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How The Pandemic Has Transformed New York's Chinatown


After months in lockdown and nearly 22,000 deaths from COVID-19, New York City moved to phase one of its reopening today. Construction, manufacturing and limited retail can start up again. Of course, not everything is back to normal. In Manhattan's Chinatown, normal would be the narrow streets packed with food vendors, fruit and seafood stands filling the sidewalks and pedestrians jostling at crowded subways.

For a firsthand glimpse of how that bustling neighborhood has transformed and what's happening there now as the city slowly opens up, we have reached Grace Young. She's a cookbook writer who's been fighting for the small business owners who fill New York's Chinatown. And she joins us on FaceTime video so we can have a look, too.

And, Grace, it looks like you're in one of the restaurants that you've been following since this lockdown started. Tell us about where you are.

GRACE YOUNG: So here I am. And this is Mei Chau, the owner and chef of Aux Epices. This is her little Malaysian French restaurant. So she actually reopened one month ago for takeout. And I thought it would be interesting for you to see the restaurant right now because she's struggling. She may not make it.

SHAPIRO: It's a very narrow shop where there's a banquette running along one wall. And it looks like, if it were full of customers, it would be really hard to do social distancing. But right now, there are no customers in it at all.

YOUNG: Exactly. I mean, that is one of the concerns that when we finally reopen and there's limited seating, if it's - it only seats about 20 to 25 people. Mei would probably be allowed to seat two tables.

SHAPIRO: And I guess that's true of so much of Chinatown because - I mean, I've been there. It's packed with these very small mom-and-pop stores and restaurants that don't have a lot of elbow room, and that's part of the charm.

YOUNG: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: So as you step outside of the restaurant and you look down the streets that, when I've been there in the past, have been crowded with vendors and customers and locals and tourists, what does it look like now?

YOUNG: I was surprised that when I came into Chinatown today, that there are more people, more cars, more activity. And some stores that hadn't been open before have opened up.

SHAPIRO: How does the sidewalk traffic right now compare to what you would expect mid-afternoon on a typical Monday?

YOUNG: It doesn't compare at all. Look at here. So here is one of my favorite fruit stands on Mulberry and Canal Street. And you can see they're doing a pretty robust business.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And is this the first day that they've been back open?

YOUNG: No. They have been open for at least a month. So this is...

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

YOUNG: ...Pretty - yeah, yeah. They've been very gutsy. But now I'm coming down to - oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: What? What is it?

YOUNG: One of my favorite stores in Chinatown is reopen.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's so great. What's the store?

YOUNG: It's called K. K. Discount. And I call it the Chinese mom-and-pop Target store.

SHAPIRO: So like, what do you buy there?

YOUNG: You can buy everything. I'm approaching right now.

SHAPIRO: Oh. Right in front, they've hung all of these housewares and bright, colorful items.

YOUNG: Mrs. Lee (ph).

MRS LEE: (Unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: So as Manhattan's Chinatown inches towards reopening, tell me one specific thing that you just can't wait to have again.

YOUNG: Well, there's a great restaurant on Mott Street called Wo Hop, and it's been around since 1938. When you go down there, it's old school. The waiters are all sort of middle-aged guys. They're all wearing these cotton tops. And a lot of people put Wo Hop down as Chinese American food, but it represents a certain period of time in Chinese American cuisine. And they make this amazing flounder. And you love them for this taste of Old World Chinatown that can never ever exist once they go.

SHAPIRO: Grace Young, thank you so much for taking us on this tour.

YOUNG: Oh, thank you, Ari. I'm so glad that you're so interested in what's happening to Chinatown.

SHAPIRO: She's author of the cookbook "Stir-Frying To The Sky's Edge," and she's producing a video series with Poster House museum documenting what's happening to Chinatown in the pandemic. It's called "Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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