In Atlanta’s Chinatown, business owners face unique challenges amid pandemic



“It’s impossible to go on like this,” said Lirong Ma, 67, speaking Mandarin with a lilting northeastern Chinese accent — she hails from Harbin. “Even if I don’t get the virus, I’d sooner or later go mad!”

For months, her custom tailor shop has had little business, and she has struggled to pay the bills. Worse still, she was told that if she couldn’t pay this month’s rent, she’d be evicted or pay extra the following month. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan she had applied for with the help of an agent was only a temporary Band-Aid. She feels that all her effort coming to America looks increasingly like a bubble about to burst.

Lirong Ma’s designer clothing store is one of three dozen businesses in Atlanta’s Chinatown. Standing quietly near the old freight tracks in Chamblee, this Chinatown is not exactly a town, but a small strip mall with beige walls, green roof tiles, and red signage. Opened on Aug. 8, 1988, it was said to be the first Chinese commercial center in the southeastern U.S. Two stone lions guard its front entrance.

Chinese immigrants began to arrive in Atlanta in significant numbers after the U.S. immigration law was revised in 1965, a fruit of the civil rights movement. Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia farmer and governor and the 39th president of the United States, formally normalized diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979, heralding a new era of China’s economic boom and U.S.-China exchanges.

Four decades later, however, it would not be an exaggeration to say that U.S.-China relations are hitting a new low. Lately, the two countries’ top leaders have played tit for tat in trade wars and each has recently closed consulates in the other’s country. President Donald Trump has blamed China for letting the coronavirus pandemic get out of control, and the administration has imposed visa restrictions for foreign workers and international students. Most recently, Trump signed two executive orders to ban TikTok, a popular video-sharing social networking service, and WeChat, the most widely used messaging app among the Chinese.

Many Chinese living in the United States find themselves stuck in the middle of this U.S.-China rivalry in the time of COVID-19, quietly coping with financial distress, visa restrictions, racial discrimination, public health fears and crises of personal identity.

I grew up in mainland China in the 1990s and 2000s, and first heard about Atlanta when it hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. Since I moved to Atlanta in 2016, I’ve regularly swum in the pool used for the Olympics, and sported a Carter-Mondale bumper sticker on the rear of my 1976 vintage car.

About twice a month, I drive my light-yellow diesel car from my home in Midtown to Buford Highway. I pass a small airport, a vibrant Latino neighborhood, a few Buddhist temples, a MARTA station, and arrive at the Chinatown on New Peachtree Road. Lately, new developments with a Ponce City Market vibe are sprouting nearby.

I go there to find niche cooking ingredients and affordable packaged food at Dinho Supermarket, grab a bite in the food court, and chat with different store owners. Unlike the sprawling Chinatowns in New York or San Francisco, Atlanta Chinatown’s quiet space, small garden, and friendly air put me at ease. When I walk through the crammed aisles and smell shampoo and soap, I remember my childhood.



‘Responsibility to serve my community'

Since it bears the name Chinatown — the one and only in metro Atlanta — Chamblee Chinatown remains the destination for many Chinese newcomers. A store owner once told me that when Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, many displaced Chinese families drove north, searched for Chinatown, and arrived here, where the shop owners sheltered and fed them. Chinese people from Kentucky, Tennessee and other neighboring states also make seasonal pilgrimages to Atlanta Chinatown, curing their homesickness with trunkloads of goods.

While the name Chinatown brings Chinese people together in times of need, it has also become a target for racial alienation.

“Because of the sign Chinatown on top of our building, people stopped coming here as early as late January, when Wuhan just entered lockdown but America was still business as usual,” one female shop owner who wished to withhold her name fearing further alienation, told me. “They don’t know that many who work here are not Chinese, don’t speak any Chinese, and have never been to China.”

Although this woman’s shop is on the brink of bankruptcy, what she fears more is publicity. “I know my business is suffering, but I feel very, very tired. I just want to protect my family at this moment, and don’t want to invite any more attention.” A single mother, she spoke gently but resolutely. At the end of May, a small group of protesters came to Atlanta Chinatown to boycott the Chinese businesses. One protester carried a gun. This left her and the Chinese community shaken.

Yet she does what she can to help those less fortunate. She has set up a food counter in the corner of her shop for homeless people to take canned food, toothbrushes, toilet paper and other daily necessities.

“When homeless people come by, none of them take more than they need, even when I offer more,” she recalled with light in her eyes. “Perhaps I do feel a responsibility to serve my community.”



Restaurants hit hard

Dinho Supermarket, standing since 1988 and now run by a couple from Beijing, is doing all right, with customers stocking up on groceries to shelter indoors. The gregarious beauty stylist from Laos who owns International Hair Design also oozes optimism — she has won over enough customers in the past 30 years to sail through this crisis. Spencer Chang, a senior CPA originally from Taiwan, has also maintained a steady clientele.

“Chinese people live frugally, have good saving habits, and quickly adapt to new situations, which helps to cope with unexpected disasters,” Chang said in his office recently. “We are also very cautious; we started wearing masks from the beginning. Of course, it’s a difficult time for everyone, especially restaurant owners. But overall, we are likely to weather the economic downturn from the pandemic. Among hundreds of my clients, only one of them has gone bankrupt due to COVID-19.”

When I visited in late July, Chang’s firm was busy as usual; 10 young employees wearing masks typed away at their desks.

Yet just a few steps away, things were different. At least two restaurants were closed. Food stalls, bakeries, tailor and gift shops have taken the harshest blow of the pandemic. These business owners, many of them new immigrants, expressed financial woes and frustration over what they saw as America’s inadequate measures to curb the pandemic.



Jane Chung opened Family Baking just a little over a year ago. Inside the chic and minimalist shop, freshly baked buns, luscious desserts, decorated cakes, and a variety of cold drinks lie neatly on the shelves and in the fridge. Milk tea and coffee can be ordered at the counter. Chung was just about to launch a marketing campaign and expand her store when COVID-19 hit, cutting her ambitions short. Since walk-in customers are very few now, Chung relies on takeout orders and struggles to pay her workers.

Chung looked anxious but radiated energy. She had been working for 16-hour days that week. “It’s been very difficult for us. Life was so good before the pandemic! I really hope American people could work together to contain the pandemic. If America is ill, we Chinese Americans won’t be well.”

As I stood to leave, Chung offered to give me a free milk tea. I insisted on paying. The Hong Kong-style milk tea with boba and ice tasted delicious.



In the atrium of the building, a traditional Chinese garden breathes under a placid square of sky. On a normal weekend, children jump up and down on the small red bridge to marvel at the red carp swimming in the pond beneath, adults play Chinese chess on the stone tables, and seniors stroll along the low wall painted with the Great Wall. But it is mostly empty now. The carp swim without an audience. A row of stone tables provides outdoor seating for cautious diners.

Inside the food court (mask required), six food vendors (one closed) continue to serve a rich selection of fusion dishes, including roasted duck, pork chop with Peking sauce, fried chicken, sweet and sour bass, hot and sour soup, mapo tofu, and hand-pulled noodles. It smells like Asian street food with a tinge of American and Mexican flair.

Guijie Zhang is the owner of the Sichuan food vendor I frequent. Her husband, the chef, works behind the curtain in the kitchen.

“We were closed for two months, but the landlord ordered us to open in late May, so that we can keep paying the rent,” said Zhang. She had laid off the previous workers and hesitated to hire new ones for fear of further exposure and financial burden. The PPP loan she’d received only helped for two months. She and her husband now toil without a salary.



Zhang told me that her restaurant orders had gone down 70%, but the prices of ingredients had spiked. Before COVID-19, she normally had about 140 orders on a Saturday; now, less than 50. Before, a crate of string beans was around $20; now, over $40.

“But we can’t raise the price on our menu. We mainly serve lower-income customers; it’s a difficult time for everyone,” Zhang said, lowering her eyes.

In the dining area shared by all the vendors, about five or six customers dined sparsely at lunchtime on a recent Thursday. Two large metal fans kept the air in the space well circulated.

Originally from Hebei, Zhang came to Atlanta four years ago to join her husband. “In the beginning, I struggled a lot. But over time, I’ve grown to like this country more and more. People here are very nice and simple, with good hearts, unlike the hyper-competitive culture in mainland China.”



Zhang sees America mainly through the lens of her customers — nearby employees and residents, including many who are African American, Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and Chinese students.

“Who knows when this pandemic will end,” Zhang said. “Luckily, people are much more cautious now. My customers are very good at wearing masks and social distancing. We’ll just have to wait and see when God guides us back to a normal life.”

“Are you a Christian?” I asked, surprised at this discovery. Religion is discouraged in mainland China.

“Yes, I joined my husband’s church when I first arrived. After taking some Bible-study classes, I felt, well, it’s better to have faith.”

While I was talking to her, a white customer came over to order bubble tea. Zhang struggled with her English. I offered to help. The customer explained patiently. We all leaned closer while standing apart, trying to understand each other through layers of accents, masks, and a plastic shield in front of the cashier.

Struggling to fit in — and survive

Outside the food court and to the left, I saw racks of traditional Chinese qipao in bright colors standing in the middle of the corridor, directing my attention to Ms. Ma Custom Tailor. The shop has richly embroidered traditional Chinese gowns covering the walls and boldly designed robes, skirts, coats and pants hanging on the racks. Baby outfits and hats made from dyed silk are particularly eye-catching. Yet no customer was browsing when I visited recently.

“It’s very difficult to do business in America. I worked extremely hard over the past four years and earned a good reputation,” the owner, Ma, said.

“But all the money I made has gone to paying taxes. In America, all you do is pay taxes! And now, the virus.” Ma shook her head while sewing a yellow summer dress, squinting her bleary eyes.

Before coming to America, Ma was a well-known fashion designer in China with 40 years of experience. To support her son as a single mother, she had brought 70 yuan (about $10) to start her career in Shenyang, later running a successful clothing factory and two storefronts.

“For over 20 years, I didn’t need to touch the sewing machine,” Ma said with pride mixed with remorse. “My three dozen workers pedaled for me. But in America, I can’t afford to hire anyone. I have to do everything myself, starting from scratch.” She cut the white threads.



In 2016, Ma came to Atlanta for a fashion design competition and stayed on an O-1 Visa (a nonimmigrant visa for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement). Her business back home was subsequently closed. Her family members remain in China.

“There was no other tailor in Atlanta who could design a decent traditional Chinese gown. I wanted to start a trend,” Ma laughed, pressing her knotted fingers on the yellow dress. When she first arrived, she could not speak any English or drive. When she finally got behind the wheel, she could not see the signs well and often lost her way.

Four years later, Ma still cannot speak much English and drives with great caution. A thicket of linguistic, cultural and legal brambles stands between her and her idea of America, misunderstandings being the daily casualties of her American dream.

I couldn’t help but arrive at the conclusion that Ma would be much better off in China. Though earlier immigrants fled famines, wars and political disasters, today’s China provides unprecedented comfort and stability — if one avoids politics.

Ma seemed to have guessed what I was thinking. “I know, life is so much better in China. I miss my son and my grandson every day. But I can’t go back like this. I need to set a good example for my kids.”

Plus, in the time of COVID-19 and U.S.-China dissension, it is increasingly difficult to secure a plane ticket, get customs clearance, and go through the isolating quarantine periods.

“I’m only in my 60s; I can still work! I’ll be terribly bored if I go back to live with my son,” Ma reassured herself.

As I soon found out, Ma is not alone in America anymore. This past February, she got married. Her husband Ronald is a retired police officer and African American pastor. She made the wedding gown herself, white with lace.

Credit: Contributed by Da Ku

Credit: Contributed by Da Ku

Language remains a barrier between the husband and wife. When talking to her husband, Ma uses a translation app, which often makes mistakes.

“He often looks at me with tears in his eyes, searching for any sign of misunderstanding,” Ma said with a shy smile. “He keeps telling me to say more, ask questions, and double-check the translation.”

She often reminds herself, her Chinese family and her American friends that she and Ronald vowed to stay together for better or worse, rich or poor.

As I stood to leave, a well-dressed man with a sweet smile and a strong build showed up. He was Ronald. I beamed.

“Your wife is a force of nature,” I said.

“Yes, she is a remarkable woman,” Ronald said, eyes gleaming. “I feel very blessed every day. Last year, I prayed to God for a woman in my life. And you know what? A few months later, I met her.”

“Did you come to pick her up today?”

“Every single day.” His smile widened. “It’s my duty to escort my lady home.”

“I bet you are a good driver!”

And we laughed.