“Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants have been economically impacted by the pandemic since January 2020, when businesses were shunned because of misinformation and xenophobia,” Young says. “Many family-owned eateries and shops saw their businesses drop 40 to 80 percent.” This staggering loss has proved to be exceedingly difficult to recover from for many AAPI-owned businesses.
In New York City’s Chinatown alone, Young saw countless legacy businesses—many of which had been community staples for decades—shutter their doors one after the next. Moreover, she shares that in San Francisco’s Chinatown (where she was raised and in which her father was an active figure in the community), Grant Avenue has witnessed 46 store closures to date and counting. In short, Young warns that historic Chinatowns across the country, including those in other major cities such as Boston and Oakland, “are all on life support.”
At the start of the pandemic, Young felt galvanized to give a platform to the New York Chinatown businesses that were hit hard early on. In March 2020, she co-created the video series Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories alongside videographer Dan Ahn and Poster House Museum, in which restaurant and shop owners discussed the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses. “Conducting these interviews and hearing the heartbreaking stories of what they’d been experiencing deeply moved me,” Young says. “From that point on, I did everything in my power to help Chinatown businesses—and ultimately AAPI mom and pop businesses.”
By October 2020, Young had started the Save Chinese Restaurants campaign on Instagram, encouraging followers to order from a favorite local Chinese restaurant, and to post a photo with the hashtag #SaveChineseRestaurants. Her goal was to urge the public to order from Chinese eateries—and similarly with Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, raise awareness of the gravity of the issues these businesses faced on account of culturally charged falsehoods, discrimination, and violence. (This was all, of course, on top of the challenge to stay open amidst stay-at-home orders and financial upheaval for business owners and customers alike.) However, it became clear soon enough that other Asian-owned communities and businesses faced similar burdens as well. “We needed to remind the public that all AAPI mom and pop businesses across the country need our support,” Young shares—and that was when #SaveChineseRestaurants evolved into the broader #LoveAAPI campaign.
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Inspired by Young’s advocacy and efforts to honor and uplift these cultural enclaves and culinary institutions, the James Beard Foundation has lent its support to both campaigns. In addition, they recognized Young as their 2022 Humanitarian of the Year, an award granted to those “whose work in the realm of food has improved the lives of others and benefited society at large.” (In May 2022, the Julia Child Foundation announced that Young will receive the eighth annual Julia Child Award this October “for her important contributions to preserving and sharing Chinese culinary traditions through her roles as an author, historian, and activist” and for “[shedding] shed light on how cuisines from around the world play an integral role in America’s culinary heritage.”)
Grace’s activism to save Chinatowns and support AAPI-owned businesses stems from an urgent need to save these cuisines and communities—and their legacies—before it’s too late. “These immigrant communities hold a sacred and unique place in the history of our country, which is, after all, a land of immigrants,” Young says. “So many of the legacy restaurants that we’ve lost are our last link to immigrant cooking from generations past.”
Since food is such an integral part of cultural identity, losing access to these culinary establishments has major repercussions on present and future generations within these communities—not to mention the dire threats to the livelihood of business owners and employees themselves. “We need to do everything in our power to preserve and protect [these neighborhoods and businesses]. If we don’t show our support by eating and shopping regularly, we will lose them,” says Young.
In short, the #LoveAAPI campaign is rooted in allyship so that AAPI-owned businesses can rise above the culturally-charged and financial hardships they’ve faced throughout the pandemic to ultimately support owners, employees, shoppers, and community members in meaningful ways. Even with restrictions being lifted and many parts of the country opening up again, the AAPI-owned businesses that have been able to weather the storm continue to face unique challenges solely on account of their heritage. As the NYC Commission on Human Rights reports, “Beginning in February of 2020, the Commission received a sevenfold increase in reports of anti-Asian harassment, discrimination, and violence.” (Moreover, they note that hate crimes and bias incidents are largely under-reported.) Plus, the NYPD reported a 361 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 compared to the previous year.
Faced with these daily threats and anxieties, both AAPI business owners and customers are unable to experience the relief of loosening restrictions and a return to pre-COVID normalcy (of sorts). “Now, with continued anti-Asian hate crimes, business haven’t returned to what they were pre-pandemic because many locals are afraid to come out to dine and shop,” Young laments.
Young’s advocacy work emphasizes that allyship and support for AAPI-owned businesses are essential to maintain access to cultural foods, and thus uplift these communities and preserve these storefronts before they face extinction. No matter your own cultural background or where you live, Young urges everyone to get involved in the #LoveAAPI campaign by posting a photo or video of your favorite AAPI restaurant, market, bakery, or shop on social media. “Tell us what you’re eating and buying or why you love the business, and add the hashtag #LoveAAPI. Tell your friends and followers to do the same,” she shares. By doing so, you’ll join legions of allies and food experts to uplift Asian-owned businesses—and even get the chance to discover culinary gems worth visiting in your own area. “At the start of the #LoveAAPI campaign, it was very cool that Sara Moulton did one of the first posts talking about K. K. Discount, one of her favorite NYC Chinatown mom and pop stores,” Young says. Other respected chefs and culinary experts who have used their platforms to spread awareness about the #LoveAAPI campaign include—but aren’t limited to—Jessica Harris, Ming Tsai, and Carla Hall.
The more love and support you show for these businesses, the more likely they are to not just survive, but thrive in the midst of such a challenging time for the AAPI community.
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