London’s Chinatown first felt the effects of the novel coronavirus around Lunar New Year, almost exactly a year ago. Restaurants in the area were hit hardest and earliest, such were racist prejudices relating to the origins of COVID-19. Central London, more widely, has suffered more than most neighbourhoods in London with all nearby retail, entertainment venues and the West End having largely remained closed since last March, while a rise in the congestion charge has deterred people and low residential density has meant businesses have been treading water for the last 12 months. What, then, do the coming weeks, months, and year look like for one of London’s most important centres of hospitality?
Right now, the buzzy, inimitable atmosphere present among the labyrinth of streets comprising Chinatown is a distant memory, a far cry from the energetic bustle of August during the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ restaurant scheme when energy, customers, and money converged after months of lockdown. But walk through those same streets now, in January 2021, and it’s like a ghost town once more — in lockdown, once more. In COVID-19’s latest cruel reversal, the government announced at the beginning of 2021 that the U.K. must enter a third national lockdown until at least 31 March (potentially longer depending on vaccine rollout,) in an effort to halt the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus. Chancellor Rishi Sunak subsequently announced new one-off cash grants of up to £9,000 to support struggling restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars, though many have said it’s not enough, while others have reported delays with securing the funds made available to them.
The restaurant regulars, office workers, and tourists have all but disappeared, leaving behind only a smattering of bakeries, Asian supermarkets and restaurants such as Cafe TPT, Joy Luck, Four Seasons, and Wan Chai Corner still open for takeaway and delivery. In the past year, businesses like the not-for-profit Chinese Community Centre and Young Cheng have struggled to survive while others, such as the iconic roast meats restaurant Hung’s, has permanently closed.
“In the 30 years I’ve worked here in central London I’ve never seen Chinatown so dead, it’s scary,” a chef at a dim sum restaurant on Lisle Street, who wished to remain anonymous, told Eater in early January. “At least during the first lockdown, the pandemic was new, no one knew what to expect and there was this ‘we’re all in this together’ community spirit. But now? All hope seems to be lost and that initial support is nowhere to be found.”
According to the Office for National Statistics official figures, the UK economy shrunk by 2.6 percent during the November lockdown, and while the full scale of predicted decline is better than expected, the worst is yet to come. Britain’s hospitality sector faces colossal debts — according to UKHospitality, the sector still owes £1.6 billion unsettled rent, a burden which will take years to overcome. Many businesses have been closed or running on reduced hours since the implementation of Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions just before Christmas. This was a devastating blow for those gearing up for what is usually the busiest week of the year, a time in which businesses had hoped to recoup some of the significant losses sustained throughout 2020.
“We put all the decorations up, so much effort to create a new menu and order extra produce to accommodate, then less than two weeks to go we were told to close – it’s just all so disappointing,” Iris Ma, acting manager of upmarket Cantonese restaurant, Plum Valley, says. “I personally felt that the lockdown should’ve come much, much earlier. The schools and borders should’ve been closed a long time ago. Otherwise, what’s the point of a lockdown?”
For Ma and many others, this endless cycle of stopping and starting, responding to chopping and changing government restrictions has been wreaking havoc — a nightmare to navigate.
“It’s impossible to plan beforehand on how much product to produce and how many staff to bring back on certain days. Unfortunately, a few of our regular restaurant, takeaway and wholesale distribution clients have either gone out of business or changed their menu so that they no longer required fresh ho fun noodles,” said Wai-Keung Law, owner of Lo’s Noodle Factory, the production kitchen which is currently closed due to lack of demand. “Since reopening in July [last year, when England’s bars and restaurants were allowed to open again for the first time since the first lockdown was announced in March], we had seen our orders drop to about one-third of what they used to be and some days it’s less than a quarter of what we used to produce pre-Covid. We had to stop making some of our products such as steamed rice cakes and lotus paste bao due to the reduction in staff, certain customer base and not being able to source the stock to produce the product due to the effects the pandemic has had on imports,” Law added.
Aside from having to contend with confusing logistics, dramatically reduced custom, and being at a disadvantaged position, businesses are also worried about debt accrued over the past year. Nowhere is this truer than on the matter of rent, which remains unresolved for the majority of businesses in Chinatown. London property owner, Shaftesbury PLC, which controls a 16-acre estate in central London, including a major part of Chinatown, reported that its net income plummeted by 24 percent to £74.3 million having collected half of rent due in the second half of the 2020. What’s more, the final legislation offering protection against eviction is set to expire at the end of March, at which point many restaurant businesses will be forced to close if no solution transpires.
“From what I have heard, it is a tenant by tenant case,” explained Law, regarding rent agreements. “For us, [Shaftesbury landlord] has been fair and understanding compared to what I have heard from other tenants and their landlords.”
However, some cannot afford to close. With high rents, overdue bills, and mounting debts, many have been forced to work through the pandemic, despite soaring infections and death rates. Right now, London is in the middle of an unprecedented public health crisis, with the NHS said to be at the most critical point in its history. For those restaurants that are trading, there are not just financial risks given the expense of remaining open, but personal liabilities to keep themselves, their staff, and the customers safe. Some are terrified and desperate to stay at home, but must stay open for fear of their business failing altogether.
“It’s a pretty critical time right now. You have to be vigilant and you can’t let your guard down,” admits the dim sum chef. “I wish I had the luxury to stay home, but I don’t have that option. I’m already working reduced hours and I need the money to pay the rent and bills. I take all the extra precautions of social distancing, wearing a mask and face shield, as well as my washing hands, but what about other people? Who knows who they’ve been in contact with and getting public transport to and from work is risky.”
Businesses in Chinatown, like elsewhere, are doing everything they can to keep going, with many having extended the discounts first introduced in August last year when the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme proved such a success in the area. Others, like Plum Valley, have passed on discounts to key workers and offered free food for those on a low incomes.
“Yes, we’re not doing well but we still want to be connected with society and it’s important to stay open to be there for the community. It’s hard, but it’s hard for everyone,” explained Ma. “At the moment, we’re trying to think ahead, by renovating our site, listening and learning to customers and trying to improve ourselves for when we eventually re-open fully.”
Chinatown may well be on borrowed time — the decline of many of its institutions has been long, slow, and in some respects, not by accident but by design. It’s now only a matter of time before the area will be unable to sink any deeper into the red. The path to recovery for restaurants in Chinatown is particularly potholed: it faces difficulties born not just by the pandemic itself but from a landlord which in recent years has demonstrated a willingness to see some of its tenants as expendable. Its geographical location, too — with few local residents and heavily reliant on tourists — means it has not been able to pivot in the way that similar sized businesses in neighbourhoods outside of the city centre have with comparative success. In this context and because of these barriers to recovery, businesses in Chinatown have less time to wait. Their peril is more immediate.
“It will be a struggle, but I remain hopeful that businesses will bounce back,” Law at Lo’s Noodle Factory admits. “Even after the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme ended at the end of August, during the September and October, there was still a constant, steady rise in footfall in and around Chinatown, as people became more confident in venturing out and returned to exploring what Chinatown has to offer.”
Until a mass vaccination programme delivers a semblance of normality back to London’s streets, Chinatown will be fixed in a state of decline and uncertainty. This unexpected and prolonged pandemic has greatly affected and changed the daily routines of almost everyone in the city. For those in Chinatown, which cannot realistically expect the return of office workers, still less tourists and students until the latter part of 2021 at the earliest, businesses will continue to struggle past the point that others might begin to recover, still having to find alternative sources of revenue which have in the last 10 months proven less accessible than for other businesses in other parts of the city. This will be especially true once government support comes to and end and protections against evictions re-embolden landlords demanding rent arrears. At the moment, that support and those protections are expected to end in two months.
“Chinatown is unique and historic, there’s nowhere else like it and we have to fight for it,” Ma said. “Normally, it’s a place full of life and we’re proud to be part of that. Hopefully, after this long nightmare, we can all wake up to a better tomorrow.”