Amid COVID-19, These Artists Are Making Sure Local Businesses Aren’t Forgotten

Harley Wong
Jun 25, 2020 9:35PM

Marcel Pardo Ariza, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, and Felipe Garcia Jr., Elda from “This Is Weird Without You,” 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely upended society around the globe, but the full extent of its long-term impact on already marginalized populations and communities remains to be seen. The indefinite closure of many local family-owned businesses in response to COVID-19 has, in many cases, added additional stress in areas already combating gentrification.

Bearing witness to their rapidly changing neighborhoods, artists are creating new works to honor and document their communities during this uncertain moment in time. From London’s Chinatown to San Francisco’s Mission District, these artists pay homage to the overlooked small businesses most at risk of displacement, displaying the precariousness of each establishment’s existence and using their platforms to direct support.

Kenneth Lam, Mrs. Wong, London Chinese Community Center from “Humans of Chinatown London,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.


Even with federal assistance in the United States in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)—low-interest loans for small businesses to retain workers and cover pre-existing overhead costs—many minority-owned businesses are ineligible for relief funds. According to an April report from the Center for Responsible Lending, roughly 95% of Black-owned businesses, 91% of Latinx-owned businesses, and 75% of Asian-owned businesses were ineligible for a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union. Resources have instead been diverted to large organizations such as SFMOMA, which received $6.2 million in federal funding.

Without a reliable revenue stream, businesses that have existed for generations in historically Black, Asian, and Latinx neighborhoods may not be able to reopen, paving the way for further redevelopment in these areas.

Chinatown, London

Kenneth Lam, Nancy Tang, See Woo Shopper from “Humans of Chinatown London,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United Kingdom in late January of this year, photographer Kenneth Lam and writer Jenny Lau collaborated to highlight the often-overlooked individuals who make London’s Chinatown what it is today. The series, which launched during the Chinese New Year in January, paired Lam’s intimate portraits of local residents and shopkeepers with Lau’s empathetic writing drawn from interviews with the subjects.

Titled “Humans of Chinatown London,” the project documents the current state of a neighborhood speculated for years to be on the brink of disappearance. Keenly aware of the challenges that Chinatown residents face—from immigration raids to rising rents—Lam and Lau profile neighborhood figures like human rights lawyer Chuen Fat Lam and sales assistant Wendy Choi, who works at the last Chinese bookstore in London.

Kenneth Lam, Wendy Choi, Sales Assistant, Guanghwa Bookshop, from “Humans of Chinatown London,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

“Most of the older generations came with literally no money, and grafted so incredibly hard with humility while tolerating discrimination and social isolation,” Lau told Artsy Editorial. “We often have a Hollywood vision of what the ‘immigrant dream’ looks like: the Kardashian rags-to-riches stories. But most immigrants have just worked very hard to survive and provide for their family—and that’s good enough. More than good enough.”

Chinatown was one of the first neighborhoods impacted by COVID-19. In mid-January, before the first confirmed cases in the U.K., Chinatown businesses saw up to a 50 percent decrease in foot traffic due to Sinophobic fears connecting race with contagion. In February, the number of reported hate crimes against people of Asian descent doubled.

Kenneth Lam, Kelvin Chan, Lion Dancer, Tang’s Pak Mei, from “Humans of Chinatown London,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

“Before quarantine, ‘Humans of Chinatown London’ was something to bring light to the people and business owners of Chinatown,” explained Lam. “But after quarantine, I see it as a way of showing the humanity behind Chinatown [through] stories of immigration, of their families, their passions, their upbringing.”

In addition to navigating an increased number of hate crimes, many Chinatown restaurants have had to either temporarily close and lay off their staff, or attempt to survive on takeaways. In the wake of COVID-19, “Humans of Chinatown London” takes on additional significance by preserving the stories of those whose tireless labor built Chinatown while the neighborhood stands in doubt.

Kenneth Lam, Chef Bing, Dumplings’ Legend, from “Humans of Chinatown London,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

“I think if family-owned businesses were unable to reopen after COVID-19, it would be devastating,” Lam said. “If it wasn’t for my parents and the success of their restaurant, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue photography. These businesses are literally the foundation for Chinese artists like myself.”

It should be noted that the portrait series was commissioned by Chinatown London, a neighborhood resource funded by Shaftesbury, the real estate investment trust that multiple local businesses have cited as responsible for their displacement. “Humans of Chinatown London” then becomes a more complicated testament to this particular moment, imprinted with and implicated by multiple histories of Chinatown and its residents.

Mission District, San Francisco

Marcel Pardo Ariza, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, and Felipe Garcia Jr., Wildhawk from “This Is Weird Without You,” 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

In San Francisco’s Mission District—a historically working-class Latinx neighborhood deeply impacted by the Bay Area tech boom—“This Is Weird Without You” emerged from daily walks taken by artist Marcel Pardo Ariza, California College of the Arts assistant professor Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, and Felipe Garcia Jr. During these walks, they saw their favorite businesses closed and boarded up under the city’s shelter-in-place order in response to COVID-19.

“This is such a vibrant neighborhood, it felt so apocalyptic to hear its silence and see its empty streets,” they said. “While we were at home, we would discuss seeing more signs going up saying, ‘for rent,’ ‘for lease,’ and an increase in moving trucks on the streets.”

Marcel Pardo Ariza, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, and Felipe Garcia Jr., El Rio from “This Is Weird Without You,” 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

As local businesses posted hopeful messages on social media reflecting on their temporary closures, Pardo Ariza, Rodriguez Rivera, and Garcia reached out to collaborate in a gesture of solidarity. Starting with Elda, an Latin American cocktail bar where Garcia bartends, the trio wheatpasted an excerpt of Elda’s message—“This is weird without you”—on the boarded-up storefront. The impermanent nature of wheatpasting (the process of adhering posters to walls with a homemade adhesive consisting of wheat flour and water) in many ways reflects the precarious situation of many small businesses in the Mission.

The project expanded to involve other establishments, including El Rio, a queer neighborhood bar. The trio embellished its façade with baby-pink wheatpaste posters, which read: “Can’t wait to dance the day away with you.” Printed in English and Spanish, the signs speak directly to the local community. The site-specific public art project engages in a visual dialogue with nearby graffiti—overlapping without obstructing tags and seeming to welcome new additions.

Marcel Pardo Ariza, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, and Felipe Garcia Jr., Needles & Pens from “This Is Weird Without You,” 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

“This Is Weird Without You” is melancholic with the awareness that the future is unclear for each of these establishments. Many have had to rely on crowdfunding platforms to support their laid-off or furloughed employees and cover other operating expenses to stay afloat. For years, the Mission has seen a growing number of evictions in tandem with the displacement of family businesses that have been around for decades.

“The worst-case scenario is that companies with capitalist interests will take advantage of the situation and further push away marginalized communities, aggravating the housing crisis that the Bay Area is already facing at catastrophic rates,” Pardo Ariza, Rodriguez Rivera, and Garcia said.

Marcel Pardo Ariza, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, and Felipe Garcia Jr., Loló from “This Is Weird Without You,” 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

“This Is Weird Without You” functions less like a historical document recording the oldest remaining family businesses in the area and more like tender diary entries, paying tribute to the small local bussinesses that are women- and Latinx-owned, as well as the longstanding queer spaces that they frequent.

“I’ve never seen gentrification happen as fast as it does in the Mission,” Rodriguez Rivera explained. “At the same time, the pride and resiliency from the Mission community is always there—active, celebrating, resisting.”

Chinatown, New York

Felicia Liang, March 21, 2020 from “#SupportChinatown,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Felicia Liang, April 19, 2020 from “#SupportChinatown,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Against the preexisting backdrop of encroaching luxury apartment buildings, COVID-19 also threatens to accelerate cultural erasure in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Mei Chau of Malaysian-French restaurant Aux Epices experienced a substantial decline in business as early as January. In Chinese cookbook author Grace Young’s “Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories” video series with Poster House, Chau explained that her employees fear for their safety during long commutes to work due to increased hate crimes against those of Asian descent.

After temporarily closing in March, Young reopened Aux Epices in May out of necessity, like many businesses in Chinatown, but announced its permanent closure earlier this month. Aux Epices’s fate is feared not only by local business owners, but also those who support the longevity of the working-class immigrant neighborhood.

Felicia Liang, March 22, 2020 from “#SupportChinatown,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

One of those supporters is Brooklyn-based artist Felicia Liang. Since March, Liang has been creating fine-line illustrations of recognizable storefronts in Chinatown, color-coding her designs to indicate whether a business is open for delivery and take-out.

“My need to preserve Chinatown initially stemmed from the anxiety of not knowing whether these small businesses will still be there in the future,” Liang explained. “Worst case is that many of the places shutter and are taken up by chains, uprooting many of the immigrant families and businesses that have been staples in the community for decades.”

Felicia Liang, April 14, 2020 from “#SupportChinatown,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

In April, data subscription service Womply reported that Chinese restaurants are by far the most impacted by COVID-19 within the food industry, citing that 59 percent of independent Chinese restaurants across the United States had, at least temporarily, ceased operations as suggested by their nonexistent debit and credit card transactions. Wellington Chen, executive director of Manhattan’s Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, told CNN that only 40 of the 270 restaurants operating in Manhattan’s Chinatown remained open during the month of April.

The food industry accounts for a significant portion of Chinatown’s local economy and functions as a means of survival for many immigrants unable to enter the larger workforce due to language barriers and their immigration status. Titled “#SupportChinatown,” Liang’s series intricately renders these businesses with affectionate detail—from the slightly uneven curtains hanging outside Dahing Seafood Market to the lanterns that line the exterior of 99 Favor Taste Restaurant. Liang draws upon art’s potential in memory-making during a time of immense uncertainty on what Chinatown post-COVID-19 may look like.

Felicia Liang, May 7, 2020 from “#SupportChinatown,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Felicia Liang, April 6, 2020 from “#SupportChinatown,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

“I think that Chinatown (and honestly, the rest of the world) won’t be the same, but I don’t think all is lost. I know Chinatown will find a way to move forward,” Liang said. “The immigrant mentality is one of resiliency and resistance and has empowered future generations, particularly the Asian American community, to give back and fight for it.”

By honoring an overlooked workforce and highlighting the beauty in neighborhoods often dismissed as decrepit prior to waves of gentrification, artists continue to advocate for the preservation of these cultural havens. And their work brings with it the awareness that COVID-19 threatens to accelerate displacement, creating a document of the past and present for communities that fear for their future.

Harley Wong