In New York City, the collective trauma of the pandemic’s climbing death toll has eclipsed the more mundane losses that residents are experiencing. But communities are also grieving, more subtly, the disappearance of aspects of the cityscape we’ve taken for granted: the din of rush-hour traffic, the tranquility of your neighborhood park, and especially, the coziness of your favorite restaurant. No restaurant scene has been harder hit than Chinatown’s, because well before the city went into lockdown, anti-Asian bigotry had led to a sharp drop in business for local eateries.
In chronicling some of the economic impact of COVID-19 in Chinatown, I spoke to two servers who were, until recently, working at Aux Epices, a small Malaysian fusion restaurant nestled between Little Italy and Chinatown, about how their lives have changed.
James Chau stopped working in late March. Business had been slow for weeks in Chinatown even before restaurants were ordered to close. Outsized fears of the coronavirus—which was then ravaging Wuhan—drove customers to avoid Chinese food. Anticipating the worst, his boss told him he could stay home a few days before Governor Andrew Cuomo issued his stay-at-home order. Since then, he has been waiting out the crisis with his family in Flushing, with his retired parents and unemployed brothers.
While he is out of work, he said, “to be honest, safety-wise, of course I’d rather stay home. . . . But then, on the other hand, we all have rent . . . we all have to survive this situation.” While he and his brothers are waiting on their unemployment claims, he added, “we don’t see an end [to] this . . . because even the government cannot guarantee anything right now. So we don’t know.”
Asian Americans in the city are also on edge because of the heightened threat of racial attacks. Chau said that when the pandemic first began gripping the city, he had two ugly encounters prior to the stay-at-home orders. He got shoved by a woman passing him on a subway platform, he said; another time, while shopping at Trader Joe’s, “a white lady yelled at me for no reason. . . . People don’t know who to blame, and they still have emotions [that lead to them] attacking our Asian people.”
According to police data, there have been fourteen reported COVID-19-related bias attacks, impacting fifteen Asian American victims, in just the past month, including both verbal and physical assaults.
Chinatown’s restaurant industry is facing the possibility that, even if New York “reopens” its economy, the restaurants may never recover from the pandemic. Since they depend heavily on footfall from non-Chinese customers, particularly tourists, it may be financially unviable for tiny bistros like Aux Epices to comply with social distancing rules if it means seating only a few tables per night.
And if people remain fearful of getting infected, Chau added, “[even] if the Governor announced the lockdown is over [tomorrow], then still, people are nervous. . . . There’s no medicine, no cure, at the moment. People still won’t go out.”
One of Chau’s coworkers, T.J. He, had a more dramatic reaction to the lockdown. Once he was laid off from the restaurant, he was overcome by anxiety over being jobless, having to rely on public benefits, and the impending economic collapse in New York. He explained:
I was very resistant, in terms of applying for unemployment, because that was something that I felt really ashamed about. I was always proud of always being able to stay afloat financially while pursuing my career as an actor. . . . I wouldn’t want to be a burden on society. . . . I think also that was [from my] upbringing from my household growing up. It’s not something that you do.
Then came the rejection from the unemployment office; it turned out that because He spent much of the past year working in the entertainment industry in China, he lacked the requisite work hours to qualify for benefits. “I was so ashamed of . . . not only working myself up to that process, but also [getting] rejected,” he said.
And I felt like, maybe I had failed, in some ways as an actor, that I couldn’t provide for myself. But also, an extreme guilt and shame that I didn’t realize was deeply rooted [in] my upbringing. I felt like I didn’t pursue the path that my parents would want me to, but instead, I chose the artistic path, and then now, obviously, I am in some sort of crisis mode.
With his savings dwindling, He decided it was time for a fresh start and caught a flight to Mobile, Alabama to stay at a friend’s house while the pandemic ravaged the city. It was an odd fit; He felt like a distinct minority in the Deep South. Then again, he noted that he experienced racism and marginalization while growing up in North Carolina, and even in New York, he was attacked with racial epithets on the street at the height of the outbreak. But in Mobile, he said, “I’m hyper aware of my surroundings . . . whether I’m in the club or the grocery store or the post office, [I see] there are five white people, two black people, and zero Asians, except me.”
After applying for a number of low-wage jobs, he landed at an Amazon fulfillment center—one of the few businesses on a hiring spree amid the pandemic. He was nervous when he went to present his identification to register for payroll; he decided to provide his U.S. passport instead of a state ID, “because I’m sure if I show up with my New York license, they’re going to think that I’m coronavirus-ridden.”
It’s all a world a way from his gig last year in China, working as the personal assistant and interpreter for a celebrity. He got to jet set across the country, he recalled, and stayed at the world-class Shangri-La hotel. He had returned to New York in hopes of continuing to pursue acting. Now that the pandemic has driven him from Chinatown to an Alabama Amazon warehouse, he said, “I’m glad I have a job, but I never thought that I would be in this position.”
He would sometimes get the niggling anxiety that is all too familiar to New Yorkers: “I feel like I’m not doing enough; I need to get another job.” But he has tried to keep his personal crisis in perspective:
I’ve been reading news a lot about how people are in worse conditions, and, so, you know, it’s always better to go through [each] day coming from a gratitude perspective. . . .I have to tell myself that my worth and my competence is not the temporary job I have. . . . A large part of American culture is your job, and your job is a huge part of your identity. And I’m just going to separate who I am as a person, and my capabilities, and my worth, [without thinking] my measurement comes from my job.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.