Tuesday, 12 May 2020

NYC's Chinatown During COVID-19


Manhattan's Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest concentrations of Chinese people outside of China. Still comprising more than 90,000 inhabitants as of today, its colorful banners and bustling street marketplaces were a persistent fixture of lower Manhattan. I use the past tense here because Chinatown (and there are many more in New York and elsewhere in the United States) has been hit hard by the lockdown orders imposed by New York State due to the outbreak of Covid-19.

Chinatown in lower Manhattan can trace its history to Guangzhou-born businessman Ah Ken; the first person to permanently settle on Mott Street where he opened a cigar shop on Park Row in 1858.

The decline of the mining business on the West Coast of the United States pushed the earliest Chinese immigrants to the East Coast, and Mott Street became the center of these immigrants willing to take low-paying jobs in cigar-rolling and textiles.

Having the good fortune of living not far from Chinatown, I often walked its busy, narrow streets from Chatham Square’s statue of Lin Zexu, a Qing dynasty official who led the fight against Britain’s illegal importation of opium; the odd pagoda-style roof and Buddhist temple; and the atmospheric Doyers Street, with its basement bars and a famous tea parlor...listened to the rather discordant singing in Columbus Park and even photographed a number of Cantonese operas at the Chinese Community Center for my Chinese Opera of the Diaspora photo book.

It's been over two months at least since restaurants in New York City closed because of the viral outbreak. Some believe that many of the businesses might not survive, and don't think Chinatown as we know it, will ever be the same again. As stay-at-home policies were gradually instituted, Chinatown — along with other high-traffic destination Manhattan neighborhoods like Midtown — further emptied, leaving haunted, vacant streets with a fraction of its businesses still operating. Whereas there had previously been almost 300 restaurants in Chinatown, almost all have closed except for a handful who survive by offering take-out and delivery. 

Over the past 4 weeks or so, I've witnessed a few strands of normalization in the neighborhood's activities. There were progressively more pedestrians and shoppers in some of the streets that have grocery stores and pharmacies. Social distancing was observed on the grocery lines; some of which snaked for half a block. Facial masks were seen in Chinatown early on in 2020. Mask wearing may be the reason for the low incidence of Covid-19 hospitalizations amongst Asians.

On May 7 I sensed a little " exhalation" after the long breath holding since mid-March, and even much earlier by this community. I witnessed an extraordinary long line waiting for tellers at a local bank...it snaked for a few blocks. Was it because Thursday is a traditional payday? Some of the small-time vegetable and fruit sellers were back, doing a brisk business in selling their fresh produce. There was also a long line for free food distributed by the Chinese Community Centre. 

Notwithstanding widespread closures, I felt a sense of hope, and of stoic resignation which I believe underscores the resilience of the people of Chinatowns everywhere.