Americas

Closing of Beloved Dim Sum Hall Leaves a ‘Crater’ in Reeling Chinatown

One of New York’s most famous immigrant neighborhoods has been battered by the pandemic and faces an uncertain recovery.

By Winnie Hu, Anjali Tsui and Melissa Guerrero

Jing Fong was everyone’s place.

Inside the cavernous red-and-gold banquet hall in the heart of Chinatown in Manhattan, generations of Asian families toasted weddings, birthdays and graduations. Business leaders convened work lunches. Immigrants were reminded of the food and lives they left behind. And tourists learned the point-and-eat tradition of Chinese dim sum.

Not long after Yolanda Zhang arrived in New York City in 2019, she found her way there, too. “Jing Fong is the go-to landmark,” said Ms. Zhang, 24, a community organizer who grew up in China. “It’s been around for so long, it’s the center for the social fabric of Chinatown.”

But the very things that made Jing Fong so special — the boisterous crowds, shared tables and dishes, and communal spirit — left it vulnerable to a virus that preyed on close human contact. The banquet hall, which served 10,000 customers a week, was emptied by fears of the coronavirus and social distancing restrictions. It closed for good on Sunday after 28 years.

The loss of Jing Fong hurts, even in a city where thousands of restaurants, bars and night clubs have permanently shut down during the pandemic and more than 140,000 jobs have been lost.

“An empty Jing Fong leaves a crater in the middle of Chinatown,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group.

It also highlights the economic plight of one of the country’s most celebrated immigrant neighborhoods. Chinatown, with more than 3,000 businesses, including about 300 restaurants, cafes and bakeries, has been pummeled by the pandemic longer and harder than almost anywhere else in the city.

Tens of thousands of office workers, tourists and visitors descended daily on Chinatown’s narrow streets, filling lunch tables and souvenir shops. But they disappeared in early 2020 as alarming reports proliferated about a virus outbreak in China, weeks before the first case was confirmed in New York on March 1.

“We were the first one to take a dive — a thousand tables got canceled and even Asians stopped coming,” said Wellington Z. Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District/Partnership. “All of a sudden you come to a cliff and your foot traffic dropped to the bottom of the cliff.”

At least 17 Chinatown restaurants and 139 ground-floor stores have permanently closed during the pandemic, Mr. Chen said. Some streets are lined with shuttered storefronts and “for rent” signs.

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