Chinatown Stories

By Freya Aitken-Turff and Xiao Ma

The rich history of London’s most iconic cultural district

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Did London Eat Out and Help Out enough to turn the tables for Chinatown?

In April, we asked whether Chinatown would survive COVID-19. The prospects looked bleak. Almost five months on and there are some tiny signs that both people and their spending power have returned.

If you visit Chinatown on a sunny day, you will enjoy a stroll along lively narrow streets lined with al fresco diners sitting beneath a sea of red lanterns – sounds lovely, right? And it is. It feels vibrant. It feels charming. And it feels like you’re really making the most of the city and the sunshine.  If you visit Chinatown on a day when the weather is less obliging, and – after all – this is London so we know to expect those days, the scene is less atmospheric. You can see how few people there are when they are seated sparsely in a restaurant. Angela Hui, a journalist we both know and admire wrote this piece to help people better understand the situation*.

The UK Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has given the area a boost. The offer of a 50% discount from Monday to Wednesday throughout August has brought people back to Chinatown. According to a report by the Centre for London, spending in restaurants in central London including Chinatown was down 80% in mid-July while suburban recoveries have outperformed the city centre where the catering industry relies more on tourists than local residents. Chinatown businesses are still struggling to recover after months of forced closure when the vast majority couldn’t trade but still are obligated to pay 50% rent owed for the period of the intense lockdown. 

Vaughn Tan, author of The Uncertainty Mindset, points out that the disruption and uncertainty for restaurants will continue until there is a working vaccine. He advocates that changes in business models are critical for restaurants to survive the current physical distancing and economic instability. For our Chinatown, businesses had to shift their focus from domestic and international tourists to Londoners. We might assume that Chinatown could just service Westminster locals but unlike other Chinatowns around the world, our area is not a residential one. There are not enough local residents to create a commercial level of demand. Not every business has the financial resilience or adaptability in this fast changing situation in our fast changing world. For us, we notice the businesses that remain closed – particularly the Far East Bakery and Restaurant (founded in 1962 and still run by the same family). We also notice those like Y Ming (founded in 1986 by the woman who would go on to Chair the London Chinese Community Centre) that have decided to only open Monday-Wednesday while the Eat Out To Help Out scheme is running. Yesterday we had a chat with a few restauranteurs that remain open throughout the week. They told us that they have been operating at a loss as their businesses are still down 60%-80%. How long can that continue? Our work to collect these stories needs to continue much faster than we anticipated.

It is still too soon to quote a survival rate. The tables have not turned enough. We keep our hopes up, as this is a neighbourhood with a record of surviving and then thriving out of hardship.

*if you look closely in the photos, you’ll see the two of us having a conversation about writing this very update in the photos in Angela’s article!

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