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Hope shines for retail shop owners in historic Chinatown neighborhood

Business owners believe the easing of the pandemic will prompt people to return to Chinatown and spend their money.

NEW YORK — When you go to Manhattan's Chinatown, there is so much to eat. So much to see. So many things to buy.

"When you come to shop in Chinatown, everything is cheaper because Chinese customers are really frugal," said author and New York City resident Grace Young Grace Young.

The Pearl River Mart Pearl River Mart has had a presence in New York City since 1971. Joanne Kwong is the second-generation owner. Customers can find a variety of items inside Pearl River Mart.

"It's an Asian-American wonderland," said Kwong.

When her father-in-law owned Pearl River Mart the store had products imported from Asia. But just like New York City has changed over the years so has Pearl River Mart.

"We carry goods that are created and designed by Asian-American designers. We showcase artists and authors. Really, it's about the community as well as the products," said Kwong.

Shoppers snatch up a variety of things.

"Nobody leaves the register without getting some tiger balm which is very good for sore muscles," said Kwong.

They have home goods, ceramics, and robes.

"This is a beautiful, a lucky one. The color is red. It has a dragon on it," said Kwong.

Need soap? They have it.

"There's candlewood, Jasmine and Ging sing and Rose," said Kwong.

The tea products are big sellers.

"The rose and flower teas are beautiful because when you put them in water they open," said Kwong.

The pandemic has pummeled Chinatown. Millions of tourists stayed away. Anti-Asian violence soared. Many of the streets were empty.

"I saw all these poor immigrant merchants with no business, and I knew this would spell the end of Chinatown," said Young.

Many legacy businesses closed. Others like Pearl River Mart survived but felt the pain.

"We've had to close stores. We've had to furlough workers," said Kwong.

Today, there is hope. It hovers above the streets. Joanne Kwong and others are beautifying Manhattan's Chinatown.

"Lanterns are beautiful. But those specific lanterns in Chinatown represent something deeper which is the friendship and community coming together," said Kwong. "It just added some safety for our elders walking the streets. It just brightens up the businesses that were nearby. It also created an immediate tourist attraction."

The lanterns became an Instagram sensation. A social media invitation to the world to come back to Chinatown and support businesses in this historic neighborhood.

"We're seeing an uptick in domestic tourism. But the big spenders are international tourists because you're flying all this way. You're paying for the trip," said Wellington Chen, the executive director of Chinatown Business Improvement District Chinatown BID – Chinatown NYC.

Leaders hope the easing of the pandemic will result in a business resurgence, prompting people to show some love in Chinatown and spend their money.

"We need to support mom and pop businesses because they're the backbone of America," said Young.

"I am optimistic about most things and Chinatown is certainly one of them. It is because of this energized younger generation. But also, because there's something that means something very deep to every Chinese American kid who grew up and came to Chinatown on the weekends or maybe with their parents. There's something we want to pass to our kids and our grandkids," said Kwong.

They are optimistic. They must be. Their livelihoods hang in the balance.

The "Spirit of China" series highlights the culture of Chinese-Americans across the United States. Learn about the people, the history and the challenges of Chinatowns in Chicago, New York and San Francisco while the world focuses on the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

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