By Michael Caravette and BinBin Spratt
Ben Lau, Executive Director at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, has seen the museum and his community deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our museum lost almost all of our income and donations, so the pandemic has a very serious impact on our museum, and we have to let some staff go,” said Lau, whose organization let several employees go.
These stories are not uncommon, as the pandemic has affected every business and has caused a rapid change in the way people live. Chicago’s Chinatown is no different as it is a hollow shell of what it once was during the epidemic.
Asians, who make up 90% of Chinatown residents, have seen their community be stricken by financial loss, racism and hate speech, displacement and a loss of representation in the city. With no voice to be heard, they say they are uncertain of the future.
“Most small businesses (in Chinatown) are restaurants, and they were and still are being affected by COVID-19,” Ben Lau said, “Because of the stay-at-home order, nobody came out to dine, and so the small business lost a lot of customers.”
Chinatown relies heavily on tourism from the city, and with no one able or wanting to visit, a large portion of revenue was wiped away. So, to make ends meet, owners had to change how they could do business and save money.
Businesses started offering delivery with the owners themselves taking the food instead of hiring an employee to save money. They also relied on government assistance, but it wasn’t enough even with all these changes, and businesses couldn’t adapt fast enough.
Mark Chiang, a professor in the Global Asian Studies (GLAS) and English department at The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), was asked to share personal experiences or stories about microaggression and Asian hate.
Although Chicago’s experience with Asian hate did not resemble the amount of reported hate crime in other parts of the country, it is not to say they did not experience hate.
Chinatown businesses, especially restaurants, took a hard hit because of the rise of Asian hate.
Food businesses in Chinatown began to dissipate because consumers questioned the cleanliness, the preparation of food, and how it is served in restaurants, creating a fear factor for many people.
If there were any instances of Asian hate, Ben Lau states, “Chinese residents tend not to do any reporting to the police even though they were being harassed or attacked.”
This is why we do not hear much from Chicago’s Chinatown about hate crime and discrimination.
Chinatowns Elderly Community
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the elderly community was targeted the most for public aggression among all generations. Chicago’s Chinatown has a high percentage of elderly residents.
The elderly were easy targets for people, making them too scared to leave their homes. The elderly are also more at risk for worse symptoms if they catch COVID-19 than the younger population. So leaving home was a scary concept for many.
According to Lau, “Social services agencies here in Chinatown started to provide meals for the seniors and started to deliver the meals to seniors.”
Social services like these had to change the way they do business because seniors would typically go out to receive services. However, the pandemic has put a halt to senior business due to fear of being attacked.
Chinatown residents have dealt with the fear of being moved out of their community as the city plans on making the new neighborhood ‘The 78’ just north of Chinatown. A new $7 billion neighborhood complete with offices, residential towers, high-rises, and a new Riverwalk.
Darek Lau, who works for CBCAC (Coalition For A Better Chinese American Community), has concerns about this new development. It may seem like a good idea on the surface, but it will hurt his community in many ways.
With Chinatown being so close to this new neighborhood, it causes concerns of landlords who could renovate and raise the rent or cause property values to go up and people who can no longer afford their property tax and end up having to move out.
“How can we make sure that our residents and business owners, our mom and pop shops, who have been here for a long time do not get priced out because of these new developments,” Darek Lau said. “And people who want to take advantage of profit opportunities for more affluent people who are attracted to Chinatown because of these developments.”
The 78 will not be fully completed till 2030 but is expected to open the North phase as early as 2024.
COVID-19 perpetuating financial loss and economic struggle, people could be forced to move out due to their income level.
Positives of COVID-19
During the height of the pandemic, Chinatown was a ghost town. People had to switch from everything being in-person to virtually. This was a significant change for everyone, not just the Chinese community.
The residents living in Chinatown had to adapt to a more tech-savvy way of life. This created many challenges and few positives.
According to Ben Lau, “When we do public programming over Zoom or Youtube, we can reach out to many more people who are not even in our state or our country. That would be the bright side of this COVID-19 impact.”
Switching virtually also created many challenges for people.
Darek Lau, the program assistant for CBCAC Chicago, referenced a series of challenges of virtual engagement within Chinatown.
“We could only do virtual webinars that we somehow had to invite people who might not be as tech-savvy, the population is low income, don’t have access to the Internet, and have limited English proficiency.”
Many expressed having more negative effects of the pandemic than positive ones.
Future of Chinatown
Chinatown muscled through the pandemic. Now that the height of the pandemic is over, things are reopening. Chinatown is looking to heal, grow, and learn from this experience.
Advocacy, raising public awareness, and actions to support different initiatives like getting a law passed to improve the community are many ways to see a safer and better environment within Chinatowns gates.
Currently, Chinatown does not have a reliable school system. Many schools are under-resourced, attendance and graduation rate is low. It is one of the more significant issues Chinatown faces.
According to Darek Lau, “the community has been fighting for a neighborhood high school that is actually in or near Chinatown that offers competent bilingual services for students and parents.”
Other high schools require students to test into being accepted. If students cannot test into one of these high schools, they have a quality option to fall back on where parents and students can ensure a good education.
COVID-19 Impacts Chinatown pic.twitter.com/XWVU7BtbG5
— BinBin (she/her) (@BinBin45487827) November 30, 2021
To explore Chinatown on your own or with others there are Chinatown tours, visit the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, or book a table for Dim Sum.