Founded over four decades ago, the historic Jing Fong banquet hall is Chinatown’s only unionized restaurant and the New York neighborhood’s largest, seating 800 guests in its second-floor dining room and serving as many as 10,000 per week. The dim sum parlor is also a longtime host of events and fundraisers supporting local cultural organizations like Triple Canopy and Creative Time, holding special significance for the art world.
After Jing Fong announced its permanent closure, members of the arts community joined the restaurant’s staff in a rally today, March 2, to pressure landlord Alex Chu and his son, Jonathan Chu, to help salvage the legendary Chinatown institution. Approximately 200 people gathered in front of Eastbank at 193 Centre St., owned by the Chu family, chanting and holding placards that read “Chinatown is not a museum” and “Don’t destroy Chinatown.”
“We are here to stop businesses from closing and workers from losing their jobs because of greedy landlords and financial capitalists like Jonathan Chu, who supposedly care for the community,” said Zishun Ning, a filmmaker and organizer with the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, addressing the crowd. “Where are all the politicians who claimed to be against anti-Asian violence? Where is Mayor De Blasio? Where is Margaret Chin? Isn’t this violence?”
The Chu name is well-known in the neighborhood. Luxury real estate developer Jonathan Chu owns the 50 Bowery Hotel directly adjacent to Jing Fong and is co-chair of the Board of Directors at the local Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).
The Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), a collective of Asian American and Asian diasporic identifying artists, has frequently called for Chu’s removal from the board, citing the developer and his family’s contributions to gentrification. The museum has also come under scrutiny after its board accepted $35 million from the city as part of a “community give-back” deal to build a new jail in Chinatown.
“We’re supporting the struggle because we understand that the Chu family, the dynasty, has been gentrifying Chinatown since the 1960s,” Betty Yu, a co-founder of CAB, told Hyperallergic at today’s demonstration.
In 1998, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against the New Silver Palace Restaurant in Chinatown, a 900-seat dim sum parlor that went bankrupt and was bought and reopened by Jonathan Chu. Former unionized servers of the restaurant said they had been questioned about their union activities when they tried to re-apply for the jobs they had lost, and discriminated on the basis of their union status.
“They are using artwashing and culturewashing to incarcerate Black and Brown folks and to displace Chinese-American working-class people, and to bust a union. Because let’s face it, this is a union-busting activity,” Yu said, adding that Jing Fong was one of the few restaurants where arts nonprofits could host events with the knowledge that its workers were unionized and protected.
The 318 Restaurant Workers Union, which represents roughly 70 Jing Fong dining room staff, claims the Chus have done nothing to stop the restaurant from sinking, rejecting pleas to forgive rent.
Claudia Leo, a spokesperson for Jing Fong, told Hyperallergic that China Arcade LLC, the company owned by the Chus, had “offered some rent relief.” Leo explained that the imminent closure was the result of plummeting revenue during the coronavirus pandemic. The parlor’s business model requires seating hundreds of people at once to make a profit, which virus safety measures prohibit.
“With 800 seats in the restaurant, it’s just impossible. Business has been down 85 percent — it’s not a typical 25 or 30 percent,” Leo told Hyperallergic. “It’s hard for us to sustain ourselves, no matter how many deliveries we make. It’s becoming harder and harder for us to survive.”
Jing Fong’s hardships are far from unique amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The restaurant industry has been ravaged by the public health disaster in the US and in New York in particular, where rents were already skyrocketing pre-pandemic. According to one survey, more than half of NYC’s restaurants were in danger of closing permanently by December 2020.
In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, Jonathan Chu said that Jing Fong’s rent had remained the same since 1993 and the restaurant had not paid rent for the last 12 months. (Jing Fong told Grub Street that the Chus “wanted the space back” prior to the pandemic.)
“Nobody has tried harder to keep Jing Fong in this space than we have,” Chu said. “My family has been loyal patrons of Jing Fong for decades, standing shoulder to shoulder with employees on holidays and during important life events. We are saddened by this pandemic and the unemployment that has resulted from inadequate federal, state and local support for workers and small businesses.”
Around 150 people are employed at the restaurant, which is due to close its dining hall at 20 Elizabeth Street on March 7. It will continue service from its second-floor kitchen for takeout and delivery until further notice, according to an announcement.
“When places like these close, you lose a lot of history, and I don’t want to see Chinatown become another museum,” said Leanne Gan, an artist who attended today’s rally. “I think it’s important that artists also stand in solidarity with the workers and the spaces that we occupy.”
Jing Fong’s closure comes as hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans are on the rise. Deepening anti-Asian sentiment was yet another challenge faced by Chinatown restaurants during the pandemic, many of which were forced to shutter for good.
“Our number one goal has been to serve our community with authentic Cantonese cuisine, and whatever the future holds, we’ll continue to work harder and hope for the best,” said Leo. “Hopefully we’ll have more dim sum to warm our hearts.”