Image of Chinatown buildings and lanterns with "Send Chinatown Love" in white writing

Send Chinatown Love Showed Resilience and Community Despite Anti-Asian Sentiment

Meet the non-profit organization that's helping save New York City’s Chinatown

When COVID-19 struck, it came with an unsettling anti-Asian sentiment. As xenophobic behavior ravaged communities, businesses owned by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders suffered heavily, even before lockdowns started. When businesses began to shutter, one closure hit Justin McKibben, the founder of Send Chinatown Love, particularly hard.

In early 2020, McKibben chose to eschew the hours-long lines at Trader Joe's for some frozen dumplings at 88 Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles, his favorite spot for the meat-packed morsels, only to find it closed at the peak of dinnertime. "I was met with a sign quoting COVID-19 as the reason, but note that this was back in February [of 2020] before there were any mandated closures," said McKibben. "I wasn't sure what to do, but [I] wanted to support my favorite dumpling shop if they were going to be closed indefinitely, so I immediately went home to see if there was a way I could help out."

A quick search revealed little information on the mom-and-pop establishment, unmasking the difficulties that other stores in Chinatown were facing. "So I posted on my Instagram story to see if any friends would be interested in helping out Chinatown businesses through the early onset of COVID-19, and the following weekend Send Chinatown Love had its first meeting with almost 50 virtual attendees," McKibben recalled.

Doyers street is now a painted mural with famous restaurants on it

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

McKibben, who is Chinese Vietnamese American, moved to Manhattan's Chinatown from California three years ago and finds that the unique little enclave is the perfect remedy for when he's feeling homesick or missing a meal that has been lovingly prepared by his mom. New Yorkers may fondly recall the neighborhood as the perfect place to pick up fresh groceries, order late-night bites after a long day at work, or as the perfect brunch spot for dim sum and noodle soups, especially if they were looking to cure a hangover. For tourists, it was a go-to destination for souvenirs and other curiosities in addition to being a culinary adventure. But whatever your experience with Chinatown has been, it's an undeniable part of what makes New York, New York. It's needless to say that to lose it all would've been heartbreaking. While Send Chinatown Love was "born out of the confusion and uncertainty that everyone was feeling at the start of COVID-19," as McKibben put it, it also reminded us of one thing: we are resilient.

When McKibben founded Send Chinatown Love, he raised thousands of dollars before he could even find someone to give it to. The establishments in Chinatown are run mainly by immigrants, many of whom don't speak fluent English, and stores have little to no digital presence. In addition to language barriers and limited ability to contact owners, there's also a stigma within the community regarding asking for or accepting aid.

But despite being constantly hung up on and turned away, McKibben and his volunteers never threw in the towel. Instead, they got creative with their outreach efforts. It took them weeks to get their first business onboard, but once they did, it helped reduce the general skepticism the group was facing, and referrals started rolling in. Recognizing that these small businesses primarily operate on a cash-only basis and have no online presence, Send Chinatown Love created a mini-website of sorts for their merchants, as more joined the non-profit. The site provides background information, photos, a menu, hours of operation, and the option to either purchase a voucher or send a direct donation to the establishment.

Image of Nam Wah Tea Parlor with a pull quote in white on top of it

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

One of the more creative approaches the non-profit devised to provide support was their food crawls. "As the pandemic progressed, it was becoming clear that Chinatown could benefit from added foot traffic, so we came up with the idea of a food crawl as a fun way for a broader community to engage with Chinatown," said Louise Palmer, partnerships lead for Send Chinatown Love. In the age of social distancing, the organization took a more DIY approach to the activity, inviting participants to visit qualifying shops at their own leisure and uploading receipts to an online passport to unlock local rewards and entry into digital raffles. Through just two of these events, Send Chinatown Love was able to raise nearly $40,000.

Send Chinatown Love also frequently partners with like-minded organizations to support New York City's underserved inhabitants. Through their Gift-a-Meal program, donors can purchase vouchers with participating restaurants who in turn distribute food to those in need. Send Chinatown Love paired up with establishments like 46 Mott, Tonii's Fresh Rice Noodle, Dreamers Coffee House, New China Beauty Salon, and Kelly Salon to provide nourishment and services to low-income Asian seniors. This past January, the group worked on an even larger scale, partnering with the Bowery Mission to provide meals to homeless and hungry New Yorkers. All donations were tax-deductible through a fiscal sponsorship with Apex for Youth, and contributions were matched up to $10,000.

Earlier this year, they also started a fundraiser for the Light Up Chinatown project, allowing people to "adopt a lantern" that would be hung on Mott Street. The goal was not only to light up the streets and "make Chinatown more inviting but also to show its residents and businesses that the greater community cares about them," said Palmer.

Through all of these initiatives, Send Chinatown Love now supports 34 merchants spread across all nine of New York City's Chinatowns, including those in Brooklyn and Queens. It has raised more than $1 million—and amid decreased tourism, every bit has been necessary to help keep establishments intact.

A table filled with different dishes at Hop Kee

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

In 2019, New York City received 66.6 million visitors, according to the New York Times, which later reported that 13.5 million of those travelers were from foreign countries. This number sunk to 2.4 million last year amidst strict travel restrictions. Combine that loss of tourism with xenophobic prejudice—according to reporting by Business Insider, some of Chinatown's small businesses were seeing between a 60 to 80 percent loss in February 2020 before the city's lockdown mandates the following month—there's no doubt that the organization has made a significant difference.

But we're still on the path to recovery, and Send Chinatown Love continues to provide its support, which now goes beyond cash relief. "One of the hallmarks of Send Chinatown Love is that we make sure we are always listening to our merchants and what their needs are versus prescribing them solutions," said Palmer. Many of the businesses that the non-profit has worked with now see just how impactful an online presence can be and are working with the organization's business development team to create long-term solutions that include branding, website development, and marketing strategies. The work doesn't just end at a one-time donation—creating a sustainable infrastructure is what will ultimately help vendors survive difficult times like these, and Send Chinatown Love is here to see that through.