Send Chinatown Love

by Kiana Duncan

As New Yorkers, we pride ourselves in a Chinatown that boasts unbeatable food by small mom-and-pops built on grit, hard work, and the immigrants behind the restaurants…”  

New York’s Chinatown is a dense, vibrant neighborhood filled with a vast diversity of food, and a greater range of stories. Unfortunately, it was also one of the hardest hit areas of the city in March due to both anti-Asian prejudice and general lack of business in the wake of COVID-19. Additionally, many immigrant-owned businesses had difficulty accessing government loans due to lack of language access or the assistance of personal bankers in preparation for the application, as well as being cash-only establishments that may not use the same bookkeeping methods as larger establishments 

Send Chinatown Love was built as a response to this by Justin Choe, who works in tech and noticed the transition many restaurants and hospitality industries took in taking products online, taking online donations, or selling gift cards in lieu of products. 

“There wasn’t a structure like this for cash businesses or small immigrant businesses or businesses that weren’t online,” says Marcia Hu, Seller Empathy Lead at Send Chinatown Love. You pretty much were closed and there was no real way for you to communicate things to your audience.” 

Realizing this, Choe assembled his team to start assisting businesses in building websites to take donations and selling products and gift cards online. However, their long-term goal is to build business-owners’ knowledge of the digital world and marketing.  

“I think we can all say, as young folks in the space, that the businesses who really leveraged digital tended to fair pretty well during COVID, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of these cash-only immigrant-owned businesses didn’t have that structure in place when they closed,” Hu says.  

Hu, born and raised in New York, worked with local Asian communities in the city and realized that business owners often didn’t have the means to learn about the digital world, and were more familiar with social media of their native country. That’s where Hu’s team comes in; the Seller Empathy team speaks the languages and dialects of merchants to better communicate the organization’s goal. However, even conveyed in merchants’ native languages, the message wasn’t always met with enthusiasm.  

“The idea of donations is a very strange thing for the immigrant community to grasp, because they’ve been so self-sufficient for so long,” Hu says. While she initially predicted that their organization’s mission would spread through word of mouth in Chinatownthere were cultural obstacles their team hadn’t anticipated. Their pitch to merchants required some fine-tuning for non-native speakers, and business owners were reluctant to admit they wanted or needed help. However, Hu says, children of immigrant merchants tended to be more open to the idea.  

After an initial phone call, if the business expresses interest, Hu’s team meets with them to speak about the business’s goals and interests when creating their online platform. After some merchants expressed interest in learning about marketing and social media, Send Chinatown Love adapted to this interest by creating the Brand Development team, which operates outside of SCL’s platform. This team aids in menu design, creating online accounts to sell products, and digital marketing. Nationwide, the organization now has over 200 volunteers, all hustling during lunch breaks and outside their day job 

As the pandemic progressed, Hu says more business owners realized that operating in these circumstances would take creativity and a bit of risk-taking, and that’s exactly what her team wanted to provide. Long-term, Send Chinatown Love teaches digital literacy and marketing to merchants interested in maintaining an online presence. They currently work with over 20 businesses and are looking to work with more.  

Send Chinatown Love’s strategy has also shifted over the course of their operations. Businesses told them that as much as they appreciated the donations, they wanted to get more foot traffic back into the area more than anything. This was the birth of one of their most successful ideas: a month-long self-guided food crawl. For every $5 customers spent at one of 13 participating merchants, they could unlock local rewards at 10 more Chinatown businesses.  

“We saw really tangible results there,” Hu says. The month-long Manhattan food crawl brought about $30,000 worth of business back into participating merchants“Knowing that our efforts are really coming up with true, tangible results for businesses, it feels so good. 

However, Hu says the “shining success,” of their campaign so far is one that combats hunger while supporting businesses. Gift-a-Meal allows donors to buy vouchers for Chinatown businesses that will later be donated to community partners, who distribute the vouchers to those in need. You can see how Patrick Mock, the manager of 46 Mott, navigated this project here.  

Worth the risk

“It’s definitely been a great opportunity for us to connect merchants with organizations in their neighborhoods that they may not have heard of or may not have worked with before and simultaneously support people in the neighborhood who need food as well,” Hu says. “Your five-dollar donation ends up benefitting so many people along the way.” 

While taking businesses online and helping to drive foot traffic back into Chinatown are providing relief to business owners in COVID’s wake, anti-Asian rhetoric has been on the rise since the pandemic’s start. Hu says working to combat this hate is one of Send Chinatown Love’s core pillars.  

“Obviously it’s hard to do this kind of work by completely isolating it from this big elephant in the room, which is ‘Why is Chinatown struggling in the first place?’” Hu says. She says Chinatown’s small business community has been suffering even before the lockdown, from a culmination of xenophobia, racism, and gentrification.  

Hu says a big part of why this organization’s work is even more important is because of how we use Google to navigate what may be unfamiliar territory. Tourists and locals alike use reviews for restaurants to navigate storefronts and menus in languages other than English. While this is a helpful tool, it prevents business owners from advocating for themselves, restaurants, and food or services. Helping merchants develop websites is a way of combating this xenophobia, Hu says, as it allows them to reclaim their narrative. It allows their vision to take the forefront, rather than allowing reviews to make or break where someone decides to patronize.  

“These merchants are telling you what their product is, why they are restaurant owners, and it’s very different compared to this blanketed image of your immigrant business owner in America,” Hu says. “Everyone has such an interesting and unique story and being able to showcase that through Send Chinatown Love has been really impactful in combatting xenophobia.”  

Send Chinatown Love currently has two projects to donate to. Light Up Chinatown aims to install permanent lanterns on Mott Street to help drive foot traffic back into the neighborhood in the evenings. You can also support Sticky LocalsGift-a-Meal, or make a general donation to Send Chinatown Love.  

Send Chinatown Love uses all open-source code in their website and digital efforts and has connected with organizations all over the country to create positive change. If you’re interested in creating change in your local Chinatown or community, you can reach out at