When the government ordered London restaurants to close, many attempted to navigate the unprecedented uncertainty through pivots to takeaway, grocery stores, or mono-dish delivery brands. For most restaurants in central London’s Chinatown, both a community hub and one of the city’s major tourist attractions, these were not viable options, and their conditions for survival were compromised before the pandemic. Now, with a new rent arrangement from landlord Shaftesbury PLC, concerns are growing that many of the area’s restaurants will not have the opportunity to recover. Shaftesbury has pledged to collect 50 percent of rent due from tenants for the months they didn’t trade during the period of forced closure — the months of April, May, and June — an obligation that could bankrupt many businesses before they even have a chance to reopen their doors.
“At the end of the day, [Shaftesbury is] a business as well, and a business with a lot more power than us. They won’t give us free rent for the rest of the year — that would be ludicrous, but for them to even consider some leeway on rent is a good thing. However, I know at least two tenants who can’t afford to pay the rent and have given their lease back,” explains an operations director of a Chinese restaurant on Wardour Street, who wished to remain anonymous. “Because everything has been so up in the air, the landlord wanted to wait on the latest government guidance before opposing anything official. They were happy to delay things and didn’t add extra interest on top, which meant we didn’t have to pay a big chunk of money while we were still in lockdown.” Interest or no interest, businesses are still obligated to pay half of the rent owed for the last quarter — a period in which the vast majority received zero revenue.
Rather than dealing with tenants in Chinatown as a collective and having a representative to speak on their behalf, Shaftesbury works case-by-case, separately and privately. Discussions with its 800 commercial tenants are now underway, with rent waivers for those struggling most and deferrals or payments via deposits for others. There’s also a broader two-tier property management structure in place that depends on the type and size of the business. The differences between and disparate priorities for a small corner Hong Kong-style diner like Jen Cafe and a three-story Cantonese restaurant like Joy King Lau have caused some friction and tension between tenants, with some restaurateurs feeling uneasy over there being different rules for different businesses, exacerbated by the lack of transparency.
“The older generation of Chinese who are Hong Kong immigrants that have been around since the 1950s, they don’t communicate their thoughts and feelings. They would rather deal with problems on their own,” the operations director added. “They won’t talk about issues like this until something has happened.” The main problem with Shaftesbury’s current solution for Chinatown’s restaurants — collecting rent from businesses that could not trade — is that a restaurant’s route to economic recovery is predicated on reaching a manageable solution on its future liability as well as owed rent. Physical distancing requirements and reduced customer demand will directly impact its ability to generate revenue in the short-, medium-, and long-term after reopening. If it can reopen.
In addition to weathering the pandemic itself, Chinatown restaurant owners fear stigma and racism will hamper the area’s recovery. Even before the official lockdown at the end of March, there have been COVID-19 related hate crimes against people of East and Southeast Asian descent, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults. The area has long been subjected to immigration raids, as Shaftesbury’s commercial decisions change the area’s complexion. And just last week, in a vision of what she hopes Soho and its environs — which include Chinatown — will never become, national restaurant critic for the Guardian, Grace Dent, referred to “shadowy, money-rinsing kiosks called things like The Rainbow Egg Bubble Waffle Shop” where “customers could descend their sterilised coach steps, wearing visors, swooshing themselves with disinfectant, then posing to create Instagram content while eating a waffle next to somewhere Sid Vicious once vomited, before scarpering off towards Bicester Designer Outlet Village.”
Restaurant grandees, who have since spoken out on the need to support a beleaguered, monolithic “industry,” largely ignored Chinatown when people avoided the area earlier in the year. During the social justice protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Dumpling Shack owner, John Li, said in an Instagram post: “I cannot understand why when the coronavirus broke out and Asians faced increased persecution there was such a lack of support. I looked towards leading representatives in the Asian hospitality industry to speak up and there was nothing.”
Alongside these twin forces is a sense of unease over how trading conditions could actually aid Shaftesbury’s plans to “modernise” the area, by hastening the demise of some of its older businesses like the 40-year-old Lo’s Noodle Factory, whose future has been uncertain for the last 12 months. “We have received interest from a number of new operators keen to join Chinatown as London’s recovery gains momentum,” Andrew Price, portfolio executive at Shaftesbury PLC wrote on the estate’s website. “Like the increasing volumes of consumers, brands recognise Chinatown London’s enduring appeal as a unique destination in the heart of the West End.” Despite its history and cultural importance, Chinatown has no formal heritage protection as a “unique destination,” and the pandemic has weakened the hand of longstanding businesses while giving its landlord the power to, potentially, make sweeping changes.
In future, this could potentially follow in the same gentrified footsteps as Brixton’s Nour, which was recently saved from being demolished in place of an electrical substation. Across the city, Elephant and Castle’s shopping centre has been approved for demolition and is set to close in July 2020, and the Latin Village in Seven Sisters could be destined to a similar fate. Without these iconic spaces that house local minority cultures, London’s Soho could be set to give into homogenisation. Shaftesbury did not respond to Eater’s request for further comment on those plans.
Some tenants say that there have at least been some efforts from the local authority and planners at Westminster council, as well as Shaftesbury, to introduce more alfresco dining in order to give the hospitality industry a fighting chance of survival when restaurants, pubs and cafes opened its doors again last week. The landlord has also embarked on a PR push to promote its tenants, attempting to spotlight struggling Chinatown businesses with the #BringingChinatownHome campaign.
“To be fair, they do a lot of things to go above and beyond than any regular landlord would, but it definitely comes with a price for the amount we pay to be there,” explains another anonymous business owner on Chinatown’s Dessert Alley. “Before coronavirus happened, I felt it was definitely worth it for us in terms of brand and growth – it’s opened a lot of doors and opportunities for us. Now that we’ve reopened again, it’s all about trial and error, and hoping that we’re in a better position by autumn.”
Some restaurants have also operated takeaway and delivery services during the lockdown, but only a small fraction have done so and they tend to be younger companies rather than those from the older Cantonese generation, which form the backbone of the area. A handful of the Chinese bakeries have reopened, but business has been dire because most customers don’t live locally; Chinatown’s main footfall also comes from nearby West End theatres and cinemas, which are also unlikely to return to normal for months, if they return at all. The only thing that’s certain is that business will never be as it was before the pandemic. With declining tourism, low footfall, and the rocky internal relationships between tenants, Chinatown’s hardship occasioned by COVID-19 might be only just beginning.
“Unless there is a vaccine or a cure I don’t think Chinatown will recover for a long time,” said Wing Poon, manager of Tao Tao Ju Cantonese restaurant in Lisle Street. Like many other Chinatown restaurants, it shut its doors earlier than most and suffered the effects of coronavirus before the lockdown. “A lot of restaurants are even planning to give the shop back to the landlord. Chinatown won’t be the same – it’ll gradually bounce back in the next year or so, but business won’t pick up like it used to. We just need to survive this year, especially this winter. Hopefully, things will have settled down next year and we’ll see more trade, but for now, it’s a wait and see game.”