(Photos: Bessie Liu)

On a sunny afternoon in Manhattan’s Chinatown, masked residents can be seen wandering the streets, chatting with friends. In the alleyways, a handful of customers are seated at outdoor dining tables. The once deserted streets of Chinatown have come back to life. But local advocates believe the area could be more inviting after dark, and they’re hoping to brighten it up with hundreds of lanterns.

New York’s Chinatowns have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this March, when COVID-19 first began to spread around the United States, President Trump called the virus the “China Virus” and “China Plague,” and there were xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans across the country. Foot traffic in Chinatown completely vanished, and small businesses that had been in the area for decades were forced to close their doors. It is estimated that one-third of small businesses in New York City may not survive the pandemic, but an accurate estimate on the damage the virus has brought to the small businesses landscape will remain unknown for years. 

During recent months, multiple grassroots organizations have come to life in an attempt to revive New York’s once lively Chinatowns. One of these not-for-profits is Send Chinatown Love. Founded by software engineer Justin McKibben, the volunteer-led group aims to provide resources to immigrant business owners in Chinatown. 

Benches in the alleyways of Chinatown where people can sit and rest.

McKibben had noticed that many of the cash-only businesses run by immigrants in Chinatown didn’t have the necessary language and technical skills to create landing pages that would allow them to sell gift cards and accept donations during this difficult time. In March, he posted an Instagram story calling for collaborators, and the organization now boasts some 200-plus volunteers. 

Since its launch, Send Chinatown Love has partnered with 22 merchants in the eight unofficial Chinatown communities across New York City, raising over $120,000 for the businesses and selling over 12,000 gift cards.

Marcia Hu, the community lead at Send Chinatown Love, said her team is constantly checking in with local merchants to find out what they might need. “They don’t necessarily want a donation or handout as much as they just want our help to get business back into their stores and into the streets.”

In late September, the organization put on a food crawl, in hopes of bringing foot traffic back to Chinatown. More than 1,000 guests and13 vendors participated, and an estimated $29,000 was raised.

Street vendors are returning to Chinatown.

This month, the team is working on another project, called Light up Chinatown. The initiative, proposed by bakery store manager Patrick Mock, aims to install permanent light fixtures and lanterns on Mott Street, from Canal to Bayard Streets, and on Bayard Street, from Mott to Bowery. Their purpose is to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for pedestrians who pass through the area. The team aims to set up 14 light fixtures– each of which will cost approximately $1,000, plus a labor cost of $7,750– and 350 lanterns from local merchant Pearl River Mart, which will cost $1,750 altogether. The organization hopes to raise $23,750 by December 15, after which there will be a “Light Up Chinatown” ceremony in celebration of the Winter Solstice. 

“[The purpose] is to decorate the streets and make it more inviting and welcoming for folks to stop by Chinatown and have it be the iconic community that it’s always been,” said Wendy He, a volunteer at Send Chinatown Love.

The organization isn’t the only one helping to keep Chinatown afloat. With the winter season slowly approaching, the United Chinese Association of Eastern United States and the Chinatown Business Improvement District have partnered to provide 100 sets of plexiglass table partitions to restaurants in Chinatown– a move intended to “greatly improve safety measures for both diners and restaurant employees,” according to a press release from City Council member Margaret S. Chin’s office. 

The intersection of Mott and Bayard Streets.

The Councilmember’s office is also running a food pantry initiative in partnership with Covenant Mercy Mission and Chinatown-based non-profit UA3, which will deliver food to community members. Over time, at least 26 organizations have assisted in the deliveries, according to Chin’s office.

Although some businesses are now slowly recovering, the pandemic has left many shops with little option but to close their businesses permanently. 

“Businesses that are open today might not necessarily be open tomorrow,” Hu said. “We’ve had two merchants close during the time that we started working with them because there was no amount of donations or gift card purchases that would have been able to get them out of this piling mountain of debt that they accrued during the time they were closed.”