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Lunar New Year celebrations this year aim to help struggling Chinatowns

In New York City, grassroots groups are using the holiday to support businesses that lost 50 percent to 70 percent of revenue since the pandemic began.
Finnie Fung is the owner of Green Fish Seafood Market in Oakland, Calif., and is featured in the recipe zine Have You Eaten Yet.
Finnie Fung, the owner of Green Fish Seafood Market in Oakland, Calif., is featured in the recipe zine "Have You Eaten Yet?"Good Good Eatz

Lunar New Year celebrations usually mean colorful lion dance parades, thumping drumbeats, popping firecrackers and massive feasts with family and friends. While the holiday will certainly look different in the Covid-19 era, wishes for health, wealth and good fortune are louder than ever in America's struggling Chinatowns.

The Year of the Ox begins Feb. 12, and organizations, grassroots groups and volunteers throughout the country are using the Lunar New Year to raise money for Chinatown businesses hit especially hard since the onset of the pandemic. Creative initiatives and virtual events are using art, storytelling, culture and community to highlight the people behind the businesses that make Chinatowns beloved places for countless Asian Americans.

New York City's Welcome to Chinatown, founded by friends and Manhattan Chinatown residents Victoria Lee and Jennifer Tam, partnered with the Abrons Arts Center and Wing on Wo's W.O.W. Project to commemorate Lunar New Year with "From Chinatown, With Love," a photo calendar shot by Mischelle Moy, featuring products from 18 Manhattan Chinatown businesses, such as Lucky King Bakery and Bangkok Center Grocery.

"We want people to see the Chinatown we see as locals," Tam said. "Chinatown is so much more than a place for tourism or gathering."

IMAGE: The calendar 'From Chinatown, With Love'
The calendar "From Chinatown, With Love" features photos of 18 Manhattan Chinatown businesses.Mischelle Moy

The classic Chinese-style calendar, which will be given to customers who spend $20 at participating businesses, is accompanied by a neighborhood Lunar New Year gift guide filled with local insider tips.

Tam said her nonprofit has raised more than $650,000 for Manhattan's Chinatown since it was founded 10 months ago.

Welcome to Chinatown is also selling a Lunar New Year Collection of merchandise benefiting six Manhattan Chinatown businesses and a nonprofit.

It's estimated that businesses in the area have lost 50 percent to 70 percent of their revenue since the pandemic — and the subsequent xenophobia — began in January 2020.

Alice Liu is a second-generation proprietor of Grand Tea & Imports, which got a grant from Welcome to Chinatown's Longevity Fund in September.

"It was really exciting and offered a lot of hope, because being a Chinatown small business, we've been closed out of a lot of mainstream funding," said Liu, whose family business is featured in the calendar and the merchandise collection. "Having [a relief program] made for us, by us and administered in a way that small businesses in Chinatown are used to creates a lot more trust."

Another New York-based group, Send Chinatown Love, has created an illustrated map of Asian American-owned restaurants and gift shops for its Lunar New Year Crawl through Chinatowns in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.

Other organizations have also taken design-forward approaches to supporting local businesses.

Save Our Chinatowns and Good Good Eatz teamed up to produce "Have You Eaten Yet?" a recipe zine and red envelope bundle to benefit Yuen Hop Noodle Co., Cam Anh Deli and Green Fish Seafood Market in Chinatown in Oakland, California.

IMAGE: 'Have You Eaten Yet?'
"Have You Eaten Yet?" — a recipe zine created by Save Our Chinatowns and Good Good Eatz — benefits businesses in Oakland's Chinatown.Courtesy of Save Our Chinatowns

Daphne Wu of Oakland, a Save Our Chinatowns volunteer who conceptualized, wrote and edited the zine, said, "A recipe zine is a way to inspire folks to go out and support these businesses and also get to know the owners a bit more personally and intimately."

The printed copies sold out within two hours of the zine's launch Jan. 25, but digital copies are available with an online donation.

Wu said people feel deep connections to Oakland Chinatown because "there are so few places in the world where us third-culture kids can feel at home and a sense of belonging."

But even with the support of grassroots initiatives like Save Our Chinatowns, which raised $40,000 last year, Chinatowns in San Francisco and Oakland must fight to stay open because of Covid-19-related closings and racially motivated fears.

Business owners like Anh Nguyen of Cam Anh Deli, who arrived in Oakland in the early 1990s as a refugee from Vietnam, are dedicated to moving forward.

"A lot of people stepped up — it's just incredible," said Nguyen, who contributed a recipe for lemongrass tofu to the zine, which was illustrated by six artists, including Save Our Chinatowns founder Jocelyn Tsaih. "I want to tell people Chinatown is a safe place to be and we will go on and continue to serve the neighborhood and community as long as we can."

Traditional fundraising events are also underway for Lunar New Year.

The 43rd-anniversary L.A. Chinatown Firecracker 5/10K, Kiddie Run, Bike Ride & Paw'er Dog Walk on Feb. 27 is being held virtually this year, giving participants the flexibility to complete their events at the time and date of their choosing.

It is one of the largest and longest-running Lunar New Year charity runs in the nation, and 100 percent of net proceeds are reinvested locally.

Similarly, the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center is holding a free Lunar New Year Virtual 5K/1 Mile Run/Walk, "We Love Boston Chinatown," Feb. 12-15.

The organization encourages entrants to run or walk in Chinatown and patronize its spots in the process. Prizes will include gift certificates from Boston Chinatown restaurants to encourage spending in the community.

Social service agencies are also using digital spaces to encourage donations — and visits — to Chinatown.

The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, or PCDC, plans a virtual Chinese New Year celebration Feb. 26 to benefit programs for Chinatown.

PCDC's Ai Love Chinatown campaign, which was launched in August to support small businesses affected by Covid-19, has produced a video series that spotlights Asian American-owned businesses.

"We wanted to bring that personality to people's attention to show there's real people standing behind these businesses, and they're hurting, but they're still taking the time to take care of their customers and workers," PCDC Project Manager Lamei Zhang said.

Tam of Welcome to Chinatown said the immense nostalgia and love people have for the historic neighborhood is why people are eager to volunteer and donate money to help.

"We always say we hope when we have kids of our own, that they get to know the Chinatown that we grew up experiencing," Tam said. "People can't fathom the idea of Chinatown disappearing."