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New York's Chinatown Sees Economic Challenges, 1 Year Into The COVID-19 Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is a holiday weekend because it's President's Day. For many people, it was also a weekend of celebration because the Year of the Ox began on the Chinese calendar. In New York City, the Lunar New Year usually brings visitors and revenue to Chinatown. But this year, the pandemic is making the 15-day festival that began last Friday a little less celebratory. Camille Petersen reports.

CAMILLE PETERSEN, BYLINE: As the festivities are about to begin, there is a lot of anticipation on Mott Street in Chinatown. Kids throw firecrackers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRECRACKERS)

PETERSEN: Business owners and a thin crowd wait for a lion dancing troupe to emerge. Two lion costumes come out of a small doorway, each guided by two people. One holds the lion's head, and the other holds the sparkling body and tail. The lions are thought to bring good luck for the new year. They strut and dance down Mott Street, blessing businesses along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETERSEN: Yin Kong follows the lions as they swerve through Chinatown. Kong is the director of a local nonprofit called Think!Chinatown. She says this is a much quieter Lunar New Year than normal.

YIN KONG: You know, you can gauge how busy it is here in Chinatown for the new year by, like, how far the confetti comes up. And so you can barely see, like, barely a drizzle right now.

PETERSEN: Businesses in Chinatown are noticing smaller confetti-making crowds, too. Mei Lum is the fifth-generation owner of Wing on Wo, a porcelain shop. She's used to a big parade and packed streets.

MEI LUM: Folks just pouring in, coming around and walking around the neighborhood after a parade or just, you know, sauntering in and stumbling upon us.

PETERSEN: Lum says for many of Chinatown's businesses, Lunar New Year marks one year since they started feeling the effects of the pandemic, a month earlier than the rest of the city. Lum says that's because of anti-Asian sentiment.

LUM: Creating this narrative that you come to Chinatown, you'll get the virus. You eat here, you do anything here, and there's, you know, a direct correlation between contracting the virus and being in this neighborhood.

ALICE LIU: This one actually tasted a little bit more like black tea.

PETERSEN: Alice Liu and her family own Grand Tea and Imports. Liu expects this will be the second Lunar New Year with less revenue. And her business faces other challenges. For example, the requirements for pandemic aid programs aren't tailored to the type of businesses that operate in Chinatown, which are primarily small and family owned. Liu also worries about the rising rents in wealthier neighborhoods like Soho and Tribeca encroaching on Chinatown.

LIU: We're in a very prime piece of land, and we're the only ones left that aren't super developed.

PETERSEN: Chinatown actually shares a zip code with those wealthier neighborhoods, and that excluded parts of it from a city loan program for low- and middle-income neighborhoods. But local community organizations have managed to get the city to talk to them about changes to the program.

JOANNE KWONG: If it wasn't for a group of advocates who made noise about it, then nothing would have happened.

PETERSEN: Joanne Kwong is the president of Pearl River Mart, a retailer in Chinatown and Chelsea. She says there is a bright side to Chinatown's economic challenges. They've gotten the younger generation more invested in advocating for the neighborhood.

KWONG: It doesn't feel pessimistic. It feels like there's hope.

PETERSEN: Plus, she says the return of indoor dining in New York City as of just last Friday will give Chinatown's restaurants a boost. And whether the line dancing outside her Chelsea location brings good fortune, it did cause the biggest smile she's seen in a long time.

For NPR News, I'm Camille Petersen in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "I AM REAL PUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.