The heart of Chinatown may stop beating but its spirit will continue to live on.
Jing Fong restaurant has been the heart of dim sum culture in the Lower Manhattan community for almost three decades. According to the Marketing Manager for Jing Fong, Claudia Leo, “The name in Chinese letters translates to big restaurant,” and with the 20 Elizabeth Street location boasting two floors and about 160 employees, it has certainly lived up to the name. Unfortunately, it was recently announced that due to the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jing Fong will be closing its doors on March 7 and will not be reopening them.
“The pandemic hit our industry and Chinatown really hard. I’m sad and disappointed that we’re not going to be able to survive at 20 Elizabeth Street. This place has meant so much to our family and has been a pillar in the community. We’re very grateful that so many people have supported us for so many years and consider the restaurant such an important part of their lives and the community,” restaurant owner Truman Lam told amNewYork Metro.
The pain of losing this beloved Chinatown staple has hit workers and community members like a slap in the face—some even say they are refusing to let the restaurant go. On March 2, hordes of protesters filled the sidewalk outside Eastbank on 183 Centre Street, which is owned by Alex Chu, the landlord of Jing Fong. Here well over one hundred individuals demanded what they called “the heart of Chinatown” to stay in operation. Now the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side has even sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio himself, requesting that he step in the fight to keep the location afloat.
“You have come out against anti-Asian violence. The closure of Jing Fong Restaurant is having a serious impact on Chinatown. Isn’t this also violence against the Chinese community? Therefore, we call on you to immediately step in and take a stand to save Jing Fong and Chinatown from being destroyed by big developers and landlords like the Chu family,” part of the letter read.
Marketing Manager for Jing Fong, Claudia Leo, told amNewYork Metro that since the announcement was made patrons have been lining up outside the premises on weekends, crying about the closure. She explained how these devoted customers pleaded for the restaurant to stay in operation while others left heartfelt messages on Instagram that the owners can’t bring themselves to read for emotional reasons.
The sad news has not only taken the community by surprise, but it also shocked Leo. In December, Leo started a GoFundMe account to pay for an outdoor dining space. The project swiftly reached its goal and Leo set about painting the patio herself. The day she finished her labor, was the day she learned about the imminent closure.
“I put so much effort into this, I was just like what? I was so sad,” Leo said. With about an 800-seat capacity, relying solely on takeout and 25% capacity was not a viable option to keep Jing Fong in business. Unless every seat was filled each day, Leo says that there is just no way forward. However, there is a small glimmer of hope through which Jing Fong can continue to serve the community.
“We are essentially losing money every month. If we take the loss now and just take whatever we can and then maybe move to a smaller location, we might still be able to stay afloat. Right now, we really can’t stay afloat with 800 seats gone. Fifty percent of the business came from events and banquets and parties and whatever events you can think of we were hosting then,” Leo said.
Although the landlord wanted the space back, Jing Fong will be permitted to continue working from the kitchen while they search for a new, smaller location. This means customers will still be able to order food for takeout but the inside itself will be completely closed after March 7th. Many New Yorkers have reached out to the iconic restaurant with questions on how they can aid in keeping the eatery open, but unless Jing Fong was able to purchase the space outright—something the restaurant believes is an unrealistic goal—they say there really isn’t much anyone can do to help.
“Honestly, we would rather people just save their money and spend it on themselves and their family. The thought is really kind, and we appreciate it. If they really want to do something, they can buy merchandise that way they can hold onto something tangible to hold these memories in their hearts,” Leo said.
Even though the owners of Jing Fong are greatly saddened about the closure and the immense job loss that will come along with it, they hope to establish a smaller location in the future where they can still bring the spirit of dim sum culture to the area. However, this is not enough for community advocates. With the letter now in the hands of the Mayor, it is hoped by the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side that action will be taken.
“Mayor de Blasio should prove that he doesn’t just pay lip service to fighting anti-Asian violence, but to do something concrete to stop the racism and displacement that Chinatown has been facing. Here’s the chance for him to save Chinatown by saving this iconic restaurant from being displaced, lowering the rents and real estate tax for small businesses, and passing the Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan, a community-led effort to prevent the rampant real estate speculation that has been driving up rents and real estate tax in our neighborhood. Also, instead of spending so much money and effort to build a new jail in Chinatown which the Chu family benefit from, he should put the resources to help Chinatown recovery,” Zishun Ning of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side told amNewYork Metro.
In response to the letter a representative from Chu Enterprises provided amNewYork with the following statement.
“The Chus have frozen Jing Fong’s rent for 28 years and they have not collected a dime of rent for the last 12 months. Letters to elected officials don’t change what the restaurant’s owners have made clear themselves: this extremely large space is not sustainable for Jing Fong. The pandemic and federal government inaction have only made this unfortunate reality worse.”
Right now the future of Jing Fong may look bleak, but the owner remains optimistic
“As for the future of jing Fong, we’re hoping for an opportunity to stay in Chinatown and continue to be a part of the community, perhaps at a smaller scale,” Lam said
amNewYork Metro reached out to the Mayor’s office for comment.