NYC Chinatown's entrepreneurs turn to Zoom, TikTok to battle COVID-19 pandemic

Brian Cheung
·Reporter
·4 min read
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 11: Lunar New Year decorations are displayed in Chinatown on the eve of the holiday on February 11, 2021 in New York City. Lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, begins on Friday and will conclude the Year of the Rat and begin the Year of the Ox. While the annual Chinese celebration is usually a time for gatherings with family and friends, this year’s events will be limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Lunar New Year decorations are displayed in Chinatown on the eve of the holiday on February 11, 2021 in New York City. Lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, begins on Friday and will conclude the Year of the Rat and begin the Year of the Ox. While the annual Chinese celebration is usually a time for gatherings with family and friends, this year’s events will be limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It's the Lunar New Year and almost a year since New York City — the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic — was forced to lockdown. As the Big Apple reopens, the recovery in the city’s Chinatown has stalled out in a cold, snowy winter, forcing the neighborhood’s young entrepreneurs to get creative to keep their businesses alive.

Once relying on indoor dining and in-store services, businesses are turning to Zoom (ZM) classes and TikTok for alternative revenue.

Michael Tan’s dessert shop Eggloo still has yet to reopen, meaning that it will not have sold its signature Hong Kong-style waffle out of its Mulberry street shop in almost a year.

In the summer, Tan began selling “at home” kits with dry mixes and a custom pan to make the bubble-shaped waffles. Eggloo then stumbled into another revenue stream: hosting Zoom classes for corporate clients using the kits for at-home team building.

“We wanted to take the approach that this is going to be a part of the business even after the pandemic,” Tan told Yahoo Finance, adding that the shift to online still has not fully replaced pre-pandemic revenue levels.

Turning to TikTok

For higher-contact businesses like barbershops, adapting to the pandemic has meant building confidence with its customers that it is safe to come in for a buzz.

At 12 Pell, Karho Leung almost considered closing his barbershop and event space when the shelter-in-place made it impossible for them to be open.

But when hair salons were allowed to re-open, Leung turned to an aggressive social media strategy to pull clients back in: TikTok. Four times a day, 12 Pell’s barbers (wearing masks) post clips, mostly of customers getting fades and undercuts (in a salon now fitted with divider shields).

Some videos have racked up over 2 million views on the platform, reaching new customers and comforting old ones about returning for a cut.

Leung says 12 Pell is getting about 80% of the business’s normal flow of clients. But he still had to raise prices by about 25% in order to cover back rent owed to the landlord.

“We take it week by week and month by month. We don’t even plan out the month. Things can change so fast,” Leung told Yahoo Finance.

Asian unemployment

But businesses owned by those without social media savvy have fared far worse during the pandemic, in Chinatown and the city’s other Asian American communities.

Those without younger generations to lean on also lack translators to work through city guidelines on outdoor dining, or applying for grants and loans.

As a result, permanent closures have left empty storefronts scattered across the city, raising concerns that the pandemic will leave the unemployed with no jobs to return to.

Although the national unemployment rate fell to 6.3% in January, Asian unemployment tilted up to 6.6%, from 5.9% in December. In the depths of the crisis, the steepest job losses were among those with a high school degree or less.

Ahyoung Kim, associate director of small business programs at the New York-based Asian American Federation, told Yahoo Finance that the outlook is bleak with local businesses running out of grant money. As the pandemic persists, Kim said businesses not only need more government support, but for that support to be translated and accessible to Asian communities.

“Our community does not usually beg for assistance,” Kim said. “Culturally, a lot of the time, people think it is a shame...that has changed greatly over the pandemic.”

Another challenge for the Asian American community is the string of attacks across the country, with a sharp spike in the amount of robberies, burglaries and assaults targeting Asians.

“The Chinatown community is on high alert,” Leung told Yahoo Finance, adding that some in the community have been fearful of attacks.

With the vaccine rollout underway, owners are hopeful that a post-pandemic world will bring some return to normal, even if the businesses look slightly different.

“I am a little more optimistic about the culture of the neighborhood,” Tan said, hopeful that new businesses will eventually fill the city’s empty streets.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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