At the corner of Canal and Centre Street in Chinatown, it was a sunny 25 degrees outside, but the cold air wasn’t the only thing that was biting: Dozens of people had come out for a rally outside the East Bank building to support the employees of the dim sum banquet hall Jing Fong. In February, the restaurant’s owners had announced they would vacate the current location and close the dining room on March 7. The restaurant will remain open for takeout and delivery, as well as keep its outdoor patio, “until further notice,” per a statement. (An Upper West Side location remains open.)
“Us workers, we demand the original or new business owners to continue to operate a restaurant to guarantee job opportunities,” said Liang Chen, speaking to a large group of Jing Fong workers, local residents, and activists spilling out onto Centre Street. A server employed there for 16 years, he was one of two employees who spoke on behalf of the 70 people who will soon be out of work and thrust into the restaurant industry’s employment crisis. “We want to work, we want to live, and we want to prevent Chinatown from being destroyed.”
The action was organized by 318 Restaurant Workers Union and Youth Against Displacement, which represents around 70 of Jing Fong’s 150 employees, and supported by other anti-gentrification and workers groups including Take Back the Bronx, the Laundry Workers Center, Educators Against Displacement, and more. While East Bank isn’t home to Jing Fong, it is owned by the same landlord, father and son developers Alex and Jonathan Chu, whose family has reportedly been involved in Chinatown real estate for 50 years. The New York Times has described them as “one of the largest landlords in Chinatown”; according to 318, the Chus are the largest in the neighborhood. They’ve also come under fire from local activists who say they’re contributing to gentrification. In response to a city jail-expansion plan that would give the the Museum of Chinese in America $35 million in funding, one group, the Chinatown Art Brigade, called for the younger Chu’s removal from the museum’s board.
As Chinatown’s largest restaurant, and New York’s largest Chinese restaurant, Jing Fong is a gravitational center in the neighborhood. When I asked one person why they were at the rally they told me, “Everyone has celebrated their birthdays at Jing Fong.” The need for this place to bind the community together was a theme repeated throughout the rally. “You destroy Jing Fong, you basically destroy Chinatown,” says Kai Wen Yang of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association. “It’s not just the size of it. It’s actually because people have birthdays, they have weddings, cultural events.”
It is also the neighborhood’s only unionized restaurant since the closing of Silver Palace, which was Chinatown’s first unionized restaurant and a site of its own labor struggles. (Silver Palace was located where the luxury Hotel 50 Bowery, which the Chu family developed, now stands.) In a letter to the landlords, the 318 Restaurant Workers Union’s president Nelson Mar writes that the closing Jing Fong will “severely damage the overall Chinatown much worse than what has been done by the pandemic,” which has disproportionately affected Chinatowns around the world. The union estimates 10,000 people a week ate at the restaurant before COVID, and Vincent Cao, who worked at Joy Luck Palace and is now with the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, said of the employees, “They know everything happening in Chinatown.” (In 2018, Joy Luck Palace closed to the public, then reopened, then eventually closed again after ownership clashed with the restaurant’s union.)
At yesterday’s rally, speakers including Yolanda Zhang from Youth Against Displacement, led a picket line and chants of “save Chinatown” and “stop destroying Chinatown.” One sign read “Not Another Silver Palace”; another read “Don’t Be A Ding Dong Keep Open Jing Fong.” Margaret Lee, an artist and a member of the Peter Kwong Immigrant Learning Center, implored the landlords to meet the crowd. “Alex Chu and Jonathan Chu come downstairs and open the door,” she said. The Chus did not come down, despite the repeated requests, but one cop did meander over to the building’s glass door and post up there for a while. The union’s demands, presented in the letter to the Chus, were also read. The letter called on the landlords to cease the eviction and “commit to keeping the dining room open,” to work with the employer to continue operating through the lease, and to sit down with the union and Lam.
“I think we can put a little bit of pressure on the landlord to help the owner out, and the lease can be negotiated. If the restaurant owner wants to keep the restaurant open that’s also what the workers want,” says Caitlin Kelmar of Youth Against Displacement, which is part of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. (An umbrella group, the Coalition also includes the 318 union.) “I think the situation could change and maybe their interests won’t be so aligned in the future, but I think right now we’re fighting for the same goal, and the workers can mobilize in a way that the owners can’t,” says Kelma.
Like the crowd that spilled out onto Centre Street, anxieties bubbled over about what this could mean for the future of Chinatown itself, which is already facing gentrification and displacement of longtime residents, as well as unconcealed racism and a spike in violence against Asian Americans.
“Those of us here protesting the closing are also wondering, where are all these politicians who claim to be against anti-Asian violence? Where’s [city councilwoman] Margaret Chin? Where are they? Isn’t this violence?” says Zishun Ning of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “If you’re really, really against anti-Asian violence … stop this stuff from happening.”
Cao, the restaurant worker, spoke to concerns about the neighborhood: “Why do they have to kick them out?” he wonders. “They already made so much money in the past. That’s why we’re here, to urge the landlord, the owner, the union to sit down and work this out.” Cao, who was involved in planning the rally, adds, “It would really destroy Chinatown. It’s why we spent so much time — they’re sending a really bad message. Chinatown is going to change. For them it’s great, they make money. They don’t care who lives here.”
While Jing Fong’s employees are supposed to get severance, they won’t have an easy time finding new jobs during a full-blown employment crisis in New York’s restaurant industry. The unemployment rate in the city’s restaurant industry was 43.4 percent in December, the most recent data available. While it will likely get better as the weather warms up and more people get vaccinated, the restaurant industry — especially in hard-hit immigrant neighborhoods like Chinatown — has a long road ahead to recovery. “Everywhere is closed,” Chen says. “The landlord during the pandemic, especially right now, displacing us, closing the dining hall — many, many people lost their jobs.”
In a statement provided by a rep, Jonathan Chu writes, “Nobody has tried harder to keep Jing Fong in this space than we have.” However, Jing Fong’s future on Elizabeth Street was apparently uncertain even before the pandemic began. “Long story short, they wanted the space back,” Claudia Leo, Jing Fong’s director of marketing and PR, says. That’s when the owners started exploring their options, she says. “We’re not too sure whether or not they wanted to renew the lease.”
“Nobody wanted Jing Fong to succeed more than the Chus,” the rep, Eric F. Phillips of the PR firm Edelman, wrote when asked about this. “The sad reality is, while the pandemic has made this even more obvious, this extremely large space was not sustainable for Jing Fong’s business. The restaurant’s owners know that.”
Asked about specifics like rent forgiveness, the rep declined to comment, pointing to information in the statement, including that the restaurant’s rent had not been raised since 1993 and that the owners hadn’t paid rent in a year. According to Leo, the owners paid some rent through PPP loans, and the Chus worked with them on partial rent relief. The Lams have also been paying real estate taxes. Leo expressed sympathy for both the Chu family and the employees. “At the end of the day, they’re fighting for their jobs,” she says.
After the rally, I reached out to the East Wind Snack Shop chef Chris Cheung, who grew up in Brooklyn and Chinatown and has been a vocal advocate for Chinatown’s cuisine and the city’s Chinese restaurant community. “I have seen great restaurants in Chinatown close, and I feel the loss of food I grew up on that I will never eat again, and another traditional link to what used to be gone,” he told me. “This time is different, though. It’s not the usual closing. It’s like it was taken from us rather than just a loss.”