Problems Pile Up for Chinatown

Although it is almost Chinese New Year and the shops are supposed to be busy, the opposite is true. (Photo by Fang Meng/World Journal)

As the saying goes, it’s hard to get through the end of the year. The saying has particular meaning for small businesses in Chinatown. Hurricane Sandy hit more than three months ago, but according to Chinese small business owners in Chinatown and East Broadway, they still experience reduced foot traffic and their businesses are struggling.

Many of the owners point out that in addition to the overall nationwide recession, the hurricane further reduced the number of tourists from other states. The hurricane also resulted in local business owners moving to Flushing and Brooklyn. The clientele has also changed, and the parking situation is still a problem. In addition, the weather has suddenly become cold. The period right before the Chinese New Year, which this year is celebrated on Sunday, Feb. 10, is not as busy and bustling as in past.

On Catherine Street, the restaurant, flower shop, and jewelry store have closed down one after another in the past three months. (Photo by Fang Meng/World Journal)

Over the last three years, for various reasons, many more stores have closed. From East Broadway to Catherine Street, businesses such as jewelry stores, restaurants, flower shops, and herbal stores have shut down. It is estimated that 10 shops have recently closed.

“The Chinese New Year is coming. It is supposed to be the busiest time of the year,” said Mr. Chang, a convenience store owner on East Broadway. “However, look at what is going on and see how many customers are around.”

According to Mr. Chang, compared to the same time last year, business this year has been reduced by a third. After Hurricane Sandy, his business recovered only half of pre-storm sales. Because of the decreased tourists coming from other states, many Fuzhounese business owners are moving to Flushing and Brooklyn.

Another Mr. Chang, who is a manager at King’s Restaurant in Chinatown, said that ever since the hurricane, the insurance company has not provided any compensation, and the government does not provide enough aid, so he needs to find his own ways to survive. To attract more customers, the lunch specials include dim sum dishes that cost as low as $1.50 per dish. They are hoping to sell more, even if that means reduced profits. However, business during dinner hours is not good. Many Chinese residents want to go to smaller eateries where they do not have to pay tips.

Mr. Chen, who sells clothes, is seeing neighboring shops closing down. (Photo by Fang Meng/World Journal)

Mr. Chen, who sells clothes on Catherine Street, has seen many of his surrounding shops close down. “Business is getting worse. It is not just because of the natural disaster, the hurricane simply exacerbated it,” he said.

According to Mr. Chen, the number of tourists coming to Chinatown is decreasing. Locals consist of low-income and elderly residents, whose spending power is limited. Women who used to work in the garment industry are now working in nail salons. However, nail salon workers are allowed to work only limited hours, and their salary is not high. Those with spending power own cars and drive elsewhere for entertainment and food. Chinatown, after all, is notorious for parking problems.

Mr. Wong, who sells small gifts and bags on Mott Street, bitterly accounted his expenses. “The rent is $150 per day. After taxes, garbage fees, and other expenses, I need to make $400 to break even,” he said. In reality, he rarely makes more than $100 per day. If he is able to make $300 per weekend, he would be very pleased. “What are we going to do? I can only relax,” he said in a self-mocking manner.

Mr. Wang, who has a jewelry store on Elizabeth Street, is discouraged by the current state of activity. Because of the lack of business, the spaces that he leases inside his store are empty, no one is interested in renting. He recalled 32 years ago, when he had a jewelry store on Canal Street. “At that time, everyone followed me. They all wanted me to give them a spot in my jewelry store,” he recalled.

Mr. Fong, who works in the jewelry district, pointed out that the biggest problem facing Chinatown is the reduced number of tourists. The economy in other states is also struggling, so tourists can’t afford to travel to New York’s Chinatown. Local residents have limited income, and with the tax burden, consumer spending power has decreased.

A person who has been in Chinatown’s restaurant industry for years said that in the past three months, there is one word that describes the situation: sad. A combination of problems has left business struggling – 26 bus companies have shut down, foot traffic has decreased, Hurricane Sandy, 9/11, high rents and penalty fees from the Department of Health. The weather also worsens the situation.

“We small business owners cannot take any more pressure,” he said. “We won’t be able to stand it; we will close down.”

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