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Lifeline provided in Manhattan’s Chinatown

People line up to receive food donations in Chinatown, Manhattan, during the coronavirus pandemic on May 17. JEENAH MOON/REUTERS

NGOs rally round to ensure food deliveries to needy

Donald Hong, chairman of UA3, an NGO based in New York dedicated to serving the local Asian and Chinese population, painted a grim picture.

Speaking about a group of people living in the Chung Pak complex for senior citizens in Manhattan’s Chinatown, he said, “They have opened up every can they have in the house, trying to stretch them for another day or two.”

Since mid-March, UA3 has teamed up with the Trader Joe’s grocery store chain, other NGOs and city officials to provide badly-needed food to these people. Hong described the supplies as a lifeline for the seniors.

“The problem they are facing is twofold. On the one hand, the seniors, who mostly have various ailments, are afraid to go out in case they become infected. On the other, they are frightened by all the racism that has bubbled to the surface since the pandemic hit this country,” Hong said.

At the height of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City in March and April, when the death toll peaked at more than 800 within 24 hours, everyone-caregivers, attendants and even family members-stopped visiting the seniors.

Sam Wu, superintendent of the Chung Pak complex, said: “The overwhelming majority of the more than 110 residents are in their 80s. We also have a handful of others in their 90s and a couple more who are over 100. Infirm, and sometimes immobile, they were cut off from food sources.”

Beatrice Chen, from Immigrant Social Services Inc, another NGO based in New York, quickly responded to the challenges seniors faced.

She and her colleagues mobilized a group of volunteers, who ensured that bags of fresh produce were delivered to the homes of those badly in need.

Chen said that at the start of the outbreak everywhere was closing-”the butcher’s around the corner, nearby Chinese supermarkets, neighborhood Chinese restaurants, centers for seniors and family associations”.

By mid-March even the pantries that catered to the city’s poor had been closed. “Some of them had still been serving meals. People went in and ate-that was obviously a large gathering. Many more (pantries) simply could not find enough people to help handle and serve food safely,” Chen said.

“We started to realize all the logistical implications if we were to open a standard pantry, where people line up to get their food. Standing in line for half an hour not only exposes seniors to a greater risk of being infected, but also is physically and mentally exhausting,” she added.

The Community First Food Pantry Program now delivers about 250 bags of groceries twice a week to the Chung Pak residents as well as others living in tenement buildings in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where there are huge populations of seniors.

Referring to city councilwoman Margaret Chin, the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, Chen said, “Donald Hong approached Margaret who, thanks to her constituent services, really knows where these hard-to-reach people are.

“Every building has its own rules, and you cannot just drop off fresh produce that could rot and attract rats. We often have to go a day in advance to make sure that the tenants will be at home when we deliver. One thing the seniors really miss is meat.”

Every morning, a Trader Joe’s truck carrying food arrived in Lower Manhattan, and the supplies were unloaded at 2 am.

Hong said: “Think about 50 crates of bananas and 340 crates of eggs. We seemed to be the only pantry in Lower Manhattan dealing with fresh, perishable food, as we wanted to give people a familiar taste.”

All the food was sorted and stored at a 200-square-meter pantry owned by Chung Pak Local Development Corp, and previously occupied by a restaurant that closed due to the pandemic.

A volunteer loads boxes of food for delivery to Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side. OBED OBWOGE/FOR CHINA DAILY

Severe damage

Charles Lai, executive director of Chung Pak LDC, who helped found the Museum of Chinese in America in New York in 1980, said, “Only by joining hands can we possibly reach out to those who are in desperate need of help yet are hiding themselves out of fear.

“The damage our community has suffered, physically and economically, is much more severe than in most other communities. Why? Because we have a president who calls this virus the Chinese virus, and in doing so has repeatedly evoked the country’s (United States) racist history, making it unsafe for us at a time when all Americans need to stand together.”

A report released by the New York Police Department shows that hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans have risen consistently in recent months. City officials and local NGOs suspect that such incidents are underreported.

A paper issued by two NGOs-the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action-said New York state has the second-highest number of cases of discrimination related to COVID-19, after California.

Hong, citing examples of Asian Americans being physically and verbally attacked on the New York Subway, said: “Before COVID-19, 40 percent of the people we served at our Midtown pantry on 26th Street were Asian Americans. That proportion has dropped to below 10 percent, although we now have a line that stretches for three blocks. Members of our community are not coming.”

Lai, the executive director, said: “The impact of COVID-19 was palpably felt here even before it landed on American shores. Back in late January, when we were preparing to celebrate Chinese New Year, people were already staying away from Chinatown and Chinese businesses. After the pandemic, Chinatown will be the last place that people choose to return to.”

Sam Wu, left, superintendent of the Chung Pak complex, and fellow workers distribute groceries from the UA3 Community First Food Pantry to residents. Photo provided to China Daily

Business closures mean lost jobs, sometimes for an entire family, and it is not uncommon for different generations of Chinese American families in Manhattan’s Chinatown to run enterprises such as restaurants.

Early last month, CNN reported that about 147,000 Asian workers in New York state had filed for unemployment benefit in the past four weeks, a 6,900 percent rise over the same period last year. The number of such filings by white workers rose by 1,840 percent and among black workers by 1,260 percent.

Chen, from Immigrant Social Services Inc, said: “I know people who have started rationing food among three generations of a family. Waiting for unemployment benefit-which takes months to apply for-and not knowing when they will get their jobs back, they are trying to make their food reserves last a bit longer.

“You don’t really hear these stories, because they’re not being told. People are also largely unaware of those who are being excluded from most federal, state and local funding resources.”

Some 1,200 meals a week are now being provided by UA3, supported by Trader Joe’s and other sources. In addition to caring for seniors, the NGO provides a home for the deaf in New York and another building for the visually impaired.

Chi Loek, left, and Donald Hong from UA3 prepare for a food delivery. Photo provided to China Daily

Chi Loek, a UA3 board member, said: “We are pushing to expand our services. Food insecurity is going to be with us not just for months, but for years, and will be compounded by other factors, such as housing. What we are doing right now is intended not as an emergency measure, but as a sustainable, long-term solution to a problem that might grow.”

With this in mind, UA3 last week moved its food pantry to Grand Street in Lower Manhattan, where it is expected to reach out to more people in need. The Chung Pak residents continue to be served.

Kathleen Tom-Lew, a third-generation Chinese born and raised in Chinatown, has been working as a volunteer at the Chung Pak pantry since March, and makes deliveries in the heart of Chinatown.

“Originally, we only wanted to serve the elderly, but then other tenants who were out of a job asked to be put on our list,” said Tom-Lew, a co-founder of the New York nonprofit Chinatown Community Young Lions.

Hong and Loek from UA3 scouted Chinatown and other areas of New York to find restaurants serving Chinese food that met the NGO’s standards.

“These restaurants are funded by the city to provide ready-made meals for our program. While the seniors have something that is friendly on the stomach, the money is being funneled to local Chinese businesses,” he said.

Chen, reflecting on the situation in Chinatown since January, said: “Citywide, we’ve never been considered a top priority when it comes to a time like this. Usually, there are other neighborhoods that are much worse-off than ours, but this is different. It’s unprecedented.”

The lives of local Chinese Americans, including active participants in community work, have been lost during the pandemic, including that of Jean Lau Chin, an avid collector of oral histories in Chinatown.

Just two people from the Chung Pak complex-a 97-year-old woman and a 105-year-old man-have died since the outbreak, but neither from COVID-19.

According to an article in The New York Times in the middle of last month, one-third of all coronavirus deaths in the US had been reported among nursing home residents and workers.

Wu, the superintendent, said: “Since early March, we have provided masks to everyone entering the building, including caregivers and volunteers. If anyone leaves the building and then re-enters, we give them a new mask. We also give them protective eyewear and thoroughly spray and disinfect everyone.”

Referring to the seniors, who have been told not to go outside, he said, “We’ve gone out of our way to meet their needs and will continue to do so.”

Tom-Lew, who has been joined by her entire family in volunteering to help the elderly in Chinatown, spoke of the heart-warming response she has received.

“Officially, we are supposed to limit our contact only to those we are delivering to, for obvious reasons. But people wanted to thank us for our kindness by giving us something in return, such as a water bottle. One lady, who is in her 70s and ethnically Chinese, even gave me packs of gum,” she said.

“When the pandemic was raging in late March and early April, tenants would open the door slightly, allowing us to pass through the food bags. However, we often put the bags outside on the floor, knocked on the door and then walked away.

“Before we left the floor, we could hear the squeaky sound of a door opening, followed by a shout down the hallway of ‘thank you’.”

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