AsiaTown small businesses turn to community to survive

By Hannah Miao

Photo of Karis Tzeng, Xinyuan Cui and Shirley Wong courtesy Midtown CLE

On May 12, staff at AsiaTown restaurant Emperor’s Palace spent hours preparing, boxing and sorting 100 free meals for neighborhood residents. The project was sponsored by the Medworks Unconditional Care COVID-19 Relief Fund, which purchases food and gift cards from local restaurants and grocery stores and distributes them to greater Cleveland community members in need. 

The event was coordinated by Karis Tzeng, AsiaTown Program Manager for Midtown Cleveland, and Xinyuan Cui, the group’s AsiaTown Community Organizer. They delivered each meal with a handwritten note and information about the 2020 census. 

For the owners of Emperor’s Palace, the opportunity was a gesture of hope during a time of crisis. “When we were asked to make 100 meals, we were so happy,” says Shirley Wong, one of the owners of Emperor’s Palace. They were grateful to receive a boost of business while giving back to their community.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, AsiaTown small businesses have faced outsized economic hardships intensified by anti-Asian coronavirus stigma and systemic barriers to resources. Despite these challenges, every restaurant in AsiaTown has now reopened in some capacity. Merchants, herbalists, and salons in the neighborhood have also slowly resumed operations.

AsiaTown small businesses have been able to weather the pandemic so far, but not without heavy lifting from community organizations and neighborhood support systems.

Susan Wong is the Chief Program Officer at Asian Services In Action, Inc. (ASIA), a non-profit serving Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Northeast Ohio. Since the end of March, she has been working on overdrive to support non-native English-speaking small business owners dealing with financial difficulties from the coronavirus crisis.

Over the course of the pandemic, ASIA, Inc. has worked one-on-one with 70 small businesses throughout the region. Typically, they support 20-24 businesses per year. 

Wong has assisted 12 AsiaTown business owners in applying for various loans and grants. With most applications available only in English and via online portals, she bridges language and technology barriers for her clients. Her translation services go beyond word-for-word transcription; she also needs to explain concepts and procedures that don’t exist in her clients’ cultures of origin.

To ensure her clients feel comfortable and supported in the application process, Wong invests hours communicating directly with small business owners over phone calls. Often, she’ll log into portals on behalf of her clients and they’ll fill out applications together over the phone. 

“Even though they have a language barrier, I don’t want our government or society to leave them out,” Wong says. “They exist in this community.”

ASIA, Inc. and Midtown Cleveland operate as a tag team to tackle the unmet needs of AsiaTown businesses. Tzeng sends regular emails with lists of funding opportunities and keeps tabs on owners that have applied for loans or grants. She also circulates information through WeChat, a Chinese mobile messaging platform popular among the AsiaTown community.

When individuals reach out for assistance, Tzeng often connects them to Wong. Tzeng and Cui also work directly with business owners to translate applications and fill out forms.

Tzeng notes that many AsiaTown businesses have found the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program to be the most appealing because it’s a forgivable loan. Several AsiaTown establishments have received PPP or other SBA loans, including Ball Ball Waffle, LJ Shanghai, Number 1 Pho, Dagu Noodle, Sichuan Hot Pot and more. Others continue to apply.

“There are a lot of barriers to taking out loans, especially in the Chinese community or a lot of new American communities,” Tzeng says. 

Emperor’s Palace utilized Tzeng and Cui’s assistance to successfully apply for a $10,000 grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. At the time, there was no Chinese translation for the application. Cui spent an entire Saturday afternoon on the phone with the owners of Emperor’s Palace to apply for the funding.

“We were very grateful. [Xinyuan] helped us immensely,” says Shirley Wong. “Before, it was really difficult and hard to survive. With the money, we were able to continue doing business. It was a huge help.”

Small business owners who don’t seek direct support from ASIA, Inc. or Midtown Cleveland often work with their children, accountants or other trusted partners to fill out applications. Anna Li, owner of Anna Beauty Center, says her daughter helped her apply for several opportunities.

Anna Beauty Center was approved for $10,000 in Cleveland’s first round of emergency pandemic loans, the only Asian-owned business in Midtown that was awarded. Li says she still hasn’t received the money. 

As a self-employed business owner, Li doesn’t qualify for many programs like PPP because Anna Beauty Center doesn’t have a roster of employees. She expresses frustration over the numerous requirements and unclear selection criteria of many funds. “I don’t think these loans are that helpful for small businesses,” Li said. “It’s slow and just adds more work every day.”

Outside of institutional loans and grants, mutual aid-style projects have filled in gaps where other COVID-19 relief has fallen short.

After the inaugural partnership with Emperor’s Palace, Midtown Cleveland and ASIA, Inc. continued collaborating with Medworks to distribute food and gift cards from Koko Bakery, Bo Loong Restaurant and Good Harvest.

Medworks’ circularly beneficial model inspired Tzeng and Cui to organize their own meal distribution program called Feed AsiaTown. Since their kick-off at Wonton Gourmet on May 28, they distribute around 100 free meals from a rotation of neighborhood restaurants each Thursday at noon.

Feed Asiatown is supported by a grant from the Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund. Midtown Cleveland is also accepting individual donations to provide more meals. They predict they’ll have enough funding to partner with every restaurant in AsiaTown that has not already participated in the Medworks program. 

Another new initiative called AsiaTown Sweetheart originated from residents themselves who connected over WeChat. As a way to spread positivity in the neighborhood, volunteers are baking homemade desserts and putting together care package deliveries for community members. AsiaTown residents can sign up to receive a care package themselves or send one to a neighbor. Any extra care packages are dropped off at local businesses as a token of appreciation.

With guidance from Cui, the group successfully applied for the Cleveland Foundation’s Neighbor Up grant. Cui took to Instagram to announce the launch of AsiaTown Sweetheart: “This project is going be super empowering, beautiful, and delicious! Let’s spark the desire for sharing more love!”

Though the coronavirus pandemic has devastated AsiaTown, the crisis has also revealed the strength of community ties and forged new relationships.

Melissa Siegel, Program Director for Medworks, said in an email, “It’s opened up this opportunity for us to partner with organizations we hadn’t otherwise had a chance to work with. This relationship will hopefully continue well into times when we go back to ‘normal.’”

Since starting the AsiaTown Sweetheart program, Midtown Cleveland has received hundreds of new contacts that will help them continue to serve the neighborhood. “It’s really deepened connections to residents,” said Tzeng. “What an incredible way to start reaching out to the community.”

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