MAY 2003

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SARS Hits Chinatown
By Larry Tung

Like many people who are afraid of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in Chinatown, Tony Yu stopped going to that restaurant on Bayard Street since the rumor started circulating on the Internet on April Fool’s Day that its owner had died of SARS.

“A rumor is a rumor,” said Yu, who works in a hair salon on Bayard Street. “But I just want to make sure there is no unwanted surprise.”

To the business owners in Chinatown, luck is not on their side as the business is suffering from one disaster after another. Panicked by the rumors of SARS, many New Yorkers have been avoiding going to Chinatown. The absence of customers has dealt a fresh blow to the businesses there as many are still struggling to recover from the economic downturn brought by the 911 attacks.

The rumor was later proven to be untrue as the owner is perfectly alive and well. But the impact is devastating.

“The business went down by about 40 to 50 percent,” said Mike Wang, an employee at the popular Ten Ren Tea Time, a tea bar on Mott Street. “Especially when the reports in the newspaper came out a few weeks ago. Now the weather is getting better, the business is slowly getting better.”

But some business owners do not share Wang’s optimism.

During lunchtime on a weekday in late April, there were only two tables of customers at the popular Shanghai Garden Restaurant on Mott Street, where the waiters almost outnumbered the customers.

“We are losing a least $10,000 per month,” said Ms.Qian, owner of the restaurant who refused to give her first name. “Dinner is even worse.”

To clarify the rumor and bring back business, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolence Association (CCBA) has been trying to get media’s attention to inform the public that Chinatown is safe. On its website, a capitalized headline in red reads “SARS SCARE IN CHINATOWN UNFOUNDED”. Mayor Mike Bloomberg also attended a luncheon in Chinatown last month in the hope of bringing business back to Chinatown.

Don Lee, Executive Director of CCBA’s Chinatown Community Economic Development Project, said the city’s health officials had repeatedly confirmed that there is no need to be alarmed and that it is safe to visit Chinatown.

“But the fear of it itself, and maybe the press and the images that have been shown on television make people by association think that there is a big problem here in Chinatown,” Lee said. “That rumor has had a tremendous impact on us.”

“Just look how clean the streets are,” Lee said jokingly but added that the business has been slowly picking up.

Meanwhile, tourists, who are the main consumers in Chinatown, are slowly returning as the long-awaited spring seems to finally arrive in New York.

Dr. Franz Pfitzer, a psychologist from Germany, was visiting Chinatown with his two children and said he was not concerned at all about SARS.

“We read all the information before our trip and realized there is no need to be concerned about SARS,” Pfitzer said. “It’s more of a psychological thing.”

Worrying About Family In China

On the other hand, as SARS seems to be under control in New York, with only 20 suspected cases, none acquired locally, according to the New York City Health Department, many Chinese immigrants are more concerned about their families in China.

They are closely following the Chinese-language media here to get the latest reports on SARS in China, where the official number of SARS cases is 2,601 as of April 24 but the actual figure could be many times more.

Kim Jin has been dreaming about going back to China with an American greencard since she landed in New York seven years ago. But the way home seems to be a little longer than she thought.

Eager to make her first trip to her hometown in Henan Province after finally receiving her permanent residency last year, she cancelled her trip scheduled
for April because of SARS. “I miss home a lot but my life is more important,” Jin said, now a student at a business college in Flushing. “I have waited for seven long years to get my greencard so I can go home. But this is really a
terrible time,”

Ken Lee, a graphic designer in Flushing who came from Guangdong Province two years ago, shares Jin’s ache. He is worried about his wife and young son back home, where more than 1,300 SARS cases have been reported, including 50 deaths.

Although he misses his family terribly, he cancelled his trip to China scheduled for late May and is expected to fly as soon as when SARS is under control
there.

“I cautioned them not to go outside of our block,” Lee said. “Fortunately, we have a market on our block so they can get pretty much everything they need without leaving the neighborhood.”

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