Chinatown seeks better fortune


Business: The New York neighborhood has been slow to recover after the 9/11 attacks and last year's SARS outbreak in China led to a steep decline in tourism.

August 17, 2004|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - The shelves of the Wah Kue hobby shop are almost empty, and the boys who cluster in the back of the barren store are there to show off their collections of Japanese trading cards, not to buy anything.

Soon Yee, the co-owner of this Chinatown fixture for the past 20 years, has all but made up his mind to quit the business.

"Things are bad in Chinatown since 9/11," says Yee, 49, ringing up a rare sale - a can of soda. "We used to get a lot of tourists. The streets were so crowded, people were bumping into each other."

On sunny weekends the neighborhood's narrow streets, home to an Asian population of 56,000, are crowded again, but visitors are not spending much. Boarded-up storefronts testify to the lingering hard times in one of New York's best-known and most-exotic enclaves.

This neighborhood, which bills itself as the most-populous Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere, still is struggling to regain its footing after suffering a combination punch that cost it thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars. First came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which paralyzed local business and led to a steep decline in tourism. Then last year's outbreak of SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome - spread fear here even though the disease originated thousands of miles away in China.

"Business has not come back yet to where it was," says Andy Liu, owner of a large gift and souvenir shop on Mott Street, Chinatown's main shopping and dining street. "The tourists are scared. They don't think it's safe."

Chinatown, only a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, was flooded with evacuating office workers on the morning of Sept. 11. The scene from the days that followed, as fires raged underground at Ground Zero, remains a vivid memory to Ellen Lii, co-owner of the Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co.

"The whole sky was very smoky," says Lii, who had to wait three days before police allowed her past security barriers to check on her shop, which she feared would burn down because an electric cooking pot had been left on. "You had to wear a mask for several days."

With Lower Manhattan, including Chinatown, declared off-limits to nonresidents, the twin pillars of the neighborhood's economy collapsed. Business at Chinatown's 500 restaurants fell off as much as 70 percent. And Chinatown's garment industry, which depends on frequent deliveries and pickups, came almost to a standstill.

About 25,000 people, or 75 percent of Chinatown's work force, were out of work in the two weeks after Sept. 11.

"Basically, it put the whole economy into a freeze," says Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian-Americans for Equality, a community development group that has helped small businesses in the neighborhood obtain low-interest loans.

The damage to the garment industry was profound. One year after the attacks, 65 garment factories in Chinatown had closed, and a study by the Asian-American Federation of New York estimated that the attacks cost the industry $500 million in revenue. In early 2003, as Chinatown was emerging from the doldrums, the SARS outbreak in China dealt another blow to the neighborhood. The link between SARS and China made New Yorkers skittish about visiting the neighborhood, especially after a rumor circulated on the Internet that someone in Chinatown had died of the respiratory ailment.

That rumor was false, but the damage had been done.

"It was a double whammy for Chinatown," Kui says. "For some businesses, it had even more impact than 9/11. It really caused a lack of confidence."

Lii recalls a bit of black humor that summed up the effect SARS had on the community. "People would say that if you see a line in the post office, all you have to do is cough and you'll be first in line."

The worst seems to be over, but some things have not returned to normal. Park Row, a thoroughfare that connects Chinatown to the rest of Lower Manhattan, remains closed because it runs in front of police headquarters. And the World Trade Center, whose 40,000 workers were a major source of customers, has yet to be replaced.

"It's getting better," says Chuen Tang, 62, owner of Vegetarian Paradise, whose customers are predominantly non-Asians from outside the neighborhood. However, his business is still down about 15 percent from pre-9/11 days, while overhead continues to rise.

Community leaders say the neighborhood's woes have dramatized a long-standing need for Chinatown to reinvent itself.

Even before the terrorist attacks, the garment industry was closing factories and moving jobs out of high-priced New York. Newer Chinese neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens meant that Chinatown no longer was the only place to buy Chinese foodstuffs, herbs and other products. And many of the neighborhood's restaurants were old, bare-bones establishments, in need of renovation to compete with fancier Asian restaurants that have sprung up around Manhattan.

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