If it weren't evident by the empty streets and walkways, or by the closed shops, the signs on the walls in communities like Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, Japantown in San Francisco, and Chinatown in San Francisco will tell you a story: the pandemic is here, and has left no small business unscathed.
Nevertheless, if you look closer, you’ll find exactly how these businesses, particularly Asian American small business restaurants, have been able to endure.
Signs have been used as forms of marketing communication between businesses and their customers since ancient times, under which their designs, information, and placement would engage with customers (Kellaris and Machleit). Throughout my research, I had a particular focus on this practice, known as signage, through an ethnographic lens; that is, I examined the behavior of the participants (businesses and customers) in the given social situation of posting signs and reacting to them within the context of the pandemic the pandemic. Understanding why businesses showcased their writing on the walls gives insight into what they want their customers to understand, feel, and act, which is exactly what I sought to focus on.
The majority of the signs you’ll see on these businesses are all of the COVID-19 procedures that both the owners and the potential customers must abide by, each with their own direct or indirect consequences. Some signs note that customers aren't allowed to stand or sit in areas in order for the location or restaurant to be considered COVID-safe. Others require physical distancing and mask wearing, while others disallow food eaten inside of complexes to follow city ordinances and act in the interest of public health. Others showcase whether the establishment in particular has passed COVID safety guidelines, akin to a food safety inspection certificate.
Ultimately, these signs that pertain to COVID-19 guidelines aim to keep businesses and their customers operating within health guidelines. Failure to comply with these signs have a direct and significant impact on the bottom line of these businesses.
With customers often unable to eat inside for public health and safety, restaurants have seen drastic drops in business. Mitsuru Sushi and Grill, owned by Mamoru Hanamure in Little Tokyo, noted that his business has only been able to make 25% of the revenue they had before when there was a ban on in-person food service; under indoor dining, it’s at around 50% of pre-COVID business levels (Nakayama).
Under these conditions, restaurant owners find themselves having to deal with buying more takeout packaging, buying cleaning supplies, creating outdoor seating for dining outside of the restaurants, and various air filters and barriers: all of which erode their profitability (Dua, et al.). According to McKinsey and Company, at the national level, almost 40% of small business restaurants operated at a loss or only broke even before the pandemic; the pandemic has made slim operating margins even slimmer (Dua, et al.).
In Japantown, more than 10 businesses have closed up shop for good from the more than 70 small businesses that were a part of the community in 2019 (Kost). Between reduced hours businesses are able to be open for, in combination with the lack of business due to the pandemic, the average store is losing $4,300 a month, while the average restaurant loses $11,000 (Kost). Meanwhile, many of the tenants of Japantown also owe thousands of dollars in rent and maintenance; William Lee’s restaurant, Kui Shin Bo, owes over $20,000 (Kost).
In Little Tokyo, 26 small businesses have shut down, 19 of which were either restaurants, bars, or cafes (Nakayama). In Chinatown, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce noted that the ZIP code that houses most of Chinatown saw 75% of its storefronts become nonoperational at some point last year, in comparison to the city average, under which 54% of all storefronts were nonoperational at some point during 2020 (Rogers).
In combination with the adverse impact of the pandemic, a notable increase in violence and hatred against the Asian American community has occurred; between March 19th and December 31st, Stop AAPI Hate has found more than 2,800 accounts of racism and discrimination targeting Asian Americans across the U.S (Rogers).
Discrimination against Asian Americans has also manifested in forms of misinformed xenophobia. Asian American businesses have seen adverse impacts caused by fearmongering and misinformation that tied Asian American communities with higher chances of getting COVID-19, resulting in less potential customers engaging with Asian American businesses (Walker).
Nevertheless, there are signs that point in a more hopeful direction for the future of these communities. With Anti-Asian hate on the rise throughout the nation within the midst of the pandemic, various non-profit organizations, local advocacy groups, business associations, law firms, and governmental organizations have not only rallied to prevent such hate, but have also helped to host cultural events and directly assist both businesses and the community at large.
In Little Tokyo, the Little Tokyo Community Council’s “Community Feeding Community” program utilized donations and resources to purchase food from struggling local restaurants to give to those who were homeless or who had seen their financial capabilities weakened at the hands of the pandemic (Nakayama). The Little Tokyo Community Center, in collaboration with the US Small Business Administration, Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program, and LA’s Metro has also helped businesses apply for grant and loan applications, as well as help small businesses market themselves with more promotions and a greater online presence (Nakayama).
In Japantown and Chinatown, there are signs plastered on the walls showcasing various community gatherings and projects, as well as potential prizes for those who keep coming back to spend at the malls, with the intent of rallying community members and bringing in tourists to keep businesses afloat. There are also various AAPI community signs rallying against hate, with some even offering legal assistance for businesses that may suffer from hate crimes or if they need to apply for grants or loans.
Signs, as a medium that can be analyzed, serve as a gateway to understand how businesses communicate with their customers. Ultimately, the writing on these walls communicate to customers what the businesses in Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and Japantown have encountered in the wake of both the consequences of the pandemic and a wave of anti-Asian hatred. However, the writing on the walls in the form of these pamphlets are not singularly the bearer of hard times: they also showcase how many in the community have endured, and what work needs to still be done in fighting the pandemic, standing against hatred, and in keeping these communities culture and livelihoods intact.
By: Kai Eusebio Photo Credits: Kai Eusebio