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3rd generation Chinatown restaurateurs share struggle of doing business amid COVID-19

Just as Liz and Brian Yee were celebrating the expansion of their family business, the pandemic hit — causing them to face new challenges they had never before considered.
/ Source: TODAY

Most restaurants across the U.S. and around the world have taken a hit due to closures and decreased dining capacity in the wake of COVID-19.

For Liz and Brian Yee, the pandemic has taken an incredible toll on their restaurant in New York City's Chinatown. Running a family business that's been going strong for three generations, the Yee's have faced much more than dining restrictions over the past year — they've come up against a resurgence of racism that has made them worry not just for their restaurant, but for the future of their young children.

"Growing up in a family business in Chinatown is pretty good just because I got to see my parents a lot," Liz Yee said on TODAY. "I was able to hang out with my siblings a lot inside of the bakery."

Thirty years ago, Liz Yee's grandfather opened Kam Hing Bakery, famous for their beloved sponge cakes. Now, because of school closures due to COVID-19, Yee's own children hang out in the restaurant.

Most restaurants across the US and around the world have taken a hit due to closures and decreased dining capacity in the wake of COVID-19.Courtesy of Liz Yee

In October 2019, the couple expanded the business to open Tonii's Fresh Rice Noodle.

"It's a Hong Kong-style cafe-slash-comfort food," Brian Yee said. "This is honestly the type of food that we grew up on."

Just as they were celebrating the expansion, the pandemic hit, causing them to face new challenges they had never before considered.

"It was just so frustrating just because you take this time to build and renovate this place, and then next thing you know, there's a virus, a 'Chinese virus,'" she said, talking about the prejudice and even violence against Asian communities during the pandemic. "So people are scared to come to your neighborhood," she explained. The Yee's found themselves with mounting bills, debt piling up and faced with the task of their three kids being at work with them every day.

"They gave us hope to stay alive."

"A lot of people who came to Tonii's on Saturdays, would see me and Brian going crazy because you can hear my kids in the background," she explained. She laughed, adding, "You can hear my eight-month-old and her walker running back and forth in the basement.

"For us to run around, trying to get things ready, while serving customers while taking care of the kids and their school, our mind was just blown."

Courtesy of Liz Yee

Anti-Asian sentiments, a fear of the coronavirus and a decline in tourism have resulted in Chinatown reporting profit losses up to 70 percent as early as February 2020. Grassroots initiatives like Send Chinatown Love have helped merchants like Tonii's in creating an online presence to boost revenue.

"If you see such a need in your community, it's more important now than ever to just start helping however you can," said Louise Palmer of Send Chinatown Love. The volunteer-run organization hosted a Lunar New Year digital food crawl which helped to boost business.

"They gave us hope to stay alive," Liz Yee said. "And it was something we really needed a lot during this time."

"We want to just preserve the culture," said Brian Yee. "Storefronts that are in Chinatown 20 years ago aren't here now. And once you don't keep those things going, you kind of lose it forever."

"Chinatown really represents the Asian American experience," said Palmer. "It was created by immigrants who moved to this country and wanted to carve a space for themselves. It's that legacy that has allowed the younger generation of Asian Americans to really create space for themselves here as well."

For Liz Yee and her family, the importance of keeping Chinatown and her business running goes beyond the immediate need for income.

"For us, young adult parents and young adult business owners, we want to preserve the business aspect of Hong Kong-style food," she said. "We want our kids to understand that this is what your grandparents used to eat and their grandparents and so on and so on. We don't want to lose any of that stuff."