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LA's Asian American Businesses Struggle To Recover From Pandemic Setbacks

A corner in LA Chinatown, with store signs in both English and Chinese
Masked shoppers walk through Chinatown.
(Chava Sanchez
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Dennis Huang walks around L.A.’s Chinatown where he works, often startled by how quiet pockets of the neighborhood have become during the pandemic.

“Ocean Seafood, I don’t think they’re there anymore,” Huang says of the once-popular dim sum restaurant. “Bamboo Plaza, there’s no one there.”

Huang, who leads the Asian Business Association of Los Angeles, was convinced that the businesses he represents were recovering more slowly from the pandemic, but he wanted to hear from owners himself.

With Paul Ong, a UCLA professor emeritus who directs the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, Huang crafted a survey for association members to gauge how their businesses were faring. More than 400 people responded in the first four months of the year.

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The pair’s worst fears were confirmed by their survey findings:

  • More than 60% of respondents said they had experienced a large negative effect from the pandemic, compared to less than 40% of California businesses who responded to a similar survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • More than half of the respondents in the pair's survey said they had to close at some point during the pandemic.
  • Nearly a third said their operating capacity had dropped by more than 50%.

The negative impact might be even worse than their English-only survey captured, Ong says. "I actually believe this is a conservative estimate. So many of the most hard-hit businesses are run by immigrants who don't speak English as their first language."

A screenshot shows a summary of a survey on the pandemic's impact on Asian American businesses in LA.
Policy recommendations by UCLA Asian American Studies Center, UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, and Asian Business Association of Los Angeles
(Asian American & Pacific Islander Policy Initiative
UCLA Asia American Studies Center)

Ong adds that Asian-owned businesses have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic because so many are in industries most affected by stay-at-home orders, such as retail, restaurants and nail salons. Unemployment rates have been disproportionately higher for Asian Americans in California, the impact more pronounced for those with high school degrees or less.

A surge in anti-Asian incidents has also touched business owners, some in their personal lives, but also where they work, Ong says.

The financial resources provided by the public sector would help these businesses, but language and culture are hurdles, according to analysis of the survey conducted with researchers from UCLA's Asian American Studies Center.

Huang said that earlier this year he canvassed Chinatown to let people know about the state’s Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program. Most of the restaurateurs and shopkeepers he spoke with had never heard of such grants or didn't think they qualified.

“I go to the retailers, speaking Mandarin to them and say, ‘Hey, it’s free money. You don't need to pay back the government,’” Huang says. “They are very skeptical about it.”

Some of the business owners challenged Huang, asking if the program was so great, why wasn’t he getting the grants for them. Huang responded by sitting down with the owners at two different restaurants and filling out applications for them.

Ong says he hopes their research will send a message to policymakers that Asian-owned businesses would benefit from in-language, targeted outreach.

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“They need to recognize that Asian American businesses have been very hard hit,” Ong says. “We need programs that understand and are sensitive to the particular challenges and needs of Asian American businesses.”

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.