Worldwide icon-chevron-right Chinatown businesses around the world share their hopes for Chinese New Year
Billy Wong at XOPP Haymarket by Golden Century
Photograph: Anna Kucera Billy Wong at XOPP Haymarket, Sydney

Chinatown businesses around the world share their hopes for Chinese New Year

We asked business owners from five Chinatowns about the challenges of 2020 and their hopes for the Year of the Ox

By Huw Oliver and Time Out editors
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Chinese New Year is usually the busiest period of the year in Chinatowns around the world. But this time last year, as the Year of the Rat began, Chinese-owned businesses were starting to struggle. Shoppers and diners had begun to hear news of a curious virus circulating in China’s Hubei Province. Foot traffic to Chinatowns worldwide promptly fell off a cliff. Lavish New Year celebrations had to be cancelled, and restaurants sat empty or even closed for lack of custom.

And that, of course, was only the beginning of the problems for Chinatown businesses. A year later, the challenges for all shops, bars and restaurants around the world are greater than ever. A return to full normality still looks distant, and with new variants of the virus constantly emerging, it seems the Year of the Ox could prove just as problematic as its predecessor.

So how are things going in Chinatowns right now? As millions around the world prepare to ring in the Lunar New Year on February 12, we spoke to business owners and representatives from Chinatown districts on four different continents – from London to Sydney via Bangkok – about the impact of the past year and their hopes for the future.

It’s said that in the Chinese zodiac, the Ox represents strength, resilience and positivity. Ask around, and those are exactly the qualities you’ll find in spades in Chinatowns worldwide right now.

RECOMMENDED: How to celebrate Chinese New Year in 2021

Chinatown businesses on their hopes for the New Year

Chinatown London
Chinatown London
Photograph: Shutterstock

London

Iris Ma, founder of restaurant Plum Valley

‘Our New Year plans were made about a month ago; we didn’t want the gloomy situation to affect our restaurant during the celebrations. As a restaurant, we always try to move forward and look ahead to a brighter future. We’re selling symbolic rice cakes and turnip cakes, along with a sashimi yu sheng salad, which is a popular and fun celebratory dish in south-east Asia. We want to keep people’s spirits up during these months. It makes us happy and everyone else happier too. 

‘We’ve used this time to refurbish the restaurant and our karaoke room. We have worked hard and hope this will make a difference when life in Chinatown returns to some sense of normality, when the tourists come back and the offices reopen. Outdoor seating proved really successful last year, so we’re hoping the council will allow restaurants in Chinatown to put tables on the pavement outside our restaurant again in the summer months.

‘We’ve really relied on growing our social media as a way to communicate to our fan base base over the past year. I am really enjoying this new connection with our customers: people message me all the time, and I love communicating with them at all hours of the day. It’s like a big family.’

Z He, co-founder of restaurant Bun House

‘We wanted to make New Year extra-special for those who can’t see their family this year, and have got overwhelming orders from people who long for a proper meal to celebrate with their household. We feel so honoured to be able to deliver joy to people’s table in such difficult times. I expect to be working hard this New Year’s Eve.

‘Other than wishing Covid-19 to go away sooner and for us to return to the normal world, I would like to see more unity in the community this year. I have seen amazing people helping each other through these challenging times, but have also heard, witnessed and personally experienced increased incidents of racism and discrimination towards the Asian community since the pandemic. I hope that the future brings more of an understanding towards each other, regardless of race and background.

‘I have lots of hope that business will be close to normal for summer and autumn. We’re ready to welcome back our customers with more enthusiasm than ever before.’

Chinatown NYC
Chinatown NYC
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Mobilus in Mobili

New York

Kent Zhang, owner of Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant

‘It’s clearly been a big change. It was so weird, so sudden. We closed for around two months, from March to April. After a little while, some employees told me they were so bored, having to stay at home. They called me to ask if it was possible to come back or a couple of days a week. I said it was up to them: if they wanted to, okay, but I’m going home to pick you up and take you to work, so you don’t need to use public transportation.

‘So from May 1, I started to pick them up one by one. I did that for two months, while we were still doing delivery and takeout only. The Chinatown Business Improvement District [a local non-profit] sent free big umbrellas out at the end of July, so we could set up an outdoor dining area. We’ve now got heaters from the BID too. They’re really trying to help out small businesses like us.

‘The Send Chinatown Love programme has also helped me a lot. I’ve been running this restaurant for over 20 years; I have so many regular customers. Some called up, wanting to donate some money. But we couldn’t find a way to take donations, until those same people found Send Chinatown Love. They donated money to the campaign so fast. In one month, we took $7,000 in vouchers and gift cards. I couldn’t quite believe it.

‘I am so confident for my business and small businesses in general. The vaccine is coming, that offers a lot of hope. Since then, I’ve been talking with my landlord, and I just signed a brand-new lease for the next ten years. The landlord’s happy, I’m happy. They gave me a good price, and I feel hope.’

Interview by Will Gleason, Time Out New York

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Sydney Chinatown
Sydney Chinatown
Photograph: Ramvespa / Shutterstock.com

Sydney

Billy Wong, owner of restaurants Golden Century and XOPP

The uncertainty of the past year has made it challenging to understand, plan or predict what will happen each day. We are lucky to have a fantastic team and the Golden Century family has stuck together throughout the past year. Lockdown and restrictions undoubtedly proved the most challenging aspect: it was the first time we had to close our doors in 31 years as a business.

‘We are incredibly lucky Australia has navigated and controlled the spread of the virus, and this Chinese New Year of the Ox, it seems we’ll finally be able to celebrate and gather with friends and family, together in one place around one table. In previous years we’d see an influx of travellers and visitors from around Asia to holiday in Australia. We will definitely miss that this year, but it also means those who would travel overseas will celebrate here in Sydney instead. 

‘Over the coming months, we will keep doing what we have been doing since 1989: serving our customers the best fresh seafood and authentic Cantonese fare. The reopening of borders and people returning back to their workplace and socialising will be the biggest challenge, but we believe we can navigate that and hope to see all our friends and supporters again soon.’

Patrick Young, a tour guide at non-profit Taste Tours

‘Here in Sydney, we have a large Chinese international student population. When the pandemic hit, not only did I see my classmates disappear, I also saw my clients disappear. The streets of Chinatown were empty.

‘We were hit hard, but we still had a bunch of diehard locals who stuck with us. We had more and more people from Sydney taking our food tours, seeing what’s new and different in their own city. But things have changed. I used to spend around 20 to 30 hours in Chinatown a week – now it takes me a month or two to rack up those hours.

‘We took a lot of what we do online. We hosted online cooking classes, run by migrants. They don’t have the same status as permanent residents, so didn’t get the same job protection as a lot of us. We wanted to keep them going. We hire people from each suburb to run tours in their area, or show others how to cook their food.’

Junda Khoo, head chef of restaurant Ho Jiak

‘Like every other business in the food industry, we have suffered. Chinatown relies heavily on international tourists and students, both whom are non-existent at the moment. Then, of course, there are outbreaks every now and then. Every time an outbreak happens, people will stay at home or in their suburbs, leaving the city centre quiet. And also, in our industry, where a lot of employees are internationals or casuals or skilled visa [holders], we do not receive the same worker subsidies as others. But we’ve still done our best to keep everyone employed.

‘We hope 2021 will be a better year, now that we are more equipped at dealing with the virus. But without international travel, 2021 will be the same as 2020, to be honest. New Year’s Eve will be work, work, work – and hopefully we can provide some home comfort food, and a meeting place for families who can’t travel back home to celebrate the Lunar New Year.’

Interviews by Divya Venkataraman, Time Out Sydney

Chicago Chinatown
Chicago Chinatown
Photograph: Naeblys / Shutterstock.com

Chicago

Patrick McShane, English Secretary of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce

‘It’s been very difficult for the Chicago Chinatown, especially because a lot of the businesses here are restaurants. A year ago, we were already seeing a slowdown in activity before there was an official shutdown. We were hit hard, early.

‘We had a bit of a reprieve towards the end of the summer, with outdoor dining and a bit of a resurgence of people coming into the area. But since the virus started picking up again, things have been very, very slow. And of course, as we headed into the colder months, the outdoor dining that was taking place soon came to a pretty abrupt halt.

‘The businesses themselves do a lot of shopping at the local Chinatown grocery stores, so there’s been a great deal of mutual support there. The Chinatown residents tend to stay within the area, and do their grocery shopping locally. We do have a group of local businesses that have started to put together a digital rewards programme for shopping within Chinatown.

‘The Chicago Chinatown Chamber always hosts a Lunar New Year event. The place where we held our party last year has now closed, so that’s very unfortunate. This year we’re organising a virtual Lunar New Year event, but we had to postpone the original event because of a Covid-related situation, so we don’t even have a date right now.

‘We have quite a few restaurants that still haven’t opened. At 25 percent or even 50 percent capacity, the restaurants can’t make a profit, but we’re hoping that with the vaccination process that’s going on now, with numbers improving, we’ll soon get to a slight sense of normality soon.’

Interview by Zach Long, Time Out Chicago

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Bangkok in Chinatown
Bangkok in Chinatown
Photograph: artapartment / Shutterstock.com

Bangkok

Suwanna Supapataraset, owner of restaurant Zongter

‘We opened around a year ago. At the start, business was great; loads of people, including Chinese travellers, were pouring in. It was all looking pretty rosy until the pandemic began. We closed for two months, and reopened later last year. But just as things started to get in shape, the new phase of outbreaks began and foot traffic fell again. Thanks to the Chinese Year, however, things seem to be picking up once more.’

Thithat Leelanukul, owner of food offerings shop Jae Daeng

‘Customer numbers have obviously fallen. We’ve also had to pay more for seafood supplies, but can’t really increase the retail prices. Right now business is going okay, since people are buying seafood to offer to gods and ancestors, but things may well return to silence as soon as Chinese New Year ends.’

Boonchai Kasemboonhchai, owner of ice cream parlour Noo Ry Ice

‘The pandemic may well put everything on hold, but the traditions continue as per. We’re keeping on doing and practising what we’ve always been doing – only on a smaller scale. If we didn’t, we’d definitely feel something was missing. Ask around if people are planning to celebrate Chinese New Year this year, and whether they still cherish its message of hope and new beginnings, and they’ll all say yes.’

Interviews by Natchapa Srisanguansakul and Tani Thitiprawat, Time Out Bangkok

Chinese New Year around the world

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