New York food blogger Christine Yi spends a lot of time in Manhattan’s Chinatown, so she noticed immediately when its streets, stores and restaurants became unusually empty just after Chinese New Year on Jan. 25.
“Hong Kong Supermarket, even on weekdays, has crazy lines, and when I went on a weekend there were practically no lines,” Yi said.
Then she started to notice racist and misinformed comments popping up—first on her Instagram posts of Asian staple dishes like dumplings and ramen, then in person.
“I overheard women on the Upper East Side talking about China,” Yi said, “and how it’s no wonder [coronavirus] started there since Chinese people ‘eat bats.'”
Yi shared screenshots with Adweek of some of the comments she’d deleted from her Asian food posts; they said things like “this is why y’all got coronavirus” and “this is not a time to be eating in an environment where you have no idea what is going on in the kitchen.” One person simply commented, “CORONAVIRUS,” in all caps, three times in a row.
The CDC stresses that coronavirus has nothing to do with race: “People of Asian descent, including Chinese Americans, are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American.” And the primary way the virus spreads is “through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” not through food.
“Currently, there is no evidence to support [any] transmission of COVID-19 associated with food,” the CDC states on its dedicated coronavirus FAQ page.
Still, stigma against Asian-Americans persists, prompting food bloggers and foodie influencers like Yi to become the first line of defense as fears around coronavirus have spurred a mass exodus away from Asian restaurants and small Chinese-American businesses in Chinatowns around the country.
According to Gregg Bishop, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services, profits in New York’s Chinatowns are down at least 40% because of diners’ misinformed fears that the virus is more prevalent there. This week, several Chinese restaurants in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood temporarily closed, posting signs in their windows stating the owners decided to suspend business until further notice.
Bishop, who has tweeted photos of himself visiting Chinese restaurants to encourage business, said New York is providing employee retention grants and zero-interest loans to small businesses seeing a drop in profits because of the pandemic. “New York City is open for business, and we will continue to stand with our small business owners who have long contributed to and supported our economy,” he said.
But it isn’t just New York’s Chinatowns (the city has three across its five boroughs) that have been hit hard. All around the country, Asian restaurants are sitting empty, to the point that some—like Seattle’s Zheng Cafe, owned by a Wuhan native—are considering closing down. In a frantic attempt to save their favorite restaurants, food bloggers in major cities are visiting Asian foodie destinations, posting photos with hashtags like #SupportChinatown and #SaveChinatown, and even working with restaurant owners to offer special deals to followers.
In Houston, food and travel journalist Mai Pham saw that some restaurants in the city’s Asiatown were experiencing up to a 90% drop in business. Pham started a #SupportChinatown campaign that connects food bloggers directly with restaurants for social media giveaways.
Houston foodie Linda Nguyen hosted a giveaway last week for her more than 11,000 Instagram followers, offering two $50 gift certificates to the normally packed dim sum restaurant Fung’s Kitchen. Over 300 people liked the post.
“Being raised by Asian immigrants who were also small business owners makes me very sensitive to this community,” Nguyen said. “So when I heard the whole section of Houston was suffering, I knew I had to share my platform to support them.”
As the hashtag spread, food influencers in other cities took notice. In Atlanta, bloggers added their own tag as well: #SaveAtlAsianRestaurants.
“Our Chinatown is also becoming deserted due to false rumors and jokes that they have coronavirus,” said Atlanta-based Candy Hom of @soupbelly_atl. “We have only started our own movement last week, so we haven’t done any giveaways as of yet, but hope to reach out and work with them soon.”
Pittsburgh Asian restaurant owners have been telling local food bloggers that business has dropped between 40% and 80% since the coronavirus outbreak began, prompting Sophia Chang of @sopheating to leap into action. “As an Asian American living in a town without a large Asian population,” Chang said, “I’m always trying to speak up about supporting local businesses and my community.”
It’s still too early to tell how much of an impact the foodie effort to save their local Chinatowns has had, but one thing is for sure—businesses are hurting, bad.
Wilson Tang, owner of New York’s famous Nom Wah Tea Parlor, called the current situation “a time of stress.” He said he’s been using the #SupportChinatown hashtag on his own social media to let people know that his restaurant needs a little extra love.
Part of the problem? A New York Times story about the coronavirus that used a photo of Tang’s restaurant to illustrate news of the outbreak. The photo has since been swapped out, Tang said in a March 5 as-told-to essay in Bon Appetit, but the damage had already been done.
“We must separate fear and paranoia with facts and kindness, and not judge an entire population,” said creative director Peter Som, who posted about Nom Wah to his nearly 39,000 Instagram followers last week. “Chinatown is full of small businesses that are suffering, and they need everyone’s support.”