Grace Young Is on a Mission to Save America’s Historic Chinatowns

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While the campaign has been pivotal in raising awareness around the unique challenges faced by Asian-owned small businesses throughout the pandemic, Young is also keen to emphasize it’s something that needs to be followed up with more direct support too. “Prior to COVID, I just kind of came and went from Chinatown, I really didn’t observe the actual workings of it. Many of the businesses are multi-generational, and—let me put it this way—a lot of Chinatown is pre-digital,” Young adds. “That’s part of its charm and beauty. But they don’t take credit cards. There’s no way that you can order online.” (Young even recalls a recent visit to a restaurant that opened in 1967 and was still operating with its original cash register.)

For Young, it was about harnessing the power of social media to bridge the gaps that these traditionally-minded businesses were unable to do themselves in the age of lockdowns and social distancing. “They are not doing Instagram, Facebook, Twitter,” Young continues. “And they don’t have time. These are hard-working immigrant businesses, they’re there seven days a week, working 10 to 14 hours a day, and that would feel frivolous for them, I think, to be tweeting or doing an Instagram post.”

Young also wants to spotlight how integral these immigrant communities are to the history and social fabric of the American urban landscape, especially given that Manhattan’s Chinatown is not considered a historic district and is therefore highly susceptible to gentrification. As many of the most historic restaurants and produce stores have closed—some that have been running for over 60 years—those properties could be quickly snapped up by developers unconcerned with the district’s cultural significance. Working in collaboration with filmmaker Dan Ahn and New York’s Poster House museum, Young began creating an oral history project of recorded interviews with a number of restaurateurs and small business owners in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the days before the first government-mandated lockdown last March. Titled Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, the powerful series was featured by The Smithsonian National Museum of American History at their annual youth summit last summer.

“I mean, America is a land of immigrants, and San Francisco and Manhattan’s Chinatowns are historic immigrant communities that are struggling to survive right now,” says Young. “This is the story of America. This is how Asian immigrants, Chinese immigrants have been able to get a foothold in this country and start their lives. They are communities where food justice is key, where people of all different ethnicities are able to access high-quality, nutritious food at affordable prices. You walk like three blocks outside of Chinatown, and a supermarket has the same produce for double the price. It’s very unique, and it tells the story of what it means to be American.”

It’s a story that feels particularly urgent given the dramatic rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S. over the past year, the most recent and most visible occurrence being the shooting in Atlanta on March 16 that resulted in eight deaths, the majority of whom were Asian-American women. For Asian-American service industry workers, not only is there an increased risk of catching COVID via regular in-person interactions, but also the fear of harassment, intimidation, or even violence. “With the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, it makes it more challenging for workers to even be coming to work,” Young adds. “There’s fear.” As Young’s project makes clear, at a time when many are looking for ways to support and show solidarity with AAPI communities around the country, heading to your local Chinatown is a good place to start.

“I hope that everyone shows solidarity in speaking out against Asian hate, but on top of that, the best way to combat hate is with love,” Young concludes. “And we’ve got to shower all these businesses with as much love as possible. We have to show up for them now.”



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