Chinatown's Restaurants Were The First To be Upended By The Now Industry-Wide Crisis

Justin Chen looks down an empty Broadway in between filling take-out orders at Yang Chow. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Tucked inside a Chinatown strip mall, Golden Lake Eatery had been open for almost five hours Thursday, and only one order for delivery had come through the whole time.

Co-owner Joe Liu, who was wearing a jaunty straw hat that belied his sour mood, said fears over the new coronavirus have kept customers away from his Cambodian Chinese restaurant since the beginning of March.

"Every day has been bad!" Liu said in Mandarin.

Liu's story is now that of almost every restaurant in Los Angeles.

On Monday, Mayor Eric Garcetti barred on-site dining at restaurants to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, allowing only delivery and takeout.

Then on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended those restrictions statewide as part of an order for Californians to stay home and non-essential businesses to shut down for an unspecified amount of time.

Restaurant owners in Los Angeles are now contending with closures and layoffs. Servers and cooks are filing for unemployment.

In Chinatown, some have been feeling the pain for weeks.

EARLY ADOPTERS OF SOCIAL DISTANCING

A note to customers hangs on the door of Kim Chuy noodle shop in the Far East Plaza on March 18. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Chinatown business may have declined faster from the coronavirus concerns, in part, because some Chinese in the L.A.-area began to socially distance before other Angelenos, according to Elaine Pang, a business counselor for the Chinatown Service Center.

Pang said that local Chinese have been closely following the coronavirus developments since news broke in January that an outbreak had been detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Updates were aplenty — through Chinese-language social media, broadcasts and communications with relatives on the mainland.

"Their family and friends in China are already aware of (the virus)," Pang said. "That's why they understand a little bit earlier the effects."

That led some to store up on food and water early on and self-quarantine, Pang said. That in turn, hurt the businesses they once frequented in Chinatown, as well as the San Gabriel Valley.

The Far East Plaza in Chinatown is deserted on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Josie Huang/LAist)

So did xenophobia, according to activist Amy Zhou of the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development.

Zhou said that some customers began to avoid Chinatown for fear of catching COVID-19 in an area with a high concentration of Asians.

"We've seen some politicians themselves now talk about the fact that it's a 'Chinese virus' or something associated with East Asia," Zhou said, referring to President Trump's preferred nomenclature for COVID-19.

Some restaurant owners note that business from tourists is down — not, they say, because of racism, but because the pandemic has disrupted travel to the city.

A nearly empty parking lot outside the Golden Lake Eatery in Chinatown. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Coronavirus is the latest blow for Chinatown's mom 'n pop's which have been facing an increasingly cutthroat business climate.

The neighborhood has become prime real estate because it's next door to downtown and some businesses struggle as high-rise developments spring up around them, and a more affluent demographic moves in.

"It wasn't only the coronavirus that was really affecting these Chinatown businesses and residents," Zhou said. "it was also gentrification, also redevelopment."

Chinatown restaurants like Hop Li say they are adapting to official orders that restaurants only serve take-out or delivery. (Josie Huang/LAist)

JUST A MATTER OF TIME

Beneath its tiled facade, Far East Plaza on Broadway represents the collision of new and old in Chinatown.

It houses a crop of spots opened in recent years by second-generation and non-Asian restaurateurs that attract a younger foodie set.

On the ground floor alone, acclaimed Filipino restaurant Lasa is neighbors with Scoops ice cream shop and Howlin' Ray's, notorious for hourslong lines that spill onto the sidewalk. There's also a Ten Ren tea shop and noodle shop Kim Chuy, a favorite of the late restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, which has been around since the early 1980s.

Chase Valencia wasn't worried about coronavirus-related xenophobia keeping diners away from Lasa, which he runs with his brother.

"Our clientele is a little bit more understanding and compassionate," Valencia said. "They understand they're going to go to a Fiipino restaurant in Chinatown and not discriminate."

But not long after older-school Chinatown eateries started to see a drop-off in business, Valencia did too.

On Sunday March 8, Valencia noticed that half the reservations were cancellations or no-shows. The coming week saw sales and reservations drop 60 percent. He and his brother made the call to temporarily close Lasa to help "flatten the curve," and to stem any more financial losses.

Lasa server Ryan Mercado helps organize the restaurant on its last day of operation for at least a few more weeks. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Wednesday was their last day — until further notice.

"My heart and desire for this entire team, this family, is to open this restaurant again," Valencia said. "But we need to see what's gonna happen next."

THE STRUGGLE TO STAY OPEN

Lasa joined other restaurants in the Far East Plaza that have pressed pause in the wake of the coronavirus — including Howlin' Rays and Kim Chuy.

Other restaurants are trying to make a go of it for as long as possible by scaling down their staff. After Mayor Garcetti said L.A. restaurants could only do drive-through or takeout orders, Yang Chow's owner let go more than 20 workers, keeping only a skeleton crew of five.

(Josie Huang/LAist)

Lao Tao, which sells Taiwanese street food, came up with an enticement for customers: a free side of popcorn chicken with every order.

Over at Golden Lake Eatery, owner Joe Liu said that he's too broke to offer any freebies, and may not even be able to pay the monthly $3,450 he owes his landlord in rent and fees.

"At the end of this month, I'll see how things are going and make a decision as to whether we need to close," Liu said.

Even before coronavirus hit, Liu's business was reeling from last fall's closure of the Ai Hoa grocery store next door, whose owners announced they had been chased out by rising rents.

The restaurant went from getting 40, 50 people a day to half that when Ai Hoa was shuttered in the fall, slowing foot traffic.

Today, Liu is grateful for even a handful of orders, so he lit up when a young couple walked through the door and placed an order for beef with fried rice — the first he'd had all day.


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