By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Mayor Jenny Durkan has done what no other Seattle mayor has done.
Durkan visited Chinatown thrice in three days, including hosting a dim sum lunch to support the community during tough times.
What kind of crisis exactly is the Chinatown-International District (ID) facing?
The fears and uncertainties over coronavirus have impacted the ID economically. The ID is also made up of Japantown and Little Saigon, and more than 160 businesses, including restaurants and grocery stores. The majority of the businesses are immigrant- and refugee-owned.
Some restaurants have lost as much as 20% to 50% in business over the past few weeks. Normally, Lunar New Year, which began on Jan. 25, is the busiest time of the year for ID restaurants, with lines outside for the first two weekends. Family, friends, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations would hold their reunion dinners between February and April. Hundreds of guests would gather every weekend for different Chinatown organizations’ dinner.
Instead, the restaurants received cancellation after cancellation for dinners big and small.
Over 30 Chinese organizations have already announced the cancellation of their New Year banquets, including the latest —the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce dinner on Mar. 5. Ho Ho Restaurant’s owner Vivian Li said, “Over 100 tables booked earlier for February and March were cancelled. Six tables were gone. Eight tables disappeared… It’s so scary. At night, no customers come for our popular midnight snacks. It’s never happened to us before.”
The owner of Honey Court Seafood Restaurant said he has lost 40% of his business. Hong Kong Bistro owner Ben Liang said, “We lost over 50%.
There’s little we can do except to endure.” Tai Tung Restaurant owner Harry Chan said, “Originally, we saw over a 20% drop in business, now with all the publicity about Chinese restaurants being hurt, we have many orders-to-go, which helps a lot.”
Tai Tung Restaurant owner Harry Chan said he has seen a 20% drop in his business. The owner of Honey Court Seafood Restaurant said he has lost 40% of his business. Hong Kong Bistro owner Ben Laing said, “We lost over 50%. There’s little we can do except to endure.”
Aware of the economic disaster caused by the coronavirus fear, Durkan brought her leadership team for a dim sum lunch in the ID on Feb. 26. She also invited community leaders, from both businesses and nonprofits, to attend.
Her message was clear, the ID is an asset to the City.
“The [ID] is one of the best places in Seattle,” she said. She knew her presence would help to dispel rumors and fears about the community.
More importantly, she wanted to lend moral support to the ID, in hopes that hesitant patrons would return.
“We live in a really difficult time right now,” said Durkan. “Our national politics have been as divisive as I have ever seen in my lifetime… I just want everyone to know the City of Seattle, we will stand with immigrants. We will stand with refugees…We will welcome people to this country. As we see things like the coronavirus spread, and also people have misplaced fear based on the fear that has been sown, we see great businesses drop off, I say no. I say no.”
This was Durkan’s third trip to the ID in a week. Her first visit was on Feb. 24 with Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best to introduce an Asian neighborhood officer. Best later dined with her staff at the Hong Kong Bistro.
Her second visit was on the morning of Feb. 26, to present a $140,000 grant to Phnom Penh Restaurant, which was in the process of opening its new restaurant at 9th Avenue South and South Jackson Street in March. A family tragedy forced Phnom Penh to close in 2018.
A rare occasion
“Mayor Durkan’s visit is a huge vote of confidence for the CID businesses, our neighborhood, and the larger population of Asian descent,” said Teresita Batayola, president and CEO of International Community Health Services. “We are living in an era of discrimination and stigmatization because of our origins, made worse by fear of COVID-19 or the coronavirus. The mayor’s presence signals that there is nothing to fear in our community.“
Sam Cho, Port of Seattle Commissioner, echoed similar sentiments.
“Mayor Durkan and her entire cabinet demonstrated true leadership and solidarity by coming to the ID and breaking bread with community leaders at a local AAPI restaurant. This sends a message that our communities are safe and open for business.”
“The Mayor’s lunch was a shot in the arm for the whole neighborhood,” said Beth Takekawa, CEO of the Wing Luke Asian Museum.
“This is a rare occasion for the mayor to come to eat with us,” said Tony Au, who helped to organize the lunch. “The disease originated from China. It has nothing to do with our community.”
So far, there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in the ID.
Rare indeed because no other mayor has brought down key cabinet members, as many as 25, to dine with the community in ID. Durkan paid for the $1,500 lunch, and her team chipped in. It might be a gesture, but it makes me appreciate her more not only as a wise leader, but as a thoughtful human being.
Since the Northwest Asian Weekly’s incept 38 years ago, we have covered seven mayors, including Charlie Royer, Norm Rice, Paul Schell, Greg Nickels, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, and now Durkan.
Our expectations towards past mayors
I have witnessed the ID being affected with all kinds of setbacks. The worst was the Wah Mee Massacre in 1983, when 13 people were killed in a gambling den during Lunar New Year. Business was down as much as 60% at many restaurants that year. The mayor at that time never took the initiative to visit us. He never addressed that the Wah Mee was an isolated incident, and that the crime was not gang-related. He didn’t say it was safe to come to the ID. And I doubt if he knew how much the community suffered. Not too long ago marked four years since construction ended of the Seattle Streetcar line on South Jackson Street. Delay after delay discouraged people from visiting the ID. Retired dentist Tom Mar said he had never experienced such bad business as he did during the streetcar construction from 2012 to 2016.
The most Durkan’s predecessors did was tour the ID with his people to learn about our needs. We were grateful whenever the mayor showed up and gave money to our nonprofit organizations. When they held their campaign events at the now-defunct Four Seas Restaurant and other venues, with Asian donors being in the majority, we seemed to be content. If they appointed Asian Americans to their cabinet, we tended to be satisfied.
Those acts were good enough, we didn’t ask for more. Nor did we know we could ask for more. Durkan has shown us how.
She has outdone all her predecessors, and is now going to bat for our businesses. None of the former mayors realized the struggles of immigrant businesses. And they did little to lift them up.
ID businesses can’t survive on their own.
“My business has dropped over 30%,” said Adon Mar, owner of Pacific Herbs “We are a community. When people don’t come down to Chinatown to eat, we lose those frequent patrons who like to dine and shop simultaneously. I won’t be able to survive with just local residents, I need outside customers. 30% of my customers are from outside Chinatown, and some come from as far as Everett and out-of-.”
Receptive to ideas
Durkan credited her lunch idea to Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong. When she recognizes great ideas, she instantly takes action. Had she hesitated, the lunch would never have happened as she declared the City in Civil Emergency on March 3, to grant her the ability to use emergency authority to address immediate dangers to public health.
Although city mayors dining in Chinatown is not a novel idea (as Philadelphia and San Francisco mayors did recently to quench fears of coronavirus), none of them brought two dozen aides, in addition to treating community leaders.
Durkan has shown us that she can use her position to do more for the ID.
She has inspired her team to do more for a marginalized community, including immigrant businesses. And the mayor has set the tone for diversity in her administration in multiple ways. To me, her one-hour presence at Honey Court Restaurant was more than a lunch. Madame Mayor, thank you for redefining what leadership is.