Alan Lau’s family business is one of the oldest in London’s Chinatown. Since the 1970s, the Wen Tai Sun art and crafts store in Soho has supplied decorations for the lunar new year, the most important festive holiday for Chinese people around the world. “Usually this would be the pinnacle of our trading year,” he said.
But last week was “scarily quiet” in Chinatown. Every year the area hosts the biggest lunar new year celebrations outside Asia, a massive tourist attraction for domestic and international visitors. Lau, whose shop supplies restaurants, supermarkets and schools around the country, would normally have sold about 150 boxes of paper dragons for events across the UK’s Chinatowns, from Newcastle to London. This year, he’s sold about 20. “It’s just felt very flat, you wouldn’t have known it was lunar new year,” he said.
This time last year, the UK had just recorded its first coronavirus cases and with conspiracy theories and misinformation about the virus circulating online, Chinese-owned businesses reported a slump in trade as anti-Asian racism and hostility escalated. A year of restrictions later, with the usual street performances – dragon and lion dancing, parades and fireworks – unable to go ahead, Chinatown is coming to terms with the loss of its busiest trading period.
“It’s a very sad, difficult time for us,” said Derek Lim, who has managed the Dumplings’ Legend restaurant on Gerrard Street in Soho for 11 years. Best known for its dim sum, it is one of a scattering of restaurants that managed to stay open as a takeaway. But even with the vast majority of staff furloughed and some orders coming through via delivery apps, it has lost 80% of its trade and is also grappling with the higher costs of importing food after Brexit, Lim said.
Despite moving his business online and selling goods on Amazon, the decline of wholesale trade and high sellers’ fees have also hit Lau’s profits hard, along with Brexit-related problems at the docks. A container of goods for the year of the ox, due to arrive in early January, was still waiting in customs and “will go to waste now”, he said.
As with so many holidays in the last year, the celebrations moved online. The London Chinatown Chinese Association live-streamed performances from previous years and families relied on video calls and WeChat to see in the year of the ox virtually with loved ones. Trafalgar Square, the focal point of London’s festival, marked the occasion with a lantern ox and Nelson’s column illuminated in red and gold.
Since he was seven years old, Lau has been involved in the Trafalgar Square festivities, selling items such as lanterns from a market stall. “It’s really sad for me on a personal level as this is the first year I wouldn’t be involved,” he said. For Lim, it was the first time his family would not be together for the new year. “All we can do is carry on,” he said, adding that he and his sons would FaceTime his wife, who has been in Vietnam since March last year, and his mother, who lives in Malaysia.
Unable to celebrate in the usual way with big family dinners, Lau let off fireworks at home and held Zoom calls with extended family in Hong Kong. He also gave out red packets to younger family members, only this time via bank transfer to their parents, who repackaged the money in the traditional red envelopes.
While communities have made the best of the lunar new year being different this year, the long-term consequences for Chinatown’s businesses remain to be seen. With rent and staff costs high and footfall low as people work from home, even the supermarkets were struggling to plug the hole during lockdown, Lau said. “I fear that many businesses in Chinatown won’t make it through the other side.”