Chinatown was in flux. Then came coronavirus.
By Brian Moy, as told to David Scharfenberg
When my dad came to America in the early ’60s, his first job — first week in Boston — was at China Pearl as a busboy.
Then in 1988, China Pearl came up for sale. The ownership approached my father. They became good friends — offered him the restaurant.
I grew up working there as a helper, a busboy, a waiter. That was my connection to Chinatown, even though I didn’t live in Chinatown. I was there every single weekend. I was there on holidays.
I had a dream of what I wanted to do in terms of my style of restaurant — what became Shōjō. It’s a high-energy place. Very bright, very colorful. Modern Asian food. Hip-hop-inspired dishes — Wu-Tang Ribs is one of our favorites. Starting that restaurant was difficult because nobody understood what we were doing. Chinatown was very traditional. We did not have the luxury high rises. Everything was on the verge. But it wasn’t there yet.
When the coronavirus came, Chinatown business was hit the hardest, fastest. At the end of January, the beginning of February, China Pearl’s business went to zero overnight. A lot of the traditional [Chinese-American] customers, they had firsthand accounts of what was going on in China. They had family there, they had friends there. They were scared.
We started talking to some of our neighbors, and their businesses took dips as well. The ones that sort of remained the same were the ones like Shōjō that focused on non-traditional people. For Shōjō, we didn’t close until the first of March.
I don’t see Chinatown really coming back to life until it returns as a full neighborhood, meaning that, if all the businesses are open, then it becomes a destination again. Right now, the feeling of Chinatown is ”I need to come in, get my supplies; I’m coming in and I’m getting out of there.” It’s still got that very odd feeling.
Long-term, it’s going to come down to policy. Student visas, immigrant status — all those type of things are going to affect Chinatown greatly. The last five, six years, we’ve had a huge influx of international students — specifically students from Asia. And Chinatown has changed a lot of its stores to cater to this business. So what I see as the big concern is now that Chinatown has turned to their palates and their wants and needs, if that market disappears, then those businesses can’t survive.
Brian Moy is the owner of Shōjō and Ruckus and co-owner of China Pearl.