How these millennial founders raised over $2 million to help Chinatown businesses stay open in NYC
In January 2020, as news spread about an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases discovered in Wuhan, China, something seemed off more than 7,000 miles away in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Businesses were closing earlier, and there was less foot traffic on the typically busy streets around Lunar New Year, recalls Vic Lee, the co-founder of Welcome to Chinatown.
“I had this sense of despair,” says Lee, 31. Lee is a native New Yorker who currently lives in Chinatown and has fond childhood memories of visiting her grandmother’s apartment on nearby Eldridge Street and frequenting Chinatown’s many shops and restaurants.
As the months went on, the Covid pandemic took hold. Former President Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric about what he dubbed the “China virus” spread. Lee was worried about what would happen to the neighborhood and small businesses that were so much a part of her life.
“I can’t lose this community that means so much to me, that has helped to shape me as an Asian-American female,” Lee recalls feeling.
Lee wanted to help. She put out a call on her Instagram to see if anyone would be interested in buying gift cards from local Chinatown restaurants. Lee’s longtime friend Jennifer Tam said she was.
“It started as a simple way to help small businesses and say thank you to essential workers, “and it just snowballed from there,” says Tam, 31.
Together, the pair co-founded an initiative aimed at small business recovery called Welcome to Chinatown.
Since March 2020, Welcome to Chinatown has fundraised over $2 million in donations. It has been reinvested to the community through initiatives aimed at alleviating overhead costs and Covid-related debts, such as back rent, for local small businesses, as well as through grants given to dozens of Chinatown businesses, from salons to jewelers to tea shops, bakeries, cafes and even a ballroom dance studio.
Lee also recently announced she is running on the ballot for Democratic Leader of NYC Assembly District 65D in lower Manhattan.
Here’s how Lee and Tam are helping Manhattan’s Chinatown businesses.