When the coronavirus pandemic first struck the United States last spring, Hu Ping, the owner of Taste of China, Chuan Du Hotpot, Steamed Dim Sum and three other Chinese restaurants in Connecticut, wasn’t worried. Seeing China successfully containing the spread of the disease within two months, Hu reasoned that the States should control the disease in the same time frame, given its superior medical infrastructures. But by mid-April 2020, half of all Chinese restaurants in the United States had closed temporarily or permanently, a higher rate than non-Asian establishments.
This piece, however, isn’t concerned with the situation of Chinese restaurants across the nation, but rather the stories of Asian dining specifically in New Haven. We’re bringing to you the voices of the workers and owners of Taste of China, Chopsticks Kitchen, Formosa, T-Swirl and Junzi. In the wake of what has been a frightening and harrowing year for many, including Asian Americans, it’s important for us to recognize and celebrate the amazing resilience of these restaurants and the care they have brought to our city through sharing unique cuisine. Food is love and food is community, and these people know it.
Things were not smooth sailing for all the Chinese restaurants in New Haven. As the number of confirmed cases skyrocketed, Hu Ping began to worry about the health of her employees and the future of her business. Eventually, the inevitable decision was made: Chuan Du was shut down last spring. Then Steamed. Then two other restaurants she owned. Taste of China was next — but Hu hesitated. Her flagship Chinese restaurant has been the icon of authentic Chinese cuisine in New Haven for eight years. For almost a decade, it has served up comfort for Chinese New Haveners and Yale students whenever they were missing the flavors of home.
After Yale shut down and borders closed, some Chinese students were stuck in the States, thousands of miles away from home. “They don’t have a family here,” Hu said in an interview in Mandarin translated by the News. “I can’t just leave without someone cooking Chinese food for them. I need to keep my door open.” Taste of China never closed.
Many of New Haven’s Chinese restaurants have layered meanings to their diners. For people with Chinese heritage, a steaming bowl of food can soothe homesickness, while non-Chinese customers flock to these restaurants to try new dishes and flavors. The founders of Junzi, originally from Northern China, opened the fast-casual noodle joint on Broadway in 2015 after connecting over their shared experiences as international college students. They originally envisioned a menu centered around the authentic flavors of North Chinese home cooking that they had missed during their time studying in New Haven. Soon they expanded to Chinese home cooking in general, adding smashed cucumbers and tomato-and-egg sauces.
Like Junzi, Chopsticks Kitchen on Elm St. was started by a college student — Joyce Li, who was studying dentistry in New York at the time — and initially focused on North Chinese food. Now, they’ve expanded their menu to include popular American Chinese food. Formosa, a destination for both traditional and creative Asian fusion cuisine, has a long history in its North Haven location. T-Swirl Crepe, which touts a menu of almost 30 sweet and savory crepe combos and dozens of hot and cold teas, chose its location on College Street due to New Haven’s vibrant, open and diverse culture.
After Gov. Ned Lamont first issued a stay-at-home order closing all non-essential business on March 20, 2020, Chinese restaurants in New Haven had to adapt to keep their businesses afloat. Junzi shut down in-person dining, but its work continued through takeout and delivery. Chopsticks kept its doors open by switching to delivery and takeout. Some establishments had to modify their menus in order to cope with the fact that suppliers that catered to Chinese dining were hard-hit by the pandemic. As supply chains crumbled, or were otherwise obstructed, Junzi’s menu changed to incorporate more chicken and tofu instead of beef shank and pork as meat prices skyrocketed. T-Swirl switched to emphasizing its easy-to-take-away signature crepes rather than other desserts and drinks.
Many establishments that closed or shut down in-person dining soon bounced back. T-Swirl closed for a few weeks in March 2020 but was able to reopen in April. Jojo, manager at T-Swirl, cites how T-Swirl serves specific needs in the New Haven community, and how much it, in turn, relies on this city. “A business makes money to survive,” she says. “And society needs us.” Formosa, Chopsticks Kitchen and Taste of China reopened in-person dining last September, as soon as regulations permitted them to.
Even while they struggled for the future of their businesses, restaurant owners found ways to serve the broader community. Hu Ping, along with a few members of her staff at Taste of China, delivered free meals to Yale New Haven Hospital after seeing the situation of frontline workers in the news. “I’d been following the news and thinking about what New Haven would need,” she said. She saw the hecticness in Yale New Haven Hospital and sensed the horror and their need for help. She made up her mind, “I’m cooking them food,” without thinking for another second.
But her staff members were concerned, fearing the uncertainty behind the spread of the virus. “I’m going there myself,” she told her staff. A few members immediately joined her.
Thus, in the first months of the pandemic, when people were fleeing New Haven, Hu and her staff members went into the most dangerous area to support the frontline workers. Fully equipped with masks and gloves, they delivered freshly cooked Chinese food through the front gate of the hospital, where all COVID patients were treated.
Nobody on Hu’s staff was infected. “There’s no room for hesitation,” she said. “They needed us.”
Junzi also prepared meals for frontline workers. People could donate the cost of a meal, and the kitchen would get to work preparing and delivering food for healthcare workers. This program helped those on the frontlines of the crisis while providing a steady revenue that allowed Junzi to keep its staff employed.
Other restaurants also focused on the needs of their servers and cooks. Formosa kept all their staff employed, although they did have to shorten shifts due to decreased traffic. Taste of China provided free food and housing for its laid-off workers. “We’re all in this together,” Hu said. “In front of this pandemic, someone has to take a loss.” She decided to take the loss herself, supporting her staff and the local New Haven community despite facing a 70 percent decrease in sales. “I can’t leave them sleeping on the street, simple as that,” she said.
Hu also acknowledged the importance of intangible forms of support during the pandemic, besides food and lodging. “We’re all fighting a war together,” she said, reflecting more on the decision of keeping Taste of China open, “and I’m the commander of the army. If the commander quits, how would everyone else have hope that they’ll survive? I must steer the ship and let everyone know that we got this.”
“It’s like lighting a fire,” she added. “If everyone adds a little bit to it, the fire can sweep across an entire field. But if you blow it off, it would take forever to restart the fire.”
For the most part, Chinese restaurant owners in New Haven were pleased with local and state government responses to the pandemic. Hu Ping was “very impressed by how America handled COVID-19” — citing how people were able to hang on to their jobs, how small businesses were able to borrow money and the unity people demonstrated in the face of unforeseen disaster and tragedy. Jojo at T-Swirl also felt optimistic about the impact of government support, although she expressed some trepidation over the potential effects of inflation. “When people have money, they will spend money,” she said. As a new restaurant, Chopsticks Kitchen fell through the cracks of state and federal stimulus packages. Without tax filings from 2019, the owners couldn’t prove the revenue loss necessary to qualify for aid.
In addition to the pandemic, Asian American communities have also been rocked by a wave of anti-Asian violence and hate crimes. Fortunately, all of the restaurants we interviewed reported that anti-Asian discrimination had little impact on their businesses. But Lucas Sin from Junzi did describe the subtle racism that permeates American attitudes toward Chinese cuisine. Consumers often expect Chinese food to be cheaper than other cuisines. “We can’t charge food with the same value as ravioli,” said Sin. Chinese restaurants have to underprice their food to match customer expectations, meaning that owners and cooks can end up working for less than minimum wage.
Chinese restaurants are diverse, spanning from fine dining establishments like Taste of China, to classic take-away style joints like Chopsticks Kitchen, to newer up-starts like Junzi that are re-imaging what Chinese-American cooking can be. While their menus may differ, all these restaurants demonstrate the spirit and civic responsibility of the Chinese and Asian communities in New Haven. As Chinese-Americans ourselves, it’s heartwarming to see how much they care for New Haven and how much in turn New Haven has been good for them and their careers.
As more and more New Haveners are vaccinated, restaurant owners are reflecting on the challenges of the past year and looking toward a post-pandemic future. “Business is really tough right now,” said Joyce Li from Chopsticks Kitchen. But she has a positive outlook for the future of her business. Li hopes sales at her downtown location will improve once City Hall staff return to work and their out-of-office lunch breaks. She’s also looking forward to connecting with other Asian-owned food businesses. Jojo from T-Swirl summed up the attitude of resilience that got so many Chinese restaurants through this pandemic and will continue to help these businesses thrive in a vaccinated world: “We will focus on our product, our service and hope for the best.”