Jing Fong Couldn’t Survive. Will Manhattan’s Chinatown?

Jing Fong, Manhattan’s largest Chinese restaurant, is dead. When I visited on March 2nd, the two large escalators that went up to the banquet hall on the third floor were frozen. The restaurant once housed a thousand people on a red carpet under golden dragons and magnificent chandeliers. But last week only two of the six heaters were working, and there were only a handful of guests near the entrance to the dining room, eating from removable bins. After nearly three decades on Elizabeth Street, Jing Fong hobbled through the last few days – his dining room closed for good on March 7th.

That day, something else was missing in the restaurant: the employees. Around 180 workers were employed on Jing Fong’s payroll. The dining room staff was the only one in Chinatown still represented by a union. But instead of celebrating a good run, the workers outside fought longer. On Tuesday, dozens of employees and anti-gentrification activists protested outside Eastbank, the company run by Jing Fong’s father-son landlords Alex and Jonathan Chu, accusing them of forcing the restaurant to close. Among the crowd was John Chen, 60, a head waiter at Jing Fong who worked in the restaurant for half his life; Tan Li Zhen, a 59-year-old dim sum saleswoman, who asked landlords “not to break their rice bowls”; and the 52-year-old waiter Chen Liang, who urged the Chus to “stop destroying Chinatown”. When they tried to break into the building to comply with their requests, a police officer blocked their way.

In a statement emailed, Jonathan Chu said the restaurant had “not paid a dime” in 12 months, which have been unchanged since 1993. Truman Lam, the third generation owner of Jing Fong, confirmed this. He told me that sales have fallen nearly 85 percent since the coronavirus pandemic began – a multi-million dollar deficit. According to the agreement, the Chus were entitled to part of Jing Fong’s profits in addition to rent, but the restaurant’s disastrous year meant its landlords “hurt, too,” Lam said. He blamed the government and told me that he received a single loan from the federal paycheck protection program, much of which he gave to the Chus to cover property tax of $ 350,000, which continues to rise despite that Building is practically unused. “It’s not that we don’t want to try to keep fighting and surviving, but the hole is too big. And we needed help earlier,” said Lam.

Jing Fong joins as many as 4,500 other restaurants that have closed for good in New York City since the beginning of the pandemic – dozens in Chinatown alone. But the restaurant is a symbol of collective survival in an immigrant community fighting for their place. The death of Jing Fong is a blow to Chinatown’s organized labor, desperate to defend the neighborhood against a nobility who yearn to gild and hollow it out.

Generally speaking, there are two classes of Chinese who are in conflict over New York’s oldest Chinatown: the core of working immigrants and an upper crust of well-heeled financiers. You’ll find they speak the same languages, enjoy the same cuisine, and celebrate the same holidays, but that’s where the similarities end: Common ethnicity tends to obscure the structural opposition of the two groups. First-generation immigrants looking to gain a foothold in the city depend on affordable housing, entry-level Chinese-language jobs, and inexpensive goods to survive. In contrast, the elite benefit from the opposite: Chinatown is becoming increasingly expensive properties that can be auctioned off to the highest bidder. For years, New York’s politicians hungry for revenue have sympathized with the latter group. And now the pandemic has tipped the scales even further in their favor.

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