The novel coronavirus pandemic has permanently changed the London restaurant world. That change began in central London’s Chinatown, whose restaurants suffered the earliest and have been among the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus outbreak. First, baseless fears of Chinese-owned businesses kept some visitors away, then as lockdown steadily lifted, Chinatown’s commercial landlord Shaftesbury PLC pushed forward to collect 50 percent of rent due across lockdown from business who had made no revenue in that time.
In the last two months, since when the hospitality industry has started to take steps out of its long hibernation, many businesses in Chinatown applied for new licensing permits from Westminster Council, which has given them the opportunity to operate outside their premises, on Gerrard Street, Lisle Street and Frith Street. The majority have also signed up to the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount scheme, which gives customers 50 percent off, up to the value of £10, on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays in August. Business owners in the area have described both schemes as giving the area a boost.
“When it was really sunny last week and combined with the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme — it’s been nonstop and insane,” explains Florence Mae, owner and founder of Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream on Chinatown’s “Dessert Alley.” “Monday to Wednesday is the new weekend and I’d say we’ve been operating at 60 percent as to what we would have been since pre-Covid times. People don’t care as much about the ‘Chinese virus’ stigma anymore and Chinatown has been busier than any other parts of London, such as Fitzrovia or Soho. To be honest, it’s not consistently busy, it’s a little boost and I don’t think this is going to be permanent.”
Despite this comparatively increased number of visitors, businesses are still struggling to make back their losses after months of forced closure. Restaurants such as Young Cheng, Orient and Roro are still shuttered and there’s no official news whether they’re reopening or a new license will replace them. Compared to other neighborhoods in the city, central London has been slow to recover and spending in restaurants was down by as much as 80 percent in mid-July.
The return of restaurants in the area has been a welcoming sight for many. For customer Eve Burke-Edwards, who made the effort to travel from Finsbury Park to have dinner with friends in central London. “It was quieter than usual, but Chinatown still felt pretty lively. It was just a happy coincidence that Joy Luck was on the [Eat Out to Help Out] scheme when I visited at the start of August, we didn’t go there specifically for that reason,” she says. “Eating out is one of my favourite ways to socialise and so restaurants returning has been a big thing for me. Obviously food in Chinatown is what draws people to it, but I also think it’s the atmosphere. I’ve missed mooching around the streets and seeing what’s on offer. Now that it’s a bit more controlled due to Covid, it was nice to visit and see that its character hasn’t been lost despite these restrictions.”
During the months of lockdown, there had been previous PR efforts from the landlords attempting to spotlight struggling Chinatown businesses with the #BringingChinatownHome campaign. Another communal dining cluster in Newport Place was introduced last week, while a new installation to dress up the area with rows of multi-coloured lanterns, koi carps, and lotus flowers to encourage visitors back is scheduled for later this month. Businesses, select friends, and supporters of the area will be invited to send a message of goodwill to Chinatown London by signing a lantern that’ll hang brightly above Newport Place.
“For now, Westminster [Council] has said that it will be extending the [outdoor licensing] permit all the way until the end of September,” explains Jay Sim, marketing manager at Malaysian restaurant Rasa Sayang. “Honestly, it’s uncertain at the moment if it’ll be extended any further than that but we are keeping our fingers crossed that we can make this a regular thing for Soho and perhaps [the rest of] London. Even if it’s kept to a summer event, it’s definitely something that will boost the confidence and interest of customers who wish to dine out.”
Besides battling with the possibility of a second wave of the virus, the unknown future of extending permits and the unpredictable British weather, there are plenty of other challenges in Chinatown. The tourists are gone, the West End’s theatres are still shut and many office buildings remain empty. A handful of tables would make little difference to banquet and dim sum restaurants with space for hundreds of people at a time, including the likes of Joy King Lau, Wong Kei, and Tao Tao Ju on the smaller, neighbouring streets away from the main strip of Gerrard Street, which have so far not embraced the outdoor dining scheme to the same extent as others, if at all.
Inside or outside, this hasn’t deterred regulars from visiting the area though. Isaac Jong Chee Yi is an international student from Malaysia, who’s been coming to Chinatown two to three times a week since the lockdown rules started to ease at the start of July.
“I’m a big fan of the al fresco dining and atmosphere — Chinatown looks way more livelier now,” he says. “Generally, I’ve missed the whole atmosphere; the people and the food. You don’t get the same feeling anywhere else. Especially being an international student far from home, having Chinatown back is like being able to ‘go back home’ for a bit and to be in that Asian environment makes me feel reminiscent of home. Since it’s been gone, you cherish it a whole lot more now.”