NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than 150 people protested the imminent closing of Chinatown’s only unionized restaurant on March 2, outside the offices of the landlord who’s canceling its lease.
The Jing Fong restaurant on Elizabeth Street, whose banquet hall makes it the largest Chinese restaurant on the East Coast and a neighborhood gathering place called “the heart of Chinatown,” will be evicted March 7 after 28 years of operating there.
“Our members are angered and outraged that you are evicting Jing Fong from 20 Elizabeth St., forcing the restaurant to give up its lease and putting roughly 70 of our members out of work!” 318 Restaurant Workers Union President Nelson Mar wrote in a letter to the landlords, Alex Chu and his son Jonathan. “Your actions will remove good union jobs from Chinatown and severely damage the overall Chinatown economy much worse than what has been done by the pandemic.“
The Chus are the largest landlords in Chinatown, Mar told LaborPress. They also own Eastbank and the four-year-old 21-story Joie de Vivre hotel on the Bowery, around the corner from Jing Fong.
“The landlord shouldn’t be evicting the restaurant at this moment despite the fact they haven’t paid rent,” he said. “The union and its staff are a vital part of the community.”
Before the pandemic, according to the union, Jing Fong drew more than 10,000 customers in a typical week, and the landlord collected not just rent but a percentage of sales, and the restaurant also paid part of the property taxes. That means the building’s owners can’t say they “have no responsibility for the restaurant or the workers,” Mar says.
The union is demanding that the Chus stop the eviction of Jing Fong; let it continue to operate its dining room for the rest of the lease; and work with the union and the owners to keep the dining room open.
The protesters tried to deliver the letter with those demands to the landlords’ office in the red-columned Eastbank building on Centre Street, but were blocked at the door by a police officer.
The Chus did not respond to a phone message LaborPress left at Eastbank. A representative told amNewYork that they did not want to comment.
“Is it really inevitable for small businesses to be displaced by big landlords like Jonathan Chu and Alex Chu in the midst of a pandemic?” Yolanda Lee of Youth Against Displacement asked the crowd. “Is it inevitable that workers should lose their jobs?”
“This is the heart of Chinatown,” waiter Chen Liang told the crowd. Liang, 52, has been working at Jing Fong for 16 years, since the year after he immigrated from China’s Guangdong Province. He lives on the Lower East Side with his wife and two daughters.
“We hope the pandemic finishes and we can have a normal life,” he told LaborPress, speaking through an interpreter. “If we lose our livelihood, it will be hopeless.”
He got laid off in March when the restaurant closed because of the pandemic, went back part-time in October when it reopened at 25% capacity, but was laid off again in December when it reverted to takeout and delivery only.
“During the pandemic it’s really hard to find a job,“ Liang says. And having a union shop makes a big difference. “A lot of the restaurants violate labor law,“ he says. “But for us, we have protections and a more stable life.“
Most of Jing Fong’s workers are immigrants, he adds.
The 318 Restaurant Workers Union began organizing at Jing Fong in 1994, Mar says, when some workers were paid less than $1 an hour, and management stole waiters’ tips. The owners settled a lawsuit by the state Attorney General’s office for $1 million in back pay in 1997, but the union did not win a full contract until 2011. It now represents the about 70 front-of-house staff, such as waiters, bus boys, and dim sum servers.
But the pandemic hit it hard even before the city ordered restaurants to close. Mar recalls that when he went to Jing Fong in February 2020 to celebrate the Lunar New Year, instead of having to wait on a long line, “we just walked right in and got a table.”
The restaurant was a place “for the community to come together,” says Liang. It hosted weddings; school, neighborhood, and religious groups; and the Saturday morning ritual of “yum cha.”
That expression translates as “to drink tea,“ explains Johanna Lee, but it’s about getting together with family and friends, eating, drinking, telling stories, and running into people you know.
“Growing up, it’s regular for your parents to drag you out for yum cha,” she said. “Having a gathering place for the community is so important.”
“Without Jing Fong, you have no Chinatown,” says Liang. “We want people to pay attention to us. We want people to pay attention to the displacement in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.”
“It really does involve the bigger issues of displacement and how developers and landlords end up squeezing workers,“ says Mar.