‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Chinatown

Chinatown celebrations for the Lunar New Year look different amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a normal year, festivities include a parade, banquets and family meals spanning from the eve of the Chinese New Year until 15 days after. 

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This year, nearly all celebrations will be virtual.

The Chinese American Service League distributed 150,000 KN-95 masks to 100 Chinatown businesses and 67 greater Chicago area nonprofits to celebrate the Lunar New Year. 

“It was really to help bridge relationships and foster new friendships with other communities,” said Paul Luu, CEO of the Chinese American Service League.

Video: Watch our full interview with Paul Luu.

This new year will be the Year of the Ox, which symbolizes determination and strength. 

“The ox symbolizes strength. It’s strong, so the people feel that the ox maybe ... will fight against the virus and will kick out the virus,” said Hong Liu, executive director of the Midwest Asian Health Association

While most of Chicago started to feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in March, Chinatown began responding in January, Liu said. Some Lunar New Year celebrations last year were canceled because of the virus. 

While some COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed in area pharmacies, the people getting the vaccinations haven’t necessarily been Chinatown residents, said David Wu, executive director of Pui Tak Center.

“So the community members right here can’t easily get the vaccination,” Wu said.

On Saturday, the Pui Tak Center will host a vaccine event for 200 residents. 

"I think people get online and just search for any Walgreens, and people are willing to drive 25 miles to get a vaccine,” Wu said. “So we’ll see how a more community-based approach ... If it works out."

Registering for the vaccine also poses a challenge for older residents, who often don’t have a smartphone, email or internet, Wu said. 

“Just like we talked about in the census and in voting outreach, the largest barrier is language for the community,” said Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. “The other barrier is honestly that a lot of grocery store workers, restaurant workers do not have a primary care physician so that also is a barrier for them to access vaccines because a lot of the administration is with hospitals.”

MAHA held a virtual town hall about the available vaccines in Chinese, which 500 people attended, said Liu.

The new year comes and with the vaccine distribution under way, the community continues to face anti-Asian sentiment. In recent days, there’s been a handful of attacks on older Asian Americans in the U.S.

“The discrimination due to the virus called the ‘China virus’ ... There is an increase in criminal activity in our community. All those heavily impacted Chinatown,” Liu said. 

In the past year, four Chinese people have been killed by gun violence, Liu said.

"For us it’s because the Chinese American community is such a close knit community and having somebody lose their lives like this, reminds people how fragile their lives are, also it’s a really tragic demonstration of how our dreams can crash quickly,” McKibben said.

Carjackings have also been on the rise in Chinatown, and across the city. 

“Public safety is something that a lot of community members are really concerned about and I think people deserve a safe neighborhood. They deserve to feel safe and have safety in their surroundings,” said state Rep. Theresa Mah, who represents Chinatown in Springfield. 

Video: Watch our full interview with state Rep. Theresa Mah.

The economic impact has been devastating to the business community in Chinatown, which primarily includes restaurants often fueled by tourism to the area. 

“We’ve been extremely busy working with local businesses here in Chinatown. Of course, the area is filled with all kinds of really good, excellent Chinese restaurants and a lot of shops. We were in the community, affected very early by the virus before it was widespread throughout the United States,” said Patrick McShane, who’s president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and also president and CEO of American Metro Bank. 

“I think most of them have survived, except for the big ones,” said Mabel Moy, chairman of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. The bigger restaurants, with large banquet spaces, are especially struggling, she said. 

Triple Crown Restaurant is at risk of eviction. It is one of the large restaurants in the community, and has been a staple for 25 years. Over the past year, the restaurant has fallen behind on rent, according to owner Spencer Ng.

“They offered two months free rent, half rent to end of December 2020, and the start of January 2021, we were supposed to pay full rent, but the cost would be for me to sign over Triple Crown as collateral, trade name as collateral, which wouldn’t make any sense, basically trying to hold my brand hostage,” said Spencer Ng of Triple Crown Restaurant

William Dorsey, the lawyer for the landlord, disagrees. “The landlord made every effort to negotiate a reasonable settlement of this dispute before bringing suit, but Triple Crown did not make a single base rent payment since April of 2020,” Dorsey said in a statement. 

Ng said that while the loosening indoor dining restrictions allow his restaurant to seat more people, business is still significantly down — especially during the Lunar New Year when the restaurant is typically booked with banquets.  

“Overall, it’s getting pretty gloomy here in Chinatown,” Ng said. “Today is actually one of the busiest days I’ve seen, as it is Lunar New Year Eve.”

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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