By Anaridis Rodriguez

BOSTON (CBS) – Jacqueline Church knows Boston’s Chinatown like the back of her hand. Up until the pandemic, she spent years hosting food and culture tours around the neighborhood.

“This was a tiny little gift shop, that used to always set up a stall here,” Church said as she walked by an empty storefront on Beach Street, the space used to house Chinatown Gifts.

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The souvenir shop is out of business. So is the restaurant next to it, China King. The eatery, known for its dumplings, and Peking duck, shut its doors back in December after months of seeing little to no business.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Church’s business “Boston Chinatown Tours,” has also been out of operation. Much like all enterprises, she’s had to figure out a way to pivot. She connects with the public through her website and social media – sometimes hosting virtual culinary classes.

Web Extra: Jacqueline Church Interview

She’s also using her platform to help raise awareness about what’s happening in the neighborhood. Small businesses are slowly disappearing; Church calls it the consequence of a triple pandemic. She says many businesses are reporting losses of up to 70 percent. Public health restrictions limit the number of guests restaurants can host, foot traffic is light, and most eateries are barely getting by on the little take out business they can get.

“What we have now is the luxury towers going around, so the perimeter of Chinatown is shrinking, the rents are going up. And during this pandemic the xenophobia, coupled with the COVID lockdown rules, the utter lack of student presence, the utter lack of tourism and the emptiness of the office towers means that these restaurants are struggling,” Church said. “I’m sorry to say I don’t think it’s going to look the same a few months out. Certainly, next year it won’t look the same.”

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Located along the southern edge of Downtown, Boston’s Chinatown is a commercial and cultural hub that’s rich with history. Chinese immigrants first settled there more than a century ago, following a wave of Chinese laborers who traveled to the American West for the development of the Transcontinental Railroad, and eventually moved to eastern hubs like New York City and Boston. Today, the dense neighborhood is filled with shops, restaurants and housing.

“We’re the third largest Chinatown [in the country] but we often get forgotten in the national conversation. And we have wonderful, unique, historic things happening here. It’s a resilient neighborhood that’s fought back from everything thrown at it. From the Exclusion Act to all kinds of things that have happened,” said Church.

“Boston’s Chinatown, it’s a real Chinatown. It’s a Chinatown not only in terms of the façade, the restaurants the signage and so forth. It’s got Chinese people living there. It’s a neighborhood and many people call it home,” said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Watanabe says Chinatown’s small businesses need more help from the government and access to relief programs. But he’s also concerned about the threat of racism. Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition documenting discrimination against Asians amid the pandemic, found that more than 3,000 hate incidents directed at Asian Americans have been recorded since March of 2020 — some violent, some verbal. Watanabe says recent anti-Asian sentiments were largely fueled by former President Trump, who often spread misinformation and used terms like the “Chinese virus” – redirecting the blame of the pandemic to Chinese Americans.

Web Extra: Paul Watanabe Interview

“The anti-Asian racism wasn’t invented by the crisis but it certainly, as many things as we’ve understood in terms of race, this crisis has exposed them. And it’s exposed that deep and dirty underside of American history and American attitudes towards this population,” Watanabe said.

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He says one way the general public can rally around the neighborhood is by supporting small businesses with something as simple as ordering take-out. “We can try to provide the kinds of clientele that got scared away, and I think unreasonably, and show their faith and willingness to support them. I think that can have a major impact on both the bottom line and the spirit of Chinatown as well,” Watanabe said. “Look above and beyond street level stores, which are suffering, and they employ many of the people who live there, but there are people suffering. Those are the people whose lives we want to preserve, that’s the Chinatown that’s most important to preserve. The people that call it home.”

Anaridis Rodriguez