A server delivers food to customers outside Grant Place Restaurant on Washington Street in Chinatown. (Kevin N. Hume/ S.F. Examiner)

Chinatown’s economic recovery struggling to gain momentum

Local leaders calling on The City and community members for help

Chinatown leaders say their community is hurting, and they’re calling for help.

The neighborhood’s streets, dotted with eateries, food stalls and specialty markets, ordinarily draw visitors from around the world and across The City. Those visitors have dried up since coronavirus struck and just one-third of restaurants are expected by some business leaders to survive through the end of the year.

Initial efforts to provide support have yet to reinvigorate the neighborhood in the way some hoped.

Last month, the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Chinatown Community Development Center announced they would distribute a total of $25,000 to small restaurant owners looking to participate in Shared Spaces, a city program that allows businesses to transform parking, street or sidewalk space into open-air customer areas.

Grants would go towards the purchase of barricades to protect customers from passing traffic and other technical elements needed to create a safe, enjoyable space for outdoor dining.

Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, said he didn’t expect the program to reinvigorate the neighborhood overnight, but hoped it would attract enough visitors to build a “critical mass” and show Chinatown is “open for business.”

So far, however, only $15,000 has been distributed to 20 applicants, according to Harlan Wong of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Many restaurants are small mom-and-pop operations, often owned by immigrants. Local business leaders attribute the reluctance to apply on the part of restaurant owners largely to uncertainty around the return of customers.

“If you start too early and the community’s not ready, you don’t want people to come to an empty neighborhood with only a few restaurants open. On the other hand, they don’t want to take the plunge unless they know people are coming,” Yeung said of the delicate balance business owners are trying to strike.

Those who have applied for the grant say it has benefited them.

Dim Sum Corner received a $500 grant, which it used to purchase outdoor tables, chairs, umbrellas and outdoor heaters that it now sets up every weekend.

“This shift to outdoor dining is not easy and costly […] It is a difficult decision to continue investing thousands of dollars more money into the business to accommodate outdoor dining,” said Jaynry Mak, managing member of Dim Sum Corner, which is currently generating only 10 percent of the sales it had last year at this time.

Mak’s restaurant and others like it are one of San Francisco’s key social equity resources, providing starter jobs for immigrants and their families, according to Yeung.

The closure of Grant Avenue to cars as part of The City’s Shared Spaces program on weekends was seen as a way to inject energy into the commercial district.

It’s helped, some say, but traffic remains fickle based on weather and recent air quality concerns, and many restaurants still don’t think it will pay even basic bills such as the cost of labor.

Some have floated Waverly Street as a more fruitful alternative, citing its abundant number of landmarks and rich historic value as a way to garner enthusiasm about Chinatown as a cultural destination for San Francisco residents and, eventually, tourists.

Struggling businesses have also received some support in the form of rent relief from landlords.

Chinese Six Companies, a group of local businesses with deep history in the Chinatown neighborhood and a legacy of providing support and services to residents for over 170 years, owns many commercial properties in the neighborhood.

Formally known as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the group’s members have regularly allowed partial or waived rents for merchants since as early as April.

Ding Lee of the Ning Yung Benevolence Association, one of the Six Companies members, said these organizations have significantly more financial security than their tenants, and keeping businesses operational benefits the entire community despite lost revenue in the short-term.

Six Companies also galvanized community members to take on recovery themselves, announcing the creation of a relief fund to supply vulnerable residents with face masks and hand sanitizer as well as finance SRO landlords’ deep cleaning efforts.

Though they partnered with the mayor’s office earlier this week to distribute city-provided personal protective equipment and hygiene products around the neighborhood, Lee says more aid will be needed.

Funds will be collected through the Northeastern Federal Credit Union, a longtime Chinatown financial institution with a history of supporting low-income residents, and distributed.

“It helps a lot, but we still need a lot of money,” Lee said of the approximately $10,000 collected so far, primarily from the Six Companies.

Chinatown has a storied history of community-based resilience, and some say the future of the neighborhood’s recovery may again hinge on resident unity

“We did it early on in shelter-in-place, and I think we can do it again, but it really is contingent upon our community coming together and getting behind this,” Yeung said. “I’m starting to see that happen.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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