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Why Grace Young is working to revitalize businesses in Chinatown

Cookbook author Grace Young says Chinatown restaurants “need a stable, loyal clientele to survive.” (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals; designed by Zana Kaba)

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In early 2020, Grace Young was preparing to start working on her fourth cookbook. The award-winning author’s first three books contain beautifully detailed recipe collections filled with historical and traditional references and personal stories that bring cooking to life in a Chinese-American kitchen. But when it became clear New York’s Chinatown was in dire need of help at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Young shelved that project to help advocate for Chinatown residents and small businesses.

Hit early and hard, JPMorgan Chase reported that Asian-owned businesses saw their average earnings drop more than 60%, a steeper drop than any other demographic, with many suffering even more dramatic declines. For Young, it was painfully clear that the neighborhood was struggling just by walking the streets. She had to do something about it.

As Grace Young watched New York's Chinatown struggle during the pandemic, she was compelled to help.  (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

As Grace Young watched New York’s Chinatown struggle during the pandemic, she was compelled to help. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Through documentary videos, social media campaigns, fundraising for nonprofit support, and good old-fashioned personal relationships within the community, Young has become a powerful advocate for Chinatowns in New York. York and nationwide. In 2022, she received the 8th Annual Julia Child Award from the Julia Child Foundation for Food and Culinary Arts for her work advocating for Chinatown residents and small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating anti-Asian violence in its wake up. Young, author of Jumped to the edge of the sky, was also named James Beard Humanitarian of the Year 2022 for her work.

The long road to Chinatown recovery

Young and I meet for lunch at Pastor Grill and Noodles, the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where she tells me about the challenges the neighborhood has faced and continues to face as people move on from COVID-19. .

“We have to remember that the majority of restaurants and stores in Chinatown are family-owned and one-of-a-kind,” Young said. “They need our loyal and stable company if they want to survive.” The high number of small family businesses in Chinatown means there is a greater risk that entire pockets of neighborhood businesses will be wiped out due to financial strains.

Young says it's not just Chinatown restaurants that are struggling: Grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses need support.  (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Young says it’s not just Chinatown restaurants that are struggling: Grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses need support. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Frustratingly, Chinatowns across the United States have taken the longest to recover, with many Asian-owned businesses still operating at a fraction of their pre-pandemic numbers and struggling to make ends meet with already tight margins. Many businesses are also facing huge debts and rent arrears that have piled up rapidly during the pandemic. For many small business owners in Chinatowns, there are additional barriers to financial assistance, including language, technology, and difficulty qualifying for assistance.

In addition to the struggle to stay afloat financially, violence against Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) has increased rapidly in the wake of the pandemic, forcing residents and visitors to spend less time casually lingering. or avoid Chinatowns altogether. Diminishing foot traffic due to safety concerns and racial stigma is as much of a threat to these neighborhoods as the fallout from the COVID-19 virus.

Fight for Chinatowns

At the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Young launched the video series Coronavirus: Stories from Chinatown in collaboration with Dan Ahn and Poster House Museum, featuring several small businesses struggling to figure out what to do next. From there, his work defending Chinatowns grew exponentially.

She has partnered with the James Beard Foundation on several social media campaigns, including #saveChineserestaurants, #LoveAAPI and #supportChinatowns, encouraging diners to support local Chinese restaurants and take a stand against rising anti-Asian violence in across the country.

Not only has Young’s work brought greater visibility to the issues facing Chinatowns, but his fundraising work with Welcome to Chinatown and Asian Americans for Equality has provided over $65,000 in 2021 alone for help protect, nurture and support Chinatown residents and businesses. Thanks to fundraising support, Welcome to Chinatown was able to successfully launch the Longevity Fund, providing grants to small businesses in Chinatowns.

Pasteur Grill and Noodles was one of the first Longevity Fund recipients and is a great example of the irreplaceable small businesses working hard to stay open in Chinatowns. Thanks to the Welcome to Chinatown grant, the family-run Vietnamese restaurant was able to make major upgrades to the dining room and outdoor seating, as well as create a beautifully illustrated new menu and website with artist and designer Jenny Acosta.

Young says lunchtime traffic to Chinatowns has improved as businesses reopened after the pandemic, but says the dinner shift is still empty time at most restaurants.  (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Young says lunchtime traffic to Chinatowns has improved as businesses reopened after the pandemic, but says the dinner shift is still empty time at most restaurants. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Most of the cosmetic upgrades were overdue, but they’re also a good faith effort to draw diners to the neighborhood. In a busy lunchtime area, many diners have returned during the day since offices began to reopen in lower Manhattan. But dinnertime crowds are still rare due to local residents’ safety concerns after dark and rising inflation prompting people to cook at home more often. Pasteur Grill and Noodles is also located next to a new major city construction site, adding another unexpected hurdle to recovery, as many tourists and regulars find the area too confusing to navigate.

Restaurants are among the most visible businesses in Chinatown to show signs of distress, but Young points out that restaurants are just one facet of the community facing deep economic hardship. “A lot of people think of Chinatown for great meals, but you can find almost anything you need,” says Young, “from hardware stores to drugstores to markets that also offer groceries and household goods. non-Asian base”.

Even more support through the Julia Child Award Scholarship

The Julia Child Award that Young received in 2022 comes with a generous grant of $50,000, which Young chose to split equally among five organizations in New York, Boston, Oakland, San Francisco and Honolulu. “In each city,” says Young, “$10,000 of the grant will go to a nonprofit organization in Chinatown who will then distribute the funds to restaurants to feed those in need.”

“It’s a win-win for restaurants to receive much-needed business and for those facing food insecurity to be supported with meals,” she explains.

“I am extremely humbled and honored by the awards from the Julia Child Foundation and the James Beard Foundation,” Young continues. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s still unreal that I’ve received so much recognition. My advocacy for America’s Chinatowns and AAPI family businesses has been the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. …I just wish I could make a bigger difference.

Young’s work has had a substantial impact on the community she serves, but it’s the little things done to maintain it that will help the most, she says. “Chinatown residents demand quality and low prices, so shopping in Chinatown is a great way to stretch your budget while supporting family businesses,” Young says. “I often offer to pick up takeout or groceries for my friends and neighbors just so I can provide a little more business support.”

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