Houston Chinatown Restaurant Owners and Officials Battle Malicious Rumors — Updated
—By Phaedra Cook and David Leftwich
Since at least January 28, unfounded rumors about the novel coronavirus have been hurting restaurants and other small businesses in Chinatown — also known as Asiatown and the International District. Some business owners in the area are reporting that sales are down as much as 80 percent.
“All Chinese restaurants in Asian dining destinations that have a large Chinese clientele are affected,” said Mala Sichuan owner Cori Xiong. “There’s not a single exception. Actually, it’s all businesses in Chinatown — clinics, travel agencies, supermarkets, hair salons, spas — everybody!”
Trouble began on January 28, when, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, rumors of a coronavirus case in Chinatown began spreading first on Chinese social media app WeChat and then on Twitter and Instagram. The Houston Chronicle also reported on Thursday, February 6 that fear and false rumors are continuing to cause consumers to stay home and avoid businesses in Chinatown.
An employee of Niu Jiao Jian Hot Pot, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said “Our restaurant has been hurt because of a lot of rumors. People just are pranking [sic] this situation. We keep our restaurant very clean and keep our standards high for our health inspections. We have like three tables [of customers] a day and we are normally packed. Our restaurant is pretty big. A lot of popular Chinese restaurants are hurting in this situation, including a lot of big names.”
There are unconfirmed reports that some Chinatown restaurant owners are considering temporarily shuttering and laying off workers because they can’t afford to pay staff. When asked about these concerns, the employee of Niu Jiao Jian said, “The people who are our teammates — we don’t want to leave them with a tough time. It’s costing us, both financially and mentally.”
Area business owners and stakeholders, along with public health officials and political representatives, have been working hard to reassure consumers that the Bellaire corridor and Southwest Houston are safe. Harris County and Houston officials have stated that of the 12 cases in the United States confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are no confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in Houston or Harris County.
Update, 2/13/2020, 6:50 p.m.: One case has emerged in San Antonio; a person who has been in quarantine since returning from China. The total count nationwide has only increased by three cases, bringing the total to 15.
This point was emphasized at a press conference on Friday, February 7 in front of Great Wall Supermarket in Chinatown by Dr. Umair Shah, Executive Director of Harris County Public Health; Gene Wu, Texas Representative for District 137, which includes much of Southwest Houston; and other officials. Wu stated, “We’re here to remind the community to watch out for misinformation, for purposeful lies and for people using this as an opportunity to do harm to businesses and the community.”
Several factors, including building Highway 59 through old Chinatown east of downtown, falling real estate prices in the 1980s and increased immigration from Southeast Asia, lead to the development of a new Chinatown along Bellaire between Gessner and what is today Beltway 8. The business corridor evolved as Asian businesses, especially those focused on the Vietnamese community, spread along Bellaire west of Beltway 8. This area is sometimes referred to as Little Saigon and was officially recognized as the International Management District in 2007. (The businesses east of Beltway 8 are represented by Southwest Management District.)
Today, the two neighborhoods are now often considered as one business corridor and both have been affected by the problems. In fact, representatives from both the Southwest Management District and International Management District addressed concerns at the press conference. Kenneth Li, chairman of Southwest Management District, said, “It’s not only Chinatown. The Asian business corridor is six miles [long]. We have Korean, Vietnamese — all kinds of Asian food. I want people to be aware that it is safe here. Come back to this area.”
Wea Lee, chairman of the International Management District, added, “About 20-some years ago, on Bellaire Boulevard there was nothing. Today, there are hundreds of businesses that we created.” Addressing the downturn in business, he said, “This is our home. People here are suffering.”
Stakeholders from the area, including Li and Lee, are planning to form a task force to address the concerns of both businesses and consumers. Also, the officials repeatedly stated that the public should be more concerned about this season’s flu virus, which you can contract anywhere and can be prevented by getting your flu shot, regularly washing your hands and sneezing and coughing into a tissue or your arm. Since the CDC thinks that coronavirus, like the flu, is spread by person-to-person contact, the last two prevention methods apply to both.
Officials also encouraged restaurants to take proactive steps such as having plenty of hand sanitizer on hand for both employees and customers. Both small and large containers of the product were made available free of charge at the conference.
Wu and others also continued to warn of the ongoing dangers of false rumors and encourage everyone to first verify any claims about contravirus with Harris County Public Health, Houston Health Department and the CDC. Not only do these false rumors hurt local businesses, they can also fuel certain long-held negative stereotypes about Chinese-Americans and Chinese food, as former Houstonian Doug Wong recently explained in the Washington Post.
But as the press conference setting highlighted — Chinatown’s Dun Huang Plaza, which houses one of the largest concentrations of restaurants in Houston — the area is safe but in need of business. Wu, who has been eating in the area almost everyday during the crisis, stated, “Asiatown — southwest Houston — is safe. This is a safe area to be, this is a safe area to shop and to take your friends and family for lunch or an even-better dinner.”
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.