3rd Generation Chinatown restaurateurs struggle to do business amid Covid

Most restaurants in the United States and around the world have been affected due to closures and reduced dining capacity in the wake of COVID-19.

For Liz and Brian Yee, the pandemic has had an incredible impact on their restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Running a thriving family business for three generations, the Yees have faced more than just dining restrictions over the past year – they’ve encountered a resurgence of racism that has them worried not just about their restaurant, but also for the future of their young children.

“Growing up in a family business in Chinatown is pretty good because I saw my parents a lot,” Liz Yee said on TODAY. “I got to spend a lot of time with my siblings inside the bakery.”

Thirty years ago, Liz Yee’s grandfather opened Kam Hing Bakery, famous for its beloved sponge cakes. Now, due to school closures due to COVID-19, Yee’s own children are hanging out in the restaurant.

Most restaurants in the United States and around the world have been affected due to closures and reduced dining capacity as a result of Covid-19.Courtesy of Liz Yee

In October 2019, the couple expanded the business to open Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodles.

“It’s a Hong Kong-style comfort food,” Brian Yee said. “It’s honestly the type of food we grew up on.”

As they celebrated the expansion, the pandemic struck, forcing them to face new challenges they had never considered before.

“It was so frustrating just because you take this time to build and renovate this place, and then, thing you know, there is a virus, a ‘Chinese virus’,” she said, speaking of the prejudice and even violence against Asian communities. during the pandemic. “So people are afraid to come to your neighborhood,” she explained. The Yees found themselves with bills mounting, debts mounting, and the chores of their three children who worked with them every day.

“A lot of people who came to Tonii’s on Saturdays, saw me and Brian go crazy because you can hear my kids in the background,” she explained. She laughed, adding, “You can hear my eight month old and her walker running back and forth in the basement.

“For us to run around, try to get things ready, while serving the customers while looking after the kids and their school, our mind was just blown away.”

Courtesy of Liz Yee

Anti-Asian sentiments, fear of the coronavirus, and declining tourism led Chinatown to report profit losses of up to 70% as early as February 2020. Popular initiatives such as Send Chinatown Love have helped merchants like Tonii’s create an online presence to bolster income.

“If you see such a need in your community, it is more important than ever to start helping in whatever way you can,” said Louise Palmer of Send Chinatown Love. The volunteer-run organization hosted a digital Lunar New Year food exploration that helped boost business.

“They gave us hope to stay alive,” said Liz Yee. “And that was something we really needed during that time.”

“We just want to preserve the culture,” said Brian Yee. “The storefronts that were in Chinatown 20 years ago are gone now. And once you don’t make these things work, you lose them forever.”

“Chinatown truly represents the experience of Asian Americans,” said Palmer. “It was created by immigrants who moved to this country and wanted to carve out a space for themselves. It is this legacy that has enabled the younger generation of Asian Americans to truly create a space for themselves here as well.

For Liz Yee and her family, the importance of running Chinatown and her business goes beyond the immediate need for income.

“For us young adult parents and young adult business owners, we want to preserve the commercial aspect of the trendy Hong Kong food,” she said. “We want our kids to understand that this is what your grandparents used to eat and their grandparents and so on. We don’t want to lose any of that.”

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