenants’ difficulty paying rent has made it difficult for smaller landlords to pay their mortgages and their own bills. Abdallah Demes is still looking for someone to fill the storefront in the building he owns on Eighth Avenue. He released his previous tenant from the lease months ago, two years before the lease expired. The tenant had sublet the space to a china shop but was forced to close it as a nonessential business during the lockdown, and the tenant told Demes he couldn’t afford the monthly rent of more than $ 4,000. Demes had offered two months’ rent free of charge. “‘Just stay,’ I told him,” he said. “But we both knew the deal couldn’t last more than two months off. It was the right thing. “Mengyao Zheng, 60, who runs a mahjong living room in the basement, said the players came in for hours and played to” relieve stress. ” At Chuan World, a Sichuan restaurant, manager Queenie Dong was less concerned about the recovery of business than she was about social media posts she kept reading raising questions about coronavirus vaccine safety. 30-year-old Dong said she became scared after her phone was filled with TikTok videos and WeChat posts falsely claiming the vaccines were harmful and even deadly. “Younger people think we should be fine,” said Dong. “We trust that masks will be enough and that we will survive even if we get the coronavirus.” After weeks of debating, her desire to protect herself prevailed against her fear and she was vaccinated. About a third of Sunset Park residents have received at least one vaccine dose roughly the same level as the city as a whole, according to city health data. But local leaders say they want to push that number a lot higher. Kuan Neng, 49, the Buddhist monk who founded Xi Fang Temple on Eighth Avenue, said people had come to him in recent weeks to raise concerns about vaccines. “Why do I have to do this?” According to Kuan, this is a common refrain, followed by, “I am well now. The hard times are more or less over. “A lot of people want to procrastinate and see,” said Kuan, including himself. Yu Lin, who runs two adult daycare centers and is running for a seat on the city council in a district that includes Sunset Park, stood up last Year as well as his wife and two children infected with the virus. He was recently vaccinated and is encouraging voters to get their shots while campaigning for office. “People believe more when it comes to an actual person than they get information from traditional media,” he said. “I tell you my experience that there is nothing to fear but a little muscle pain.” Yang, the manager of the dim sum salon, puts her hopes on the vaccines. “Everything depends on the city opening up,” she said. On the counter near the entrance was a red Chinese sign: a prayer for happiness. Next to it stood a cat figure with arms outstretched in the air and believed to bring good luck. Yang pointed to it and said, “This lucky cat has no batteries.” This article originally appeared in the New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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