Pandemic leaves Edmonton's Chinatown just trying to hang on

The central Edmonton business and cultural district has seen a major slowdown at its restaurants and shops over the past few months.

COVID-19 has endangered multigenerational family businesses

Owner Chip Tang has added a number of safety measures to help protect customers and staff at Hong Kong Bakery. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

A single takeout order is enough to prompt cheers in the kitchen at King Noodle House Pho Hoang these days.

The longstanding family restaurant has seen about a 70-per-cent decline in business since pre-pandemic times, according to Linda Hoang, whose parents have owned the Chinatown establishment for 22 years.

"I could not tell you whether or not we are going to make it through the pandemic," she said. "I think that's a reality for a lot of businesses. I'm trying to stay positive, but that's the truth. We just don't know, there's so many uncertainties. And revenue has dried up a lot."

Like Chinatowns elsewhere in Canada, the central business and cultural district has seen a major slowdown at restaurants and shops over the past few months. Hoang said Chinatown's vibrancy had already begun to slip as Asian grocery stores opened elsewhere in the city. Still, it's home to a number of established family businesses like hers, and she said she has seen many doing their best to adapt.

King Noodle House is doing takeout only and added an online ordering option. Hoang said she has noticed a number of neighbouring businesses launch Instagram accounts in recent weeks. She said it's nice to see innovation, but sad that hard times have prompted it.

"Some places have closed completely because it's just not worth staying open," she said.

Even if restaurants are allowed to reopen soon, she said, her family will have to assess whether it will be worth it, given the cost of meeting regulations and the possibility customers may not be ready to dine in. 

She said her family is grateful for all the support they've received so far, but understands that many people are suffering financially at the moment. Even if someone can't afford to place an order at their favourite small business, sharing your love for it on social media can be a big help.

Linda Hoang says she’s unsure if her family’s restaurant, King Noodle House Pho Hoang, will make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Up the street, Hong Kong bakery owner Chip Tang said he's lucky that he already ran a takeout only shop. Describing the bakery as in "survival mode," with about half as many sales as normal, Tang said he's better off than some neighbours.

"Actually my business is a little bit better than most businesses around here," Tang said. "I think because we own the building so we don't have to pay the rent. And I myself work seven days a week, so I might take a little bit less wages, whatever. I think we'll get through this but it's not going to be without pain." 

The slowdown hasn't only hurt businesses: events, classes and recreational activities like ping pong and badminton have all been cancelled according to the Edmonton Chinatown Multicultural Centre. 

Instead, the centre has pivoted to focusing on supporting seniors and families who have children. 

But COVID-19 is just the latest challenge Chinatown has had to grapple with: in addition to losing customers who now shop at grocery stores scattered around the city, the centre's chairman Sunny Yau said, years of roadway disruptions and decreased parking in the area because of LRT construction have been tough on the area.

Sunny Yau is the chairman of the Edmonton Chinatown Multi-Cultural Centre. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"We hope that in the coming future, once everything is done, settled down, we will see it improved," Yau said.

Years of controversial decisions have been a sore point between Chinatown and the city, said Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen, who represents the area.

From the construction of the large Canada Place on its shoulder to the choice of route for the Valley Line LRT that has meant years of construction and the removal of the Harbin Gate, McKeen said Chinatown has suffered.

"I think it has been unfair, at times, some of the decisions," he said.

There is also a high concentration of poverty and homelessness in the neighbourhood, and though McKeen still supports the safe consumption sites that were opened in the area, he thinks it was "salt in the wound."

Still, he thinks Chinatown remains one of the city's top food districts, and hopes it will be possible to find ways to support the area so that it not only survives, but thrives.   

"I don't think it's all on Chinatown," he said. "I think as a community we have to investigate ways that we can uplift that area."

Long-standing family businesses in Edmonton's Chinatown are facing steep declines in revenue. Some owners worry they may not survive the pandemic. 2:13