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Cookbook author Grace Young is on a mission to save America's Chinatowns

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Grace Young is the stir-fry guru - literally. That's her Instagram handle. She writes cookbooks and cultural histories of Chinese cuisine. But three years ago, when the pandemic shut down New York City, her regular trips to Manhattan's Chinatown took on new meaning.

GRACE YOUNG: It was chilling. It was a ghost town. It was apocalyptic. And for the first time in my life, I could imagine life without Chinatown.

FLORIDO: The markets and stores and restaurants of Chinatown neighborhoods across the U.S. were struggling, and Young decided to do something about it. She started simple, posting to Instagram and Facebook, but then her advocacy grew.

YOUNG: I reached out to the media that I knew to get on to raise awareness. I wrote articles for different food magazines. I raised money to try and support legacy restaurants and to feed those in the community who were in need.

FLORIDO: Grace Young has won major awards for her cookbooks before, but now, at 67, she's being recognized for her activism on behalf of America's Chinatowns. USA Today just named her a Woman of the Year. When we spoke, I asked if she could tell us about her favorite restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown.

YOUNG: Oh, that's like "Sophie's Choice."

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

YOUNG: I mean, there are so many. It depends on what you want.

FLORIDO: Yeah.

YOUNG: But let me put it this way. One of my favorites in New York City, I will say, is Hop Lee, spelled L-E-E. It's 16 Mott Street. It's old-time Cantonese food, old-school. It's almost 50 years old. And when I go there, it feels like the kind of restaurant my father used to bring me to in San Francisco's Chinatown. And at lunchtime, you see the postal workers sometimes eating at one table, the schoolteachers from the local PS1. So it's a place that stands for community. And the meals are - they have a prefix at $7.50 for lunch. And I can't even imagine how they make money. They couldn't even be breaking even at 7.50 right now.

FLORIDO: You're in New York City. When you're walking through Manhattan's Chinatown, how do you feel?

YOUNG: Well, until the pandemic, I didn't realize how much Chinatown meant to me. And now I realize it is one of the most special places in the world. In Manhattan's Chinatown, 98% of the businesses are mom and pop - San Francisco's Chinatown, a thousand family-owned businesses. And, you know, mom and pop used to be the backbone of America, and mom and pop businesses have disappeared. And there's no other neighborhood in Manhattan that can boast 98%.

And, you know, before the pandemic, I would have said it tells the Chinese American story, but Chinatowns really tell the story of America. You know, in Manhattan's Chinatown, the Irish, the Italians, Germans, Jews were there even before the Chinese arrived. So this is a sacred part of America's story.

FLORIDO: And so it sounds like while most people were staying away, you kind of - were you visiting Chinatown every day during the pandemic?

YOUNG: Yes. Every single day I would walk into Chinatown.

FLORIDO: How come?

YOUNG: My heart was pulled into Chinatown. And I think that it actually saved me from the pandemic because during the height of the pandemic, as you know, New York City was the epicenter, and we had 700 to 800 deaths a day. And you could constantly hear the sirens. And I think by focusing my energies on trying to help the businesses, it gave me something positive to do. And otherwise, I think I would have just gone crazy from fear. It was a very scary time to be in New York.

FLORIDO: Does it feel like Manhattan's Chinatown and other Chinatowns you've visited across the country have rebounded to the point that they were before the pandemic?

YOUNG: Not at all - they're all struggling. Just last week, Oakland's Chinatown, which is one of the historic Chinatowns, had, I think, three or four restaurants badly vandalized, and I think it's shaken the entire community. Yesterday, I was just reading San Francisco's Chinatown has more shuttered storefronts. And last year in August, there were 50 shuttered storefronts on Grant Avenue. In my lifetime, I've never seen more than two or three. They're - all the Chinatowns across America right now are struggling. And it is so critical for everyone to show up and not just eat in the restaurants, but shop in the markets and the stores and the bakeries because these businesses need our support more than ever.

FLORIDO: You know, Chinatowns aren't the only place where you can go and get good Chinese food, but I wonder if you have a fear about what the loss of Chinatowns could mean for the future of Chinese food in the U.S.?

YOUNG: You know, in April of 2020, CNN reported that 59% of independently owned Chinese restaurants had seized their credit card and debit card transactions, implying that they had closed permanently. And meanwhile, P.F. Chang's had gotten $10 million in PPP loans and announced that their sales had increased. And it made me realize that we could lose all these unique mom and pop Chinese restaurants that are the heart and soul of part of America's culinary landscape and that we will end up with a huge chain when we want Chinese food.

FLORIDO: How many of the country's Chinatowns have you visited?

YOUNG: I have not been - I've just been to the big ones - you know, Chicago, Boston, LA, San Francisco, New York, Philly and D.C. D.C. is down to, like, a half a block.

FLORIDO: Yeah.

YOUNG: And this could happen to all the Chinatowns.

FLORIDO: My favorite thing about the Chicago Chinatown was the coconut buns. And I'm forgetting the name of the shop now, but when I studied in Chicago, I used to run there every weekend and eat and negate the purpose of the run by eating, like, three very fatty coconut buns. And they were - it was the best part of my week.

YOUNG: (Laughter) I know, I know. And it's just so special to go into these shops because it's so humanizing to go to Chinatown. You know, we're so used to going now - Whole Foods, you know, Uniqlo, these big chain stores, they don't even have checkout clerks anymore. You can go into a store when you do go out to shop and not deal with any human beings. But when you're in Chinatown, it's a person-to-person experience. You know, as I said, so many of the businesses are family owned. You see the kids in the back corner doing their homework, and they come out and help their parents at the cash register when they need to. It just - you want them to succeed.

FLORIDO: Well, it's been such a pleasure to speak with you. Grace Young, cookbook author, advocate for Chinatowns - she's been named one of USA Today's Women of the Year. Thanks.

YOUNG: Thanks so much, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FITZGERALD'S "PASSING TRAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.