COVID-19 Almost Shut Down America's Chinatowns. Grace Young Is Fighting to Keep Them in Business
In January 2020—three months before COVID-19 shut down public life, as well as more than 110,000 restaurants and bars across the country—Grace Young noticed that New York's Chinatown had become a wasteland. "Normally, I'm jostling with the aunties and the popos (Cantonese for "grandmother") for my vegetables, but the streets were emptied out," the Manhattan-based food writer says. Figuring out why wasn't hard.
The pandemic had barely arrived in North America at that time, but politicians and pundits were calling it "the Chinese virus" or, worse yet, "kung flu." Anti-Chinese American sentiment was rising. Tourists who normally flocked to Manhattan's Chinatown stayed away. The same thing was happening in San Francisco, Oakland, Boston and other cities with dense Chinese American communities.
Young had not grown up in New York, but she was moved by the economic suffering of a neighborhood where she had shopped and dined for decades. In San Francisco, where the Chinese American writer grew up, trips to that city's bustling Chinatown meant attending family banquets or wandering around with her father, a liquor salesman whose accounts were primarily in the neighborhood. "He knew all the merchants in Chinatown," she says. "When you'd walk down Grant Avenue with my father, every few steps someone would yell out his name."
Young moved to New York as an adult, becoming test kitchen director for Time-Life Books. Over the past two decades, she has written a number of award-winning cookbooks, including The Breath of a Wok and Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge, that celebrate Chinese and Chinese American cuisine. Both her work and her own appetite brought her to Manhattan's Chinatown thousands of times. It didn't feel quite like her home turf, she says, in the same way San Francisco's Chinatown was. But she was called to do something for the neighborhood she loved.
In early March 2020, Young paired up with videographer Dan Ahn to collect interviews with restaurant owners and shopkeepers, which they posted online as a series titled "Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories," produced in collaboration with Poster House museum. On March 15, mayor Bill de Blasio shut down all nonessential businesses in New York City, and for Chinatown, a bad situation exploded into a full-blown state of emergency.
Mei Chau, owner of the French-Malaysian bistro Aux Epices in Chinatown, was one of the chefs Young interviewed. When Chau had to shut her doors, Young connected her to community organizers who placed giant takeout orders with her and other restaurants to deliver to neighborhood residents. Even after Chau decided the nonprofit support wasn't enough to keep her business afloat, Young kept checking in, sometimes texting her late at night.
Young turned her Instagram account, @stirfryguru, into a call to action, inspiring people around the country to support local Chinese American businesses. When journalists approached her to conduct an interview on a cooking topic, she'd always ask, "Can't we do something for Chinatown?"
And they did.
National magazines wrote features about Chinatown's struggles. Local and national TV stations aired stories. Publications and celebrity chefs alike—from J. Kenji López-Alt to Andrew Zimmern—picked up on Young's #SaveChineseRestaurants Instagram campaign. The writer partnered with local nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown to raise $39,000 so they could pay local restaurants to cook meals for food-insecure elders.
"Long-term change requires political power. Grace is not political," Chau says. "But she wanted to do something immediate to help, bringing people to Chinatown to support small businesses. She did a wonderful job. We needed that immediate assistance."
More than two years after pandemic-related discrimination harmed Chinatowns, Young's work isn't finished. COVID-19 also set off a wave of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence that has not yet abated—and its economic impact is furthering the harm in Manhattan's Chinatown, too. These days, many Chinese American residents of New York, Young says, are afraid of being attacked, and they are staying at home at night instead of patronizing local businesses. In late 2021, Young called on her now-considerable following to launch a second awareness campaign, #LoveAAPI, which Sara Moulton, Carla Hall and Ming Tsai have joined.
The ripples from Young's advocacy continue to spread. In May 2022, the Julia Child Foundation announced Young will receive the Julia Child Award and that it will contribute $50,000 in grant money to food-related nonprofits of her choosing. The recipients she's selected include legacy restaurants feeding community residents in need in Chinatowns from Manhattan and Boston to San Francisco, Oakland and Honolulu.
One of the great gifts of her efforts, Young says, is that she's become enmeshed in Manhattan's Chinatown in a way she never felt before. "I have come to appreciate that Chinatown is the story of America," she says. "We are a land of immigrants, and Chinatown tells the story of what it means to be an American."
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