As decorative red lanterns swayed quietly in the wind on Gerrard Street in February, they offered a glimmer of hope for a better, luckier year for London’s Chinatown businesses, many of which have been shuttered by the pandemic. Those lanterns are a hanging reminder that Lunar New Year is traditionally the busiest trading season and one of the biggest dates in the East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) calendar. But dampened by rain and snow showers, amid lockdown, the celebrations, parades, and festivities were cancelled for the second year in a row.
A year on since COVID-19 spread globally, the challenges for shops, bars, and restaurants in this key central London restaurant neighbourhood are greater than ever. Since last March, Chinatown has largely remained closed or operating at reduced hours, with just a smattering of restaurants still open for takeaways and deliveries despite the collapse in visitor numbers. The long-awaited ease of lockdown restrictions has been a relief for many, as outdoor dining and drinking resumed on 12 April.
Like in August last year, tables, chairs, and benches have been reinstalled for outdoor dining on Gerrard Street, Leicester Street, and Newport Court. But a return to pre-pandemic levels of trade still looks distant, and with the looming danger of new virus variants constantly emerging, the next few months will be pivotal for the area’s long-term prospects.
For many in Chinatown, recent months have been about survival. “People often forget about us because we’re in a less favourable location than other bakeries who are on the main strip, so it’s been challenging, but we’ve managed to keep our lights on the entire time,” a Golden Gate Cake Shop worker, who wishes to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution, told Eater London in March. “We’re a small cake shop that still only accepts cash and it’s hard to social distance, but we’ve been getting by from our regulars who order takeaway.”
Like the Chinese bakery, there are many independent businesses in the area who are fiercely old-school, operating on a cash-only basis and lacking an online presence, as well as having been less successful in securing government lockdown grants and dealing with landlord policies due to language and cultural barriers, limited digital literacy, and socioeconomic disadvantages. Moreover, office workers are still working from home, and the nearby West End remains largely shut. Without tourists and office workers, central London retailers and hospitality rely on the remaining footfall in order to survive.
Chinatown’s restaurants have been hit harder and for longer, partly due to xenophobia related to the origins of COVID-19, which led to an early avoidance of the area and a 50 percent drop in business. The damage is more prevalent than ever as anti-Asian hate in the U.K. continues to rise — according to data from London’s Metropolitan Police, hate crime toward people of ESEA descent has almost doubled in the past year. In February, Japanese bakery Kova Patisserie, which also has stores in Soho and South Kensington, had its Chinatown branch vandalised, the shopfront splashed with black paint. Kova’s owners declined to discuss the case while it was still under investigation. The bakery urged people to come forward with any information about the attack and offered a £2,000 cash reward. (It has since deleted the Instagram post saying this). It was not an isolated COVID-related attack. It emerged last month that someone had scrawled “Bat and Dettol soup” on Pleasant Lady Trading, a jianbing stall on Greek Street, during the first lockdown.
“I saw the message when I returned to check on the kitchen for the first time in months, but I have no idea how long it had been on there for because we were closed. At first, I didn’t even register or react to those words because it’s so common. I just rolled my eyes, tried to scratch it off, and carried on as normal,” said chef and co-founder of Pleasant Lady Trading Z He, who also owns Bun House and Wun’s Tea Room in Chinatown. “It was only when a new chef pointed out to remind me what was written on the door that it dawned on me how serious this was. I’m not even angry at what was written anymore, I’m sadder that my initial reaction was shrugging it off as if it was nothing.”
It’s an uncertain and unnerving time for all coming out of lockdown, but for ESEA businesses in Chinatown, being hypervigilant about hate crimes, racial attacks, and vandalism are another thing they have to add to their already-full plates.
“For the first time in my life I feel insecure in my own skin and I’m worried about being alone on the street when I get out of the kitchen late,” He said. “I’m not so concerned about reopening and operating in a climate of heightened fear because I feel very blessed to have loyal customers who love our brand. They understand what we do and can’t wait to come eat with us again — they’re the reason why we keep going.”
To make matters worse, Chinatown’s recovery has been hampered by the congestion charge increase and extension that was put in place in June. The increase is one of the conditions included in the government’s recent COVID-19 Transport for London bailout. It has been a devastating blow to businesses in the centre of the city — a policy decision met with much criticism from some of London’s best-known restaurateurs and chefs.
“Since the introduction of the charge, we’ve seen a massive decline in customers and on the weekends it’s like a ghost town now,” the Golden Gate worker explains. “Many are still wary of getting public transport and they don’t want to pay £15 just to travel in, so it puts a lot of people off. If there’s another lockdown after this I don’t think we’ll make it.”
Since London has entered Step 2 of the U.K.’s roadmap out of lockdown with people legally allowed to move about once more, restaurateurs are reopening with bated breath — and with good reason. After last year’s divisive Eat Out to Help Out government restaurant discount scheme, the controversial 10 p.m. curfew, no national government solution to the rent crisis, and the on-and-off cycle of lockdowns, there are many across the hospitality industry who believe they haven’t received the support they need.
“We had to throw away so much stock just before Christmas from the sudden closure,” said Sammie Le, the owner of Yolkin, a specialist macaron ice cream sandwich shop on Rupert Street. “To add salt in the wounds, we narrowly missed out on the government’s £25,000 cash grant because we were over the £51,000 rateable value and we’ve been totally excluded. Yes, we’re over the threshold, but this means we have bigger overheads to pay off and being in central we have higher business rates than most. I’ve received zero help and it’s really disheartening. It’s such a kick in the teeth for small, independent businesses like me and this grant would’ve really helped.”
It’s still too early to tell if there are any more permanent casualties like Hung’s, a late-night Chinatown institution that specialised in Cantonese roast meat, but those closures will likely come within a couple of months of May’s scheduled reopening, when landlords start to collect money owed from rent debt due by the end of June. Many restaurateurs are burdened with more than 12 months of rent debt, and can’t afford to pay after months of mandated closure.
“Chinatown is in a terrifying state and we’re all in this limbo of not knowing what’s going to happen,” He said. “Since we own three different sites around Chinatown, we have three different landlords.” Shaftesbury PLC, which owns 3.2 acres of the Chinatown estate, has agreed to waive some months’ rent for Bun House and its other restaurant tenants. Wun’s Tea Room on Greek Street, however, has an independent landlord. “After much begging, they agreed to a 20 percent discount, despite that site being closed throughout the pandemic and making zero sales,” she adds. “We were trying to reason and hold off on payments.”
Businesses hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as they gear up for their grand reopenings and the warmer months ahead. More demand means part-time opening hours are getting longer and staff are brought back on from furlough. Some are trying their luck, with new openings spotted in the area such as an outpost of Korean fried chicken restaurant Wing Wing and Malaysian restaurant Pasar Malam, which has replaced Super Star Chinese Restaurant on Lisle Street. Others have relocated, such as noodle and hot pot specialist Joy Luck, which has moved away from Gerrard Street and integrated into its other outpost, Nusa Dua on Shaftesbury Avenue.
“I’ve lost far too many nights lying awake worrying about my business, unpaid bills and rents,” Le said. “Yolkin is my baby, but my mental health and kids are more important. I came from nothing to my mother-in-law’s kitchen to market stalls to my own place — and that’s why it’s so difficult for me to let go and throw in the towel.”
In the meantime, London Chinatown gradually reopens with caution, and is welcoming visitors back after nearly four months of lockdown. There’s a long way to go before the area can return to its pre-pandemic level of custom: It may be hard-hit, but it’s resilient. “I’m going to focus on getting the shop up and running, do my best, and I’ll fight for as long as I can,” Le said. “But right now I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse.”