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Lunar New Year Brings Smiles And Hope Amid Hardships For New York's Chinatown

The Chinatown Community Young Lions perform lion dancing at the Lunar New Year Celebration in Manhattan's Chinatown on Feb. 12.
The Chinatown Community Young Lions perform lion dancing at the Lunar New Year Celebration in Manhattan's Chinatown on Feb. 12.

Two colorful lion costumes appeared in a small doorway, each held up by two people — one guiding the head, and the other following with the sparkling body and tail.

The lions are thought to bring good luck and prosperity for the Lunar New Year. And as they strutted and danced in the streets of Chinatown, decorated with silver bells and fur trim, they passed Rose Wong, who was walking inside a wearable red and gold lantern she created as an artwork and symbol of hope for the neighborhood.

"Whoever is wearing the lantern is like the person that is being the light that shines in these dark times," Wong said.

Rose Wong, Think!Chinatown's Lantern Artist in residence, dons a wearable lantern she designed for the celebration.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Rose Wong, Think!Chinatown's Lantern Artist in residence, dons a wearable lantern she designed for the celebration.

Chinatown has faced both a spike in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic and mounting economic challenges. One of those challenges is the smaller celebrations for the 15-day Lunar New Year festival which began last Friday and usually brings lots of visitors and revenue.

"You can gauge how busy it is here in Chinatown for the new year, by like how far the confetti comes up. And so you can barely see a drizzle right now," said Yin Kong, director of the non-profit Think!Chinatown, which every year funds an artist to create a lantern like the one Wong wore.

Mei Lum is the fifth-generation owner of Wing on Wo & Co., a porcelain shop that has been in Chinatown since 1925. She's used to a big parade and packed streets and "folks just pouring in and stumbling upon us."

Mei Lum, the fifth generation owner of Wing on Wo porcelain shop, watches the festivities outside the store in Chinatown.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Mei Lum, the fifth generation owner of Wing on Wo porcelain shop, watches the festivities outside the store in Chinatown.

For many of Chinatown's businesses, the Lunar New Year marks one year since they started feeling the effects of the pandemic. That's about a month earlier than the rest of the city, when reports started to emerge of COVID-19 spreading in China.

She said it was the result of "anti-Asian sentiment creating this narrative that you come to Chinatown, you'll get the virus. You eat here, you do anything here, and there's a direct correlation between contracting the virus and being in this neighborhood."

Alice Liu, who owns Grand Tea & Imports with her family, said the store made about half the normal revenue last Lunar New Year. It will be tough to have another Lunar New Years with reduced revenue, she said.

Confetti rains down a celebration organized by Better Chinatown USA in American Legion Kimlau Memorial Square on Friday.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Confetti rains down a celebration organized by Better Chinatown USA in American Legion Kimlau Memorial Square on Friday.

"It's a huge security net that we build for ourselves to kind of have a little bit of cushion throughout the year."

Liu says Grand Tea and Imports has faced other challenges too. Aside from less foot traffic from tourists and commuters, the requirements for pandemic aid programs aren't tailored to the type of businesses that operate in Chinatown, which are primarily small and family-owned.

"It was either we're not eligible or it just did not make sense to get it because the amount that we would get would be so minuscule that it was more troublesome than it would be worth."

Alice Liu, the second-generation owner of Grand Tea and Imports, stands in front of her store in Chinatown.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
Alice Liu, the second-generation owner of Grand Tea and Imports, stands in front of her store in Chinatown.

Liu also worries about the rising rents in wealthier neighborhoods like Soho and Tribeca encroaching on Chinatown.

"We're in a very prime piece of land in lower Manhattan. And we're the only ones left that aren't super developed."

Thomas Yu, the co-director of Asian Americans for Equality, a social services nonprofit, adds a few other economic challenges to the list: Many Chinatown businesses were operating on a tiny financial cushion before the pandemic; they share tight storefronts and sidewalks which makes social distancing hard, and many are cash-based.

"So they don't have these kinds of connections to mainstream financial institutions that would have helped them during this time," Yu said.

People take photos at the Lunar New Year celebration in Kimlau Memorial Square.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
People take photos at the Lunar New Year celebration in Kimlau Memorial Square.

Chinatown's proximity to wealthier neighborhoods has also excluded parts of it from a city loan program for low and middle-income neighborhoods. But local community organizations in Chinatown have managed to get the city to consider changes to the program.

"If it wasn't for a group of advocates who made noise about it then nothing, nothing would have happened," said Joanne Kwong, president of Pearl River Mart, a retailer in Chinatown and Chelsea.

Kwong said there is a bright side to Chinatown's economic challenges — they've gotten the younger generation more involved in advocating for the neighborhood.

The Chinatown Community Young Lions perform lion dancing during the Lunar New Year festivities.
/ Mengwen Cao for NPR
The Chinatown Community Young Lions perform lion dancing during the Lunar New Year festivities.

"It doesn't feel pessimistic," she said. "It feels like there's hope."

She says the return of indoor dining in New York City on Feb. 12 will give Chinatown's restaurants a boost. And whether or not the lion dancing outside her Chelsea location brings luck, she says it did cause the biggest smiles she's seen in a long time.

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