Small-business renewal program rekindles Chinatown spirit

To bring Chinatown businesses affected by the pandemic back to the forefront, the Mott Street Girls held a walking tour that featured recipients of Citizens Bank’s Renewal Fund.

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Qianshan Weng

The tour, hosted by the Mott Street Girls, started at the New China Hair Salon. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Linsey Liao and Qianshan Weng

On a cold winter day in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a group congregated at the New China Hair Salon — a colorful, well-kept store nestled at Doyers Street. This was the starting site of a special walking tour of small neighborhood businesses that day — hosted by none other than the Mott Street Girls — in celebration of Citizens Bank’s launch of a new Chinatown Renewal Fund.

A few subway stops away from NYU’s campus, Chinatown appears drastically different from the corporate feel of the neighboring Financial District. Small, compact stores with Chinese signs and small paths and alleys weaving between the grid system. The area is affluent with culture, but feels somewhat deserted in comparison to in pre-pandemic years. With a significant portion of profits before the pandemic coming from tourism, the fund introduced by Citizens aims to address the economical hardships faced by Chinatown’s businesses amid their recovery from the pandemic.

“Chinatown embodies the spirit of New York City,” said Rebecca O’Connell, a market executive at Citizens Bank. “It is flush with small businesses that have remained resilient through extraordinarily challenging situations. With this program, we are supporting them with the tools they need to stay open, adapt and retain jobs that are a critical source of growth and employment in Chinatown.”

Four people sit in front of two green posters with the word “Citizens'' written over them in white font. In the background is white backdrop with several “Renaissance” logos on top. Next to them is a female speaking behind a transparent podium with a “Renaissance” logo. There is a small group of people sitting in front of them.
Citizens Renewal Fund was the largest corporate grant for Chinatown in recent years. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Citizens Bank and Local Initiatives Support Corporation New York celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this year by launching one of the largest corporate grants for Chinatown in recent years, available to eligible small business owners. The grant directed $10,000 each to 22 minority-owned small businesses, $400,000 towards two individual business initiatives, and offered 100 small businesses the opportunity to receive technical assistance and training from Asian Americans for Equality and the Renaissance Economic Development Corporation.

“Chinatown was among the first neighborhoods to feel the devastating impacts of the pandemic … the grant came at a critical time to our business owners,” said Jessie Lee, managing director of the Renaissance Economic Development Corporation. “The 10,000 can do a lot for the business owners. They are very, very creative. Give them the money, they’ll figure it out and survive.”

One of the many businesses that received Citizens Bank’s direct grants was poke bar Simple NYC. The restaurant’s founders, Kim Lee and Betty Chung, were forced to close their restaurant during the pandemic. For eight months, they cooked and delivered food to Chinatown seniors instead.

Lee and Chung came to the United States from Hong Kong in the 1980s. They knew there was no other place than Chinatown where they could run their business.

“We think in America, it is in Chinatown where we feel that we are at our root,” Chung said. “We feel a bit helpless and sad seeing these businesses close or shut down during the pandemic. A lot of places that we really like disappeared because [of] the lack of employees, or that their owner has retired, or that their rent has gone up. We feel that it is such a pity.”

The pair will be using the $10,000 grant to develop their sauces, hire more employees and pay rent. 

With the aid of organizations like AAFE and REDC, business owners with cultural, language and legal barriers gain better access to the resources needed to support their stores, such as low-interest loans, training programs and language counseling. 

The Mott Street Girls’ tour featured seven stops, including salons, cafes, restaurants and other businesses, introducing people to local Chinatown businesses after this revenue drop. Mott Street Girls co-founder Anna Huang led the group from location to location and informed the touring crowd about the history of Chinatown, as well as the regional backgrounds of the stores visited. 

One eye-catching restaurant with a big green-and-yellow sign which read “Vegetarian Dim Sum House,” lured all meat-haters and even meat-lovers in for a delicious brunch. Vegetarian Dim Sum House introduces a meatless version of this traditional Chinese classic that is also Mott Street Girls approved. Having been open for around 15 years, the restaurant even precedes the hype of vegetarian Chinese cuisine in recent years, imminent in the establishment of restaurants like Morning Nights and Spicy Moon

Double Crispy Bakery, another one of the destinations included in the neighborhood tour, was originally founded by a Chinese immigrant couple. Today, the bakery is one of the busiest in Chinatown and is renowned for its Portuguese egg tarts and other delicious traditional treats. 

Chinatown’s proximity to NYU’s campus at Washington Square means that there’s a lot students can do to help alleviate the post-pandemic struggles of Chinatown businesses. Whether it’s by applying to volunteer at one of the local nonprofits supporting business owners, getting a haircut at a Mott Street salon, or simply dropping by to buy pastries from a nearby bakery — even the purchase of a simple egg tart contributes to the effort.

Contact Linsey Liao and Qianshan Weng at [email protected]