Closing of Jing Fong Leaves a ‘Crater’ in Reeling Chinatown

Jing Fong was everyone’s place.

Inside the cavernous red-and-gold banquet hall in the heart of Chinatown in Manhattan, generations of Asian families toasted weddings, birthdays and graduations. Business leaders convened work lunches. Immigrants were reminded of the food and lives they left behind. And tourists learned the point-and-eat tradition of Chinese dim sum.

Not long after Yolanda Zhang arrived in New York City in 2019, she found her way there, too. “Jing Fong is the go-to landmark,” said Ms. Zhang, 24, a community organizer who grew up in China. “It’s been around for so long, it’s the center for the social fabric of Chinatown.”

But the very things that made Jing Fong so special — the boisterous crowds, shared tables and dishes, and communal spirit — left it vulnerable to a virus that preyed on close human contact. The banquet hall, which served 10,000 customers a week, was emptied by fears of the coronavirus and social distancing restrictions. It closed for good on Sunday after 28 years.

The loss of Jing Fong hurts, even in a city where thousands of restaurants, bars and night clubs have permanently shut down during the pandemic and more than 140,000 jobs have been lost.

“An empty Jing Fong leaves a crater in the middle of Chinatown,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group.

It also highlights the economic plight of one of the country’s most celebrated immigrant neighborhoods. Chinatown, with more than 3,000 businesses, including about 300 restaurants, cafes and bakeries, has been pummeled by the pandemic longer and harder than almost anywhere else in the city.

Tens of thousands of office workers, tourists and visitors descended daily on Chinatown’s narrow streets, filling lunch tables and souvenir shops. But they disappeared in early 2020 as alarming reports proliferated about a virus outbreak in China, weeks before the first case was confirmed in New York on March 1.

“We were the first one to take a dive — a thousand tables got canceled and even Asians stopped coming,” said Wellington Z. Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District/Partnership. “All of a sudden you come to a cliff and your foot traffic dropped to the bottom of the cliff.”

At least 17 Chinatown restaurants and 139 ground-floor stores have permanently closed during the pandemic, Mr. Chen said. Some streets are lined with shuttered storefronts and “for rent” signs.

Wing on Wo & Co., a family-run store that has sold porcelain bowls and vases for more than a century, temporarily closed and turned to online sales as its business dropped by as much as 40 percent. “A lot of folks love our store and come to our store because of the experience of walking into our physical storefront and being able to touch and feel the porcelain,” said Mei Lum, 30, the owner, adding that it allows them to “feel a connection to home” and “a sense of old Chinatown.”

While foot traffic has started to gradually pick up, many business and community leaders worry that many of those working from home may not return and that some tourists and visitors will continue to steer clear of Chinatown because of an outbreak that has fanned racism, xenophobia and violence against Asian-Americans around the country.

“We are going to have to do a multiprong, multiphase approach to recovery,” Mr. Chen said.

Chinatown has actually had a lower rate of confirmed coronavirus cases than the city on average, according to a New York Times database.

Jing Fong was not just the largest restaurant in Chinatown, it was also a foothold to a better life for immigrant workers who often toil unseen in kitchens and dining rooms. It was the only unionized restaurant in Chinatown — and one of the few in New York — after more than a decade of efforts by its workers to secure better pay and working conditions.

“I’ve lost my livelihood,” said Li Zhen Tan, 59, who served dim sum for 24 years. “Without Jing Fong, where are we going to work? I’m older and I don’t know if anyone will want to hire me.”

Jing Fong’s workers, union leaders and community groups have protested the closing and the loss of more than 100 jobs in an area that has seen rising rents and upscale development in recent years.

“I think it’s the latest example of displacement in Chinatown, said Zishun Ning, 29, a community organizer who is helping Jing Fong’s workers. “A lot of businesses have shut down. Almost all of them have not been able to pay the rent.”

Truman Lam, whose family owns Jing Fong, said they could no longer afford to operate the banquet hall after their revenue plunged by 85 percent during the pandemic. “We just can’t make ends meet and who knows when this business is going to rebound?” he said. “Half of our business was attributed to banquets, parties and weddings and that’s been a big fat zero.”

It was unclear whether Jing Fong would reopen somewhere else. For now, it will continue to offer takeout and run a small sidewalk patio that was built with $5,000 in donations raised through a GoFundMe campaign. It also has a second location on the Upper West Side.

“We want to continue the legacy but we want to do it justice also,” Mr. Lam said. “Realistically, I think it’s going to have to be something much smaller and downsized. But does that bring and create the essence that is Jing Fong?”

Jonathan Chu, whose family is Jing Fong’s landlord, said they did everything they could to help the restaurant, including not raising its rent for 28 years or collecting rent payments since the pandemic began. “We are members of this community and have known Jing Fong’s workers for decades,” he said. “Nobody has tried harder to keep Jing Fong in this space than we have.”

But in the end, Mr. Chu added, “leaving this space was a decision by Jing Fong’s owners, who have been clear that this uniquely large space is not sustainable for their business.”

Jing Fong, whose name consists of the Chinese characters for gold and good harvest, was one of the best known of the grand dim sum palaces — with auspicious names like Silver Palace, Golden Bridge, Grand Harmony and Joy Luck Palace — that once thrived in Chinatown but are largely gone now. Eager diners came from across the city and beyond for cheap steaming plates of roast pork buns, spare ribs and shrimp dumplings.

Jing Fong opened in a smaller space on Elizabeth Street in 1978 during one of New York City’s bleakest periods, when the city was battered by a financial crisis and rampant crime. Mr. Lam’s grandfather, a plumber who immigrated from Hong Kong, eventually became the majority shareholder in the restaurant.

In 1993, Jing Fong moved a couple of doors down to an 800-seat banquet hall. There, a long escalator led up to an ornate dining room with chandeliers and a stage for performances. Servers pushed dim sum carts past large round tables where strangers were often seated together.

Jenny Wu, 28, an accountant, grew up on Jing Fong’s dim sum and had planned to have her wedding banquet there next year. “This is where families come together to celebrate their happy times and holidays,” she said. “Whenever I think of Jing Fong, I just think of New Year’s, weddings, family gatherings.”

For others, it was a place to meet new friends or reconnect with old ones. When classmates from the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s elite schools, held their 30th reunion at Jing Fong in 2010, Lisa Daglian was seated at the same table as Fil Kefalas. They bonded over noodles and dumplings, and married four years later.

“It’s the end of a New York institution,” said Ms. Daglian, 58, a transit advocate. “It’s one of those places you always thought was going to be around.”

As the pandemic gripped the city, Jing Fong closed its banquet hall for six months when indoor dining was banned and later reopened at 25 percent capacity. Tables were spaced out and sectioned off by wood panels. Tea was served in paper cups. The dim sum carts were replaced by neatly packed plastic boxes brought out to tables.

But it was not enough.

As word spread of Jing Fong’s closing, there was an outpouring from customers, whether they had been there many times or just a few.

“It belongs to all of us,” said Salonee Bhaman, 28, a graduate student. “And so it feels really unfair that it’s being taken away — not because there’s no alternatives to ordering dim sum, but because it created something that was greater than the sum of its parts when we were all together in it.”

The last day the banquet hall was open, the line of customers stretched down the street. At a table set up on the sidewalk to support Jing Fong’s workers, passers-by were asked to write down why Jing Fong mattered to them on postcards that would be sent to its landlord: “Please save our favorite restaurant.” “It was my best birthday.” “It is important to my family identity.”

Inside, Jing Fong was bustling once again. Liang Chen, 52, a headwaiter, was setting tables and welcoming his regular customers back as old friends. Many left big tips.

“We’ve very moved,” he said. “It’s a testament to our hard work and Jing Fong’s place in their lives.”

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