Jing Fong Couldn’t Survive. Will Manhattan’s Chinatown?

Jing Fong Couldn’t Survive. Will Manhattan’s Chinatown?

Jing Fong Couldn’t Survive. Will Manhattan’s Chinatown?

The pandemic has tipped the scales even further in favor of landlords over workers.


Jing Fong, Manhattan’s largest Chinese restaurant, is dead. When I visited on March 2, the two grand escalators ascending to the third-floor banquet hall were frozen. The restaurant could once seat a thousand people upon red carpet, beneath golden dragons and resplendent chandeliers. But last week only two of its six heaters were working, and next to the dining room’s entrance were just a handful of patrons eating out of takeout containers. After nearly three decades on Elizabeth Street, Jing Fong limped through its final days—its dining room closing for good on March 7.

Something else was missing from the restaurant that day: the employees. Around 180 workers were on Jing Fong’s payroll; its dining room staff was the only one in Chinatown still represented by a union. But instead of celebrating a good run, the workers were outside battling for more time. On Tuesday, dozens of staffers and anti-gentrification activists protested outside Eastbank, the firm run by Jing Fong’s father-son landlords Alex and Jonathan Chu, accusing them of forcing the restaurant to close. Among the crowd was John Chen, 60, a head waiter at Jing Fong who has worked at the restaurant for half of his life; Tan Li Zhen, a 59-year-old dim sum seller who begged the landlords not to “break her rice bowl”; and 52-year-old waiter Chen Liang, who called on the Chus to stop “destroying Chinatown.” When they tried pushing into the building to deliver their demands, a policeman blocked the way.

Nelson Mar, the president of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, which represents Jing Fong’s dining room staff, told me, “We are going to fight the closure with the demands that we have put forward. The rally was but the first step in this fight to save Jing Fong and save the Chinatown economy.” He called for government intervention, and said, “For workers, this is not a done deal.”

In an e-mailed statement, Jonathan Chu said the restaurant “hasn’t paid a dime” of its base rent in 12 months, which has remained fixed since 1993. Truman Lam, Jing Fong’s third-generation owner, confirmed this. He said sales were down nearly 85 percent since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic—a multimillion-dollar shortfall. Per agreement, in addition to rent, the Chus were entitled to a share of Jing Fong’s profits, but the restaurant’s disastrous year meant his landlords were “hurting too,” Lam said. He blamed the government, telling me that he got a single loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, much of which he gave to the Chus to cover the building’s $350,000 property tax bill, which keeps rising even though the building is sitting virtually unused. “It’s not that we don’t want to try to keep fighting and try to keep surviving, but the hole is too big. And we needed aid earlier,” Lam said.

Jing Fong joins as many as 4,500 other eateries that have permanently closed in New York City since the pandemic began—dozens in Chinatown alone. But the restaurant stands out as a symbol of collective survival in an immigrant community struggling to stay put. Jing Fong’s demise deals a blow to Chinatown’s organized labor, which is desperate to defend the neighborhood against a gentry that’s aching to gild it and hollow it out.

There are, to speak in broad terms, two classes of Chinese folks in conflict over New York’s oldest Chinatown: its working immigrant core and an upper crust of well-heeled financiers. You’ll find them speaking the same languages, enjoying the same cuisine, and celebrating the same holidays, but that’s where the similarities end: Shared ethnicity tends to obscure the two groups’ structural opposition. First-generation immigrants hoping to gain a foothold in the city depend on affordable housing, Chinese-speaking entry-level jobs, and inexpensive goods to survive. In contrast, the elite profit from the opposite: transforming Chinatown into ever-more-expensive real estate that can be auctioned to the highest bidder. For years, New York’s politicians, hungry for revenue, have sympathized with the latter group. And now the pandemic has tipped the scales even further in their favor.

Chinatown was founded on what labor activist and Hunter College Asian American studies professor Peter Kwong called “the twin pillars” of the garment industry and the restaurant industry, which boomed after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Today, only one pillar remains. The September 11 attacks effectively shut down Chinatown for months, wiping out what was left of the garment industry. Many of those old high-ceilinged garment factories have been converted to luxury lofts, priced far out of the budgets of Chinatown residents, of whom nearly one in three lives in poverty. The biggest employers left are the dining rooms like Jing Fong.

Like its garment industry, the history of Chinatown’s restaurant business is one of bosses disregarding labor laws and workers organizing to resist. One might trace the current arc of activism to 1980, when Silver Palace, a dim sum parlor in a cavernous Bowery building owned by Alex Chu’s father, Joseph Chu, fired workers for refusing to hand over their tips to management. The workers responded by forming the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, named after the date they were fired, and picketing the restaurant for months, carrying coffins outside to scare diners, until they were hired back. At the same time, workers founded the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), a group to provide Chinese-speaking members with support and resources for militant labor activism. Backed by the two organizations, Silver Palace workers would continue clashing with management, defeating a seven-month lockout in 1994, until the restaurant filed for bankruptcy in January 1995—which activists saw as a move orchestrated by Chinatown’s commercial establishment to bust the stubborn union.

Weeks later, workers began to protest Jing Fong, which had recently opened next door to the now-shuttered Silver Palace. Supporting them was John Chen, then a Jing Fong busboy, who told me the workplace was akin to a “slave system.” Eleven-hour workdays were common; on holidays like Thanksgiving, he pulled shifts as long as 14 hours. Workers earned less than a dollar an hour before gratuities, yet managers would take a hefty cut of the tips. When a coworker, Sheng Gang Deng, complained about the policy, he was fired. The CSWA helped Deng sue the restaurant, while the union began a protest that dragged into the summer. Students joined in, launching a week-long hunger strike on the sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The furor caught the attention of the New York attorney general’s office, which after an investigation announced that it would prosecute Jing Fong for breaking multiple labor laws unless its workers were paid back wages totaling $1.1 million. “I was very moved,” Chen said. “There was a breakthrough—it created a big change in Chinatown.”

In 1996, following a complaint from the 318 Union, the National Labor Relations Board also awarded Silver Palace workers $1.1 million in back pay. The years that followed saw a string of dramatic victories for restaurant workers challenging underpayment and wage theft, as the CSWA helped them win a $700,000 judgment against 88 Palace, a huge banquet hall on East Broadway; a $2.3 million settlement from Ollie’s, the chain of uptown fast-casual Chinese joints; and a $4.6 million judgment against Saigon Grill, which, in addition to severely underpaying delivery workers, had been fining them $20 to $200 for “infractions” like letting the door slam. In 2007, 318 and CSWA members took Jing Fong’s management to court a second time before bosses finally agreed to stop taking tips, and in 2012 its dining room employees officially voted to join the union. At its peak, the 318 Restaurant Workers Union had 200 members across multiple restaurants—sending a clear message to eateries across the city that Chinese immigrant workers would no longer be cheated.

But as restaurants’ most egregious labor violations were being reined in, a larger shift in power was under way. In the 2000s, an explosion in housing speculation turbocharged New York’s luxury real estate, making Chinatown—with its close proximity to some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods—suddenly an attractive target for developers. As more Chinese restaurants began to close, including ones where other 318 members were employed, the workers realized their jobs wouldn’t last without a defense against high-end development. As Zishun Ning, a staff organizer at CSWA, explained, “When the rent and real-estate tax increase, the landlords shift the burden to the restaurants. The workers have long seen the connection, and the necessity of protecting the community.”

In New York City, where municipal coffers are heavily dependent on property taxes, politicians face demand from builders to upzone neighborhoods—clearing older, smaller buildings to make way for taller, more valuable developments—and pressure to downzone from existing residents who want to protect their communities. What ends up happening exacerbates racial and class inequality. A NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy study found that between 2003 and 2007, Mayor Michael Bloombeg tended to downzone neighborhoods with wealthy, white homeowners and to upzone neighborhoods with lower-income renters of color. Upzoning can increase a city’s total housing stock, but in practice developers maximize profits by building luxury units, often only throwing in some “affordable” apartments to appease community boards and win tax breaks. And because affordability in New York is determined by the city’s median income, these units are often too pricey for the residents they displace.

This dividing line was drawn in 2008 when New York’s City Council approved a plan to downzone the wealthy and predominantly white East Village while leaving the Lower East Side and Chinatown unprotected to the south. Alarmed, Chen and other restaurant workers protested the decision; they started attending anti-gentrification rallies in their free time. Over the next six years, they joined a coalition of other workers, residents, and activists called the Chinatown Working Group to produce a proposal that would create affordable new housing while safeguarding current residents and small businesses. But when the CSWA presented this plan at a 2015 meeting, a CSWA organizer said, a representative of Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected it as “too farfetched and too ambitious.”

The consequences of the de Blasio administration’s dismissal are playing out as expected. A Pathmark grocery store that served thousands of public housing residents was demolished in 2012 to make way for an ostentatious 72-story luxury apartment, One Manhattan Square. Three more luxury mega-towers are planned, threatening the low-income housing blocks that currently line the East River. In 2016, landlord Jonathan Chu replaced the restaurant where Silver Palace once stood with a 22-story Hyatt Joie de Vivre hotel, boasting that he had realized his grandfather’s “multi-generational vision.” The second floor has an exhibit from the Museum of Chinese in America, of which Chu is a board member. The CSWA’s Ning and fellow activists say it’s an apt metaphor for the Chinatown Chu wants: a museum of relics for wealthy visitors.

Today, the hotel’s glass edifice next to Jing Fong is likely preview of what will replace Chinatown’s last banquet hall. “Us working Chinese people would basically have no job opportunities there. It’s tantamount to Chinatown being destroyed and reoccupied by the big corporations,” Chen said. He worries that the restaurant’s closure means labor standards at rival eateries will plummet and that other Chinatown landlords will follow the Chus’ lead and replace their tenants. “Soon the whole community will have to face eviction,” he said. Jonathan Chu wouldn’t give me specifics on his plans for the space, writing, “What I can tell you is we care deeply for this community. The future of the property will contribute to the vitality and health of our community and we hope this pandemic will be behind us soon.”

The question is whether the rest of us will treat this as inevitable. Was it only the pandemic that felled Jing Fong, or was it policies that have made the area vulnerable for years? Why did restaurants and other businesses have to go months without relief? The fact that Chinatown has hung on without outside help is a testament to residents’ determination, but this community will need targeted aid to make a full recovery. Instead, the government’s inaction has delivered its residents into the jaws of finance capitalists. And unless there is a meaningful change, it will be Chinatown’s landlords, not immigrant workers, who will emerge from this crisis with the leverage to remake the neighborhood for themselves.

In the immediate future, the 318 members are demanding negotiations with Jing Fong’s management and landlord. If their jobs cannot be saved, they’re trying to secure the severance payments promised in their union contracts (Lam would not confirm if Jing Fong has agreed to pay them). They’re wondering what they’ll do once their unemployment benefits run out and what to tell their families.

Either way, Chen told me he won’t give up fighting displacement. There’s too much left to do—like stopping the skyscrapers from encroaching into Chinatown. He just hopes more residents will take notice. “We can’t just think about ourselves, go to work, clock in and clock out. If you don’t stand up for others, then when it’s your turn, nobody will be left to help you.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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