Chinatown merchants dismayed by Sandy relief

[/media-credit] Wallace Lai, a Chinatown restaurant owner, spoke to Council Member Margaret Chin after an emergency relief forum on Fri., Nov. 9 about his dissatisfaction with the neighborhood’s economic climate.

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Many Chinatown entrepreneurs believe that the current emergency assistance programs led by the city, state and federal governments are not enough to help the small businesses fully recover from the detrimental effects of Hurricane Sandy.

There is also a general consensus among business owners, politicians and community leaders that Chinatown’s economy faces deep-seated problems that existed long before the storm struck and that cannot be adequately addressed by short-term solutions such as emergency loans and general relief efforts. A few of the major challenges they’re facing are attracting local customers, sustaining the interest of tourists and dealing with a shrinking neighborhood population.

Following an outcry from business owners who attended an emergency relief forum held on Fri., Nov. 9 at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (C.C.B.A.) headquarters on Mott Street, City Council Member Margaret Chin called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a state emergency grant program tailored to Chinatown’s small businesses.

“The thing we are hearing again and again is that our small businesses, many of whom are still paying off loans from 9/11, cannot get by with just loans,” Chin said in statement, after sending a letter to the governor on Saturday. “They need grants. It would be tragic to see our small businesses, who survived and helped rebuild our community after 9/11, wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.”

As of press time, a spokesperson for Chin said that the council member’s office had not received a reply to that letter. Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The primary problem most small business owners have with applying for loans — currently offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the city Department of Small Business Services — is that they cannot afford to take on new debt, especially after losing a substantial amount of revenue from being closed for a week or longer in Sandy’s aftermath. And for the many Chinatown businesses that rely heavily on the tourism industry, which to some degree was suffering long before Sandy’s arrival, the situation is looking even grimmer.

A Chinatown gift shop owner who attended the Nov. 9 forum — which was moderated by U.S. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and attended by representatives of FEMA, S.B.A., S.B.S. and the city Economic Development Corporation — explained his current state of desperation.

“It has definitely cost me way over $10,000 in lost revenue from being closed during the week after the storm, and now I can’t even make any sales because there’s virtually no foot traffic, no business,” said the man, who declined to give his name but said that his store is near the corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets.

At the C.C.B.A. forum, which was intended to inform residents and local business owners about how to apply for loans, the politicians — Chin included — attempted to paint the situation as optimistically as possible.

“After 9/11, we were here, and we all came together — the community, the city, the state, the federal government — to help each other,” said Velazquez. “It’s not much different this time around. We’re here to make sure that the small businesses of our community become whole again.”

State Senator Daniel Squadron also appealed to a sense of collective resilience and suggested that the current crisis would force Chinatown to solve some of its more deep-seated issues.

“Don’t get frustrated, don’t give up,” Squadron told the merchants. “You’ve stuck with this community over the last eleven years, so stick with it again through the coming weeks and months.”

But plenty of business owners weren’t buying the official’s comments.

“This is bullshit,” said Wallace Lai, who owns two Hong Kong Station restaurants in Chinatown, one on Bayard Street and one on Division Street. “These people just talk in circles about everything they’re going to do for us, but they can’t see the real future that’s coming for Chinatown if we don’t act now to fix the long-term problems.”

Sofia Ng, who runs Po Wing Hong, a specialty Chinese food market on Elizabeth Street, contended that politicians and other leaders must do a better job of rebranding and highlighting Chinatown to tourists, especially during the months-long recovery period.

“It’s hard to articulate what to do, because this is such an ongoing issue,” said Ng, “but there’s just no really attractive part of Chinatown that brings in tourism anymore. It’s not a place that people want to visit.”

When told that those issues would be difficult to address at a forum that was principally based on short-term solutions, the business owners stressed that the long-term and short-term goals should be addressed together. Otherwise, they claimed, all the relief efforts would be virtually worthless.

“They say they’re doing so much, but nothing’s actually getting better,” said Lai. “So I don’t care how much time they’re spending on loans and relief. It’s like, if you play soccer, I don’t care how good you are at handling the ball if you can’t score.”

And even though politicians like Chin and Squadron have done much over the past year — at the behest of many local residents — to regulate Chinatown’s controversial intercity bus industry, Lai and others believe the buses are vital to the area’s economy.

Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, has been an outspoken advocate of the intercity buses, constantly claiming that the millions of people it brings the area outweighs the stated consequences of safety and inconvenience.

Chen feels his stance on the issue was validated last week, when a Philadelphia tour bus company that had learned of Chinatown’s post-storm struggles arranged to send a busload of people to Chinatown with the specific purpose of providing an economic boost to the area. “They sympathized with our story,” said Chen.

While that bus is from an independent company unlike such intercity buses as Megabus, Chen said the visit demonstrated that one of Chinatown’s best hopes for the future may be a revival of the buses and other such economic conduits.

Chen also had very pointed views about the Chinatown business owners who believe post-hurricane loans won’t suffice. “The American spirit is not about asking for handouts, and instead of relying on handouts we need to be practical and work with what we have,” he said.

Adding to that, he employed a characteristically offbeat analogy to suggest that business owners are better off banding together as a community than complaining about things they may never get. “In a time of crisis, there will be people who focus on danger, and those who focus on opportunity,” Chen said. “Remember what they did on the Oregon Trail. They couldn’t just wait for the cavalry. When they went out in the wagons, and the Indians started shooting arrows at them, the pioneers formed a circle to defend themselves. That’s the American spirit.”

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