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Chinese Restaurants Close As Social Distancing Cuts Into Business


Chinese restaurants in the United States have had to cut back or reduce staff, even close because of the coronavirus pandemic. Jing Fong is one of the largest restaurants in Manhattan's Chinatown. Eight hundred diners can be seated on the weekend there for dim sum brunch. Truman Lam's family has own Jing Fong for almost 40 years. And Mr. Lam joins us now from Manhattan. Thanks very much for being with us.

TRUMAN LAM: Hi, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: Fine, thanks. How are you?

LAM: I'm doing all right - staying at home. But, otherwise, safe, healthy for now.

SIMON: You had to close the restaurant, right?

LAM: Yeah. We closed. I believe our last day of business was March 10.

SIMON: Yeah. How early did you feel the effects of the pandemic or hear about it or think something like this was coming?

LAM: You know, being in a Chinese restaurant full of immigrant workers, we heard about the coronavirus pretty early on because, you know, while not physically close to a lot of the people in China, my staff has a lot of close ties to people in China - right? - either family or friends. They already knew what was going back and happening in Wuhan and other cities in China. And we started feeling the effects on the business around the Lunar New Year. So around mid-January, we could - we started seeing a dip in the business then.


LAM: And it just kept getting worse and worse.

SIMON: Mr. Lam, I have to ask. We've - you know, we've heard reports about anti-Asian slurs all over the country. New York's Chinatown has been there a long time. And everybody there is a valued member of the community. But I wonder if you or your employees have experienced anything like that or your neighbors?

LAM: So we've seen cases of it happening. There was an attack on someone wearing a mask at the Grand Street subway station a while back. But personally...

SIMON: Wearing a surgical mask or something. Yeah.

LAM: Yes, that's correct.

SIMON: Yeah.

LAM: But personally, I haven't felt anything like that happen. And I think it's a little bit incorrect to say that our business went down because of, you know, racist issues. That's not the reason why our business went down because I think it was across the board, you know, Asians, non-Asians were not visiting restaurants. But I think there are incidents of racism happening against Chinese people. But I personally have not experienced that myself.

SIMON: I gather you used to be an investment banker.

LAM: Yeah, I did. I did it for about four years.

SIMON: Well, based on your matchless expertise in investment banking and (laughter) running a Chinese restaurant, how does the economy look to you now?

LAM: I don't know if I'm qualified to speak on the economy. But I think where we're in a difficult position. The two main reasons why we decided to close the business before Governor Cuomo, you know, banned gatherings of 500 or more...

SIMON: Yeah.

LAM: ...Was because, No. 1, we started feeling like our staff was getting worried about coming to work sometimes. There was obviously a health effect on it. And we didn't want people to get sick. The other one was - simple math was it cost us more money to stay open than close. We couldn't even make payroll for that one day based on the sales.

SIMON: What do you do when you reopen? How far behind will you be?

LAM: I don't know the answer to that question. It depends on what happens with rent, what kind of stimulus is going to be given to us by the governments. But how it gets executed and who gets it and all those things are kind of variables that we don't have the answer to yet.

SIMON: I mean, my gosh, Mr. Lam, is there any chance you won't reopen?

LAM: I think the overwhelming, you know, sense is we're going to reopen obviously. Whether we make it or not after that is a totally different story. There is no guarantee that people are going to feel comfortable - after months of social distancing, feel comfortable to come out and start eating again and resuming life as they were doing so before coronavirus, right? It's not like, you know, bans get lifted, tomorrow, we go to work, and we resume and go back to normal. We have to spend money on inventory, getting staff to slowly come back in and ramp up the operation. It takes time.

SIMON: Truman Lam - his family owns the Jing Fong restaurant in New York's Chinatown. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

LAM: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.