In January of last year, as news of a mysterious virus began hitting headlines, the first places in America to feel the pandemic’s impact were the country’s historic Chinatowns. With reports of the virus having originated in China, misinformation and xenophobia led many to begin avoiding or boycotting Asian-owned restaurants and stores, with business swiftly dropping by as much as 80%. And on the ground to witness it from the very beginning was Grace Young. “Last year, everybody was just in complete shock,” Young remembers. “Everything was normal, and then it wasn’t.”
Nicknamed “the stir-fry guru” by the New York Times, Young’s expertise on wok cookery has led her to write three bestselling cookbooks, picking up two James Beard Awards and five IACP awards along the way. But over the past year, Young has adapted to become the nation’s most prominent voice in a campaign to support and preserve these struggling businesses under the hashtag #SaveChineseRestaurants, while simultaneously launching a fund to support the Manhattan Chinatown community that has raised over $38,000 in under two months.
Young took her first steps into activism on behalf of Manhattan’s Chinatown in January 2020 by crowdsourcing food orders among her friends and neighbors, but a turning point came after she saw a damning report on CNN last April. It was announced that 59% of independently-owned Chinese restaurants all across the United States had ceased their credit card and debit card transactions—implying that they had permanently closed—while at the same time one of the largest Chinese food chains in the U.S., P.F. Chang’s, announced that they received $10 million in PPP loans. “That was just a punch in the gut,” says Young. “I just thought, if all these little mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants across the United States go down, then the future of eating Chinese food in America will be eating at one of these big chains, which is a nightmare.”
The idea for a social media campaign was initially sparked during conversations with Dan Souza, the editor-in-chief of America’s Test Kitchen. Young took the project to the James Beard Foundation soon after, and they offered their support to get the Instagram campaign off the ground. Inviting users to share photos of their favorite Chinese dishes and local joints on the platform, it quickly swelled into thousands of posts. “It is a love letter to Chinese restaurants all across the country,” says Young. “I never dreamed that it would become this incredible resource to see where great Chinese food is in this country, because I scroll through and I’m learning about what's available all across the United States.”
While the campaign has been pivotal in raising awareness around the unique challenges faced by Asian-owned small businesses throughout the pandemic, Young is also keen to emphasize it’s something that needs to be followed up with more direct support too. “Prior to COVID, I just kind of came and went from Chinatown, I really didn't observe the actual workings of it. Many of the businesses are multi-generational, and let me put it this way, a lot of Chinatown is pre-digital,” Young adds, laughing. “And that's part of its charm and beauty. But they don’t take credit cards. There’s no way that you can order online.” (Young also recalls a recent visit to a diner-style Chinese restaurant that opened in 1967 and was still operating with its original cash register.)
For Young, it was about harnessing the power of social media to bridge the gaps that these traditionally-minded businesses were unable to do themselves in the age of lockdowns and social distancing. “They are not doing Instagram, Facebook, Twitter,” Young continues. “And they don’t have time. These are hard-working immigrant businesses, they’re there seven days a week, working 10 to 14 hours a day, and that would feel frivolous for them, I think, to be tweeting or doing an Instagram post.”
Young also wants to spotlight how integral these immigrant communities are to the history and social fabric of the American urban landscape, especially given that Manhattan’s Chinatown is not considered a historic district and is therefore highly susceptible to gentrification. As many of the most historic restaurants and produce stores have closed—some that have been running for over 60 years—those spaces could be quickly snapped up by property developers unconcerned with the district’s cultural significance. Working in collaboration with filmmaker Dan Ahn and New York’s Poster House museum, Young began creating an oral history project of recorded interviews with a number of restaurateurs and small business owners in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the days before the first government-mandated lockdown last March. Titled Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, the powerful series was featured by The Smithsonian National Museum of American History at their annual youth summit last summer.
“I mean, America is a land of immigrants, and San Francisco and Manhattan’s Chinatowns are historic immigrant communities that are struggling to survive right now,” says Young. “This is the story of America. This is how Asian immigrants, Chinese immigrants have been able to get a foothold in this country and start their lives. They are communities where food justice is key, where people of all different ethnicities are able to access high-quality, nutritious food at affordable prices. You walk like three blocks outside of Chinatown, and a supermarket has the same produce for double the price. It’s very unique, and it tells the story of what it means to be American.”
It’s a story that feels particularly urgent given the dramatic rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S. over the past year, the most recent and most visible occurrence being the shooting in Atlanta on March 16 that resulted in eight deaths, the majority of whom were Asian-American women. For Asian-American service industry workers, not only is there an increased risk of catching COVID via regular in-person interactions, but also the fear of harassment, intimidation, or even violence. “With the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, it makes it more challenging for workers to even be coming to work,” Young adds. “There’s fear.” As Young’s project makes clear, at a time when many are looking for ways to support and show solidarity with AAPI communities around the country, heading to your local Chinatown is a good place to start.
“I hope that everyone shows solidarity in speaking out against Asian hate, but on top of that, the best way to combat hate is with love,” Young concludes. “And we’ve got to shower all these businesses with as much love as possible. We have to show up for them now.”