How TikTok creators are helping NYC Chinatowns

NYC Chinatowns are trending on TikTok thanks to community-minded creators

Early on in the pandemic, Marcia Hu had what she calls her first “pandemic awakening” while walking through Flushing’s Chinatown. 

Born and raised in one of the largest Chinatowns in NYC, Hu walked through Flushing at 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday. Normally the busiest time to be there, Hu found a ghost town instead.  

New York’s ban on indoor dining on March 17, 2020 saw the shutdown of bars and restaurants around the city. Among the most affected were NYC’s nine Chinatowns, and their shops and restaurants

Image of a bustling NYC chinatown with many bystanders
New York City’s Flushing Chinatown. Photo Credit: Metro Centric on Flickr.

According to The Guardian, from April 2019 to April 2020, the number of Asian Americans filing for unemployment benefits increased by more than 6,000% — three times higher than the rate of the general population.

Hu noticed the impact of the pandemic as early as February 2020. She saw that Chinatown restaurants that typically held Lunar New Year banquet events were not getting any business. 

In the background of this was Anti-Asian sentiment spreading across the city. Fake news and targeted language, such as the term “China virus”, contributed to harmful rhetoric and resentment against Asian Americans nationwide.

Due to the widespread rhetoric placing blame on Asian people for COVID-19, Asian Americans faced not only economic hardships from the onset of the pandemic, but also a surge of violent attacks, racism, and xenophobia

When NYC’s Chinatowns faced hardship, a community effort, local in target yet worldwide in reach, sprung up in the unlikeliest of places.

A warm welcome to Chinatown

Welcome to Chinatown started as a digital gift card and coupon platform. It has since grown into an organization with around 50 to 70 dedicated volunteers of all backgrounds. Designers, artists, marketers, and business developers make up a diverse team.

Now with over 10,000 followers on TikTok, Welcome to Chinatown’s videos highlighting NYC’s Chinatown cultures and food have gone viral.

@welcome.to.chinatown on TikTok

In turn, this has spawned several offline initiatives, such as the Longevity Fund and the Sik Faan Fund. The Longevity Fund provides assistance in the form of monetary grants for small businesses. Meanwhile, the Sik Faan Fund purchases fresh and nutritious meals made in Chinatown and distributes them to those in need.

To Gabi Tran, Grants and Outreach Director at Welcome to Chinatown, TikTok allows them to tap into a bigger audience, in contrast to more local organizing.

Tran recognized that one of the common struggles for Chinatown businesses was the ability to use modern technology and social media to their advantage. She saw TikTok as a potential aide in amplifying and promoting their businesses.

Jackie Wang, Head of Communications at Welcome to Chinatown, sees the accessibility of TikTok content as another plus.

Wang describes TikTok as a dynamic platform that can publish interactive, easily digestible, and shareable content. Viewers can easily learn where people can eat in Chinatown, who the business owners are, or what a day in Chinatown looks like.

“We know that there [are] so many stories behind all the places you’re shopping at, the people who own these small businesses,” said Wang. “And to get people to build that relationship or hear those stories, just have closer ties…I think that gets people invested in wanting to make sure that Chinatown is able to stay open for business.” 

Read also: Focusing on family: how Mom and Pop restaurants brave the pandemic

Sending Chinatown love

Send Chinatown Love is an organization aiming to help NYC’s Chinatown restaurants in need. They do this by giving merchants an online platform, towards the ends of creating a digital community.

Marcia Hu joined Send Chinatown Love as their Merchant Experience Leader after discovering them on Instagram. She witnessed how the pandemic impacted Asian and immigrant-owned mom-and-pop businesses. With its widespread reach, Hu believed TikTok was the best platform to help these merchants feel visible.

@sendchinatownlove on TikTok

While she was able to have extraordinary conversations with Chinatown merchants, Hu wants to use TikTok to tell these stories. Hu aims to mobilize young millennial Asians in metropolitan areas to support these businesses even more.

Send Chinatown Love has also initiated several offline initiatives. Hu recalls a time where the collective was able to connect the Asian and Black communities during their Gift-a-Meal campaign. About $3,000 worth of food was purchased from a Chinatown merchant through donations and given to food pantries operating outside a low-income housing project.

“We have a lot of people coming to us on our TikToks, tagging their friends and saying things like, ‘Wow! I passed by this place everyday and had no idea this was their story’”, said Hu.

“It just feels so great, this connection between us, the merchants, and the community members that these merchants serve everyday.” 

The importance of preserving NYC Chinatown’s businesses

When Wang thinks of Chinatown, she remembers the smells and sounds of just walking through the grocery stores, and the comfort of wandering the neighbourhood despite not being from there. 

Tran recalls how her family would always default to Manhattan’s Chinatown. It served as a familiar area for groceries, celebrations, and food.

“It’s almost like a mecca,” said Tran. 

“It doesn’t matter where you really come from, if you are newly immigrated, if you’re a second- or third-generation immigrant, or even if you are trying to rediscover your roots. Chinatown is really a place that welcomes all walks of life.

“And that’s pretty critical for some people who rely on the neighborhood,” said Wang. “People who maybe speak little or no English, or recent immigrants. It kind of goes back to the importance of having a community of color.

“When trying to preserve a neighborhood like this, you also want to think: what would it mean if it disappeared?”

Read also: How local corner stores bring community together during a pandemic

Anyone has the power to make a difference

To Hu, being a community member of and advocate for NYC Chinatowns means empowering these business owners’ voices and listening to their vibrant histories, goals and motivations. It means providing support for someone in a time when every single penny counts.

Hu also speaks to the importance of virtual connection so crucial to Send Chinatown Love’s mission of “creating digital communities for Chinatown’s restaurants to sustain themselves”.

“If you have a text message group chat, there’s nothing stopping you from just picking a few places you’ve never tried before and just going and spending money at those small businesses,” Hu said.

“There’s a lot that we as individuals can do if we have some spare time to help out right now.” 

For Tran, creating TikTok videos to amplify businesses owners’ stories has helped Welcome to Chinatown’s mission of “[preserving] one of New York City’s most vibrant neighbourhoods.”

Most crucially, Wang asserts the importance of listening before delivering. 

“That kind of comes with the whole cultural idea of just respecting your elders and respecting the people who have come before us to build Chinatown,” explained Wang. 

It means “[respecting people who] have left an impact on the neighbourhood […] that we know and love now, and [making] sure that we’re honouring that as we work to preserve it.”

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