Growing up, Jaynry Mak and her family would put on nice clothes and head to San Francisco’s Chinatown every week for dim sum. She recalls it instilling in her a sense of belonging, even at a young age.
Those weekly trips inspired her to open her own restaurant in Chinatown nearly five years ago.
Dim Sum Corner on Grant Avenue, open every day before the pandemic, now welcomes customers five days per week. It closes its doors early on those days because Chinatown is a “ghost town” after dusk.
More than a year since shelter-in-place began, Dim Sum Corner is bringing in only 10 percent of its pre-pandemic sales revenue.
“We’re really still struggling,” Mak said.
Mak says she’s fortunate because she speaks English and has internet access, both luxuries not afforded to many other merchants in a neighborhood that’s arguably been hit harder than any other in San Francisco by the coronavirus pandemic.
Chinatown was already seeing business declines and decreased foot traffic months ahead of the local shelter-in-place order as the first cases of COVID-19 cropped up in China.
Jane Chin from the Chinatown Community Development Center said many placed erroneous blame on the local community, and people started to stay away out of fear.
Now, some business owners and community members worry the neighborhood that was first to experience the impactsof the global health crisis could very well be the last to recover from it.
“As we’re seeing in the news, the anti-Asian discrimination and attacks have not abated and this will have an impact on the community’s re-emergence,” Chin said.
The neighborhood vacancy rate was 16 percent in February 2020. It had jumped to 58 percent by August 2020, according to Buck Gee, who helped launch the Chinatown Renaissance 2021 Initiative to fund local projects.
On Clay Street, which is lined with businesses that serve the residents of the neighborhood such as salons, food markets and laundromats, vacancies rose from five to 29 percent, revealing the deep hurt and vulnerability of Chinatown beyond the tourist sectors.
“Ultimately, if it continues to fall into disrepair, economics will create gentrification,” he said. “And you will have no more Chinatown.”
Chelsea Hung owns Washington Bakery near Portsmouth Square, an area once flooded with tourists.
Today, the restaurant only brings in about 30 percent of its pre-pandemic sales even with the gradual return of some regular customers.
“We’re excited, but we also know people are concerned about coming out to Chinatown, so we hope that this will pick back up, but we will just have to see,” Hung said.
Businesses citywide are hurting, but the Chinatown economy’s dependence on external revenue will likely contribute to its slow pace of recovery relative to other parts of The City.
Whereas many neighborhoods include large percentages of middle-class families and young adults, Chinatown’s demographics skew more toward low-income, elderly and immigrant residents.
“What we see in Chinatown is a very poor neighborhood, so it really depends on visitation from the outside,” Gee said.
Washington Bakery used to make lots of money off corporate catering lunch orders. That revenue stream has dried up without downtown offices.
Then, there’s tourism.
Merchants say a few visitors are trickling back, but nothing like before the pandemic.
On Grant Avenue, Chinatown’s hallmark tourist corridor, only 45 businesses out of the more than 200 that operated before the pandemic are still open. More might not survive, business leaders say.
More vacancies beget fewer visitors, which beget even more closures.
As a result, Chinatown is at risk of falling into a “downward spiral,” Gee said.
Foot traffic could also be tied to a more ominous reality: fear for personal safety.
“I still feel like a lot of people are afraid to come to Chinatown because of all the Asian hate crimes that have been happening,” Hung said. “We also feel a little worried for our safety as well just with everything that’s been happening.”
Violence and harassment against San Francisco’s Asian and Asian American community has spiked over the last year. Earlier this week, two elderly women were stabbed at a Muni bus stop on Market Street, although police have said there is no clear indication the attack was a hate crime. In a separate incident, a father walking his child in a stroller was beaten in Mission Bay.
Mak closes Dim Sum Corner early, in par so that her employees can travel home with daylight.
“We reduced our hours because of lack of foot traffic but also because of lack of foot traffic but also because we want to make sure our employees get home at a reasonable hour,” she said. “It’s a safety issue right now.”
Slow business hurts the entire Chinatown economy.
Mak and Hung both employed almost exclusively Chinatown residents, many of whom live in single-room occupancy buildings. Both have been unable to hire their full workforce for more than one year.
Additionally, they source their ingredients from local markets. Fewer customers lead directly to smaller food purchases, which hurts the mom-and-pop shops that have long fed the community dishes essential to their cultural legacy.
“It’s all so circular. Everything. That’s hit us all really hard,” Mak said.
For decades, Chinatown has proven its resiliency as an iconic symbol of culture, but now community leaders agree it needs help to survive.
“By supporting neighborhood such as Chinatown, The City will flourish and we will see the return of toursits,” Chin said.
Some programs, such as Feed and Fuel, a private-public partnership in which restaurants are paid to make meals then distributed to those facing food insecurity, have effectively bolstered local businesses such as Dim Sum Corner and Washington Bakery.
Others, including numerous city-run grants to support construction of Shared Spaces parklets, haven’t provided the levels of relief required or have failed to reach merchants in need altogether.
Mak, who received $500 for outdoor furniture, said she’s worried Chinatown will be an afterthought, threatening its demise.
“I can’t imagine not having Chinatown,” she said.