In January 2020, as news spread about an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases discovered in Wuhan, China, something seemed off more than 7,000 miles away in Manhattan's Chinatown.
Businesses were closing earlier, and there was less foot traffic on the typically busy streets around Lunar New Year, Vic Lee, co-founder of Welcome to Chinatown, recalls.
"I had this sense of despair," Lee, 31, says. Lee is a native New Yorker who currently lives in Chinatown and has fond childhood memories of visiting her grandmother's apartment on nearby Eldridge Street and frequenting Chinatown's many shops and restaurants.
As the months went on, the Covid pandemic took hold. Former President Donald Trump's xenophobic rhetoric about what he dubbed the "China virus" spread. Lee was worried about what would happen to the neighborhood and small businesses that were so much a part of her life.
"I can't lose this community that means so much to me that has helped to shape me as an Asian-American female," Lee recalls feeling.
Lee wanted to help. She put out a call on her Instagram to see if anyone would be interested in buying gift cards from local Chinatown restaurants. Lee's longtime friend Jennifer Tam was.
"It started as a simple way to help small businesses and say thank you to essential workers, "and it just snowballed from there," Tam, 31, says.
Together, the pair co-founded an initiative aimed at small business recovery, called Welcome to Chinatown.
Since March 2020, Welcome to Chinatown has fundraised over $2 million in donations, which has been reinvested to the community through initiatives aimed at alleviating overhead costs and Covid-related debts, such as back rent, for local small businesses as well as grants given to dozens of Chinatown businesses, from salons to jewelers to tea shops, bakeries, cafes and even a ballroom dance studio.
Lee also recently announced she is running on the ballot for Democratic Leader of NYC Assembly District 65D in lower Manhattan.
Here's how Lee and Tam are helping Manhattan's Chinatown businesses.
From gift cards to grants
Early in the pandemic, with lockdowns in place and anything but essential trips off limits in Manhattan, gift cards seemed like a good solution. But Lee discovered that many of the old mom and pop shops in the neighborhood lacked the technology to use them.
So instead, Lee and Tam launched a GoFundMe. They used the donations to buy meals from Chinatown restaurants and then donated the meals to essential workers.
In the process, Lee and Tam were able to form relationships with local owners and ask questions about what they needed for their businesses to survive. Those conversations spun off into other initiatives, such as the Longevity Fund, Welcome to Chinatown's grant program that launched in July 2020.
The fund awards monthly grants to at-risk small businesses "where cultural and socioeconomic barriers have prevented them from applying for assistance programs," according to Welcome to Chinatown. Recipient businesses use it for overhead costs like rent, labor, insurance and utilities, as well as business improvement, such as marketing, physical space improvements and operations.
'We need help because we've been left behind'
Chinatown's small businesses make up the majority of the neighborhood's economy, and have historically served as a "way station for working-class immigrants and immigrant entrepreneurs," according to the Asian American Federation.
The current need, Lee says, stems from the lack of equitable access to funding and resources. Language barriers, for instance, make it difficult for small businesses to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program. An April study out of the Center for Responsible Lending found that 75% of Asian-owned businesses stood close to no chance of receiving a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union.
Albert Lam, who owns Chinatown custom tailor shop Albert Lam Bespoke, received a grant from Welcome to Chinatown, which he was able to use to cover back rent and pay staff that was laid off during the pandemic.
Lam's daughter, Gloria Lam, came across the organization while researching ways to help supplement the business loss generated by the pandemic. "I was desperate to help my parents who have built this business for decades," Lam, who works at an education nonprofit in New York City, tells CNBC Make It.
Lam calls the Welcome to Chinatown founders "heroines," as the process of getting small business loans has been "an uphill battle," Lam says.
Lam helped her father apply for a Covid-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) from the U.S. Small Business Administration in early May, but he was deemed ineligible because the zip code was not classified as "low-income." She sent a request for an appeal and has not heard back yet.
"We, as in the Chinese-American small business community, really need help," she says. "We need help because we've been left behind."
To date, Welcome to Chinatown has distributed $5,000 grants to 45 small businesses ($225,000), from jewelers to body work spas and grocery stores. The organization is projecting $2.2 million in revenue for the 2021 calendar year.
The ways in which various recipients have been able to use the grants are diverse, as are the types of businesses. According to the Welcome to Chinatown website, Alison's Pharmacy, for example, was able to use the money to keep medications in stock for patients. Sam Wai Liquor, the oldest liquor store in Chinatown, put the money toward rent. Lee Ren Beauty, a hair salon on Forsyth Street, used the funds to replace their front door, which had shattered, the site says.
The most rewarding part of the grant-giving process is hearing from small business owners who feel supported by their communities, Tam says. "In Asian culture, it's really hard to express your feelings," she says. "When they extend that type of gratitude, because many of them are so much older, you feel such a tight connection."
Lee and Tam, who still work fulltime (Lee is a global corporate travel director at The Estée Lauder Companies and and Tam is the head of communications at Foursquare), also give credit to their team of more than 70 volunteers who help (remotely) with everything from marketing to business development to finance.
"There is no way that we've been able to do Welcome to Chinatown, just the two of us," Tam says. "It really is something that has been a community effort."
The resilience of Chinatowns
Long before Covid, Manhattan's Chinatown had seen its fair share of hardships, from the aftermath of 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
"Manhattan's Chinatown is a very resilient community," Lee says.
According to a Welcome to Chinatown survey conducted on a sample of 35 open Chinatown storefronts in February, Chinatown was already struggling when Covid came along — 84% of respondents said they had seen business decline by over half before the "pause" was declared in New York state on March 22, 2020.
With Covid, "it has become this perfect storm where it's exasperated economic need," Lee says.
The Atlanta spa shootings in March, brought into sharp focus the importance of their mission to help small businesses that once again experienced a disproportionate loss of business because of racially motivated attacks.
"It was really introspective moment," Tam says.
Lee says the tragedy made her think about their work in the big picture, and reflect on the "model minority myth," the assumption that Asian Americans are polite, hardworking overachievers who have made it to the highest levels of success.
"Welcome to Chinatown has become this 'aha' moment," Lee says. "This is the community that we're really trying to elevate and amplify the voices because they need it most."
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