There is something unfamiliar in the streets of red bollards and lamp-posts between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square: space. There is space in Chinatown’s supermarket aisles, restaurants and bubble tea shops. Hung’s, the restaurant I usually go to for roast duck, is eerily empty. Its staff used to be ‘rude’ in the name of efficiency; none of the restaurants have reason to be efficient now. Chinatown Bakery recently expanded into the shop next door, and used to pack them both out. ‘It’s quieter than usual,’ was all the cashier was willing to concede when I asked about it. Shoppers only just outnumbered staff.
Lo’s Noodle Factory supplies almost all the Chinatown restaurants, as well as the Hakkasan group; no one was cutting noodles when I went there on a Friday afternoon. ‘It’s not just Chinatown. It’s anywhere where there are Chinese people. France, Italy – it doesn’t matter; it’s the whole world,’ said the man handing me my order of char siu bao, red bean buns and cheung fun. Lo’s only just avoided closing last November, when Shaftesbury plc (which owns most of Chinatown) tried to turn it into an electrical substation. The whole area was already under pressure from skyrocketing rents and immigration enforcement raids. The novel coronavirus has further stymied Chinatown’s micro-economy.
Fear is what’s keeping people away. Some are scared of infection, even though the virus isn’t airborne and everyone coming in from affected areas has been quarantined. Others are afraid of virus-related racism. There have been reports of groups of white lads chanting ‘coronavirus!’ A family friend, who leads walking tours in Chinatown, got the heebie jeebies from a man who seemed to be trying to get close to her; she kept moving away; he kept edging towards her; he spat at her, but missed, just. Accounts of children being picked on at school and of abuse being hurled (from a distance) on public transport make it into the papers, both Chinese and English. The contagion is informational.
The Chinese-language newspapers all carry coronavirus stories on their front pages: ‘Chinese people are not the virus,’ one says, ‘discrimination is the virus.’ But discrimination runs rife among Chinese communities, too. On Chinese New Year, I was meant to meet a friend, who’s originally from Hong Kong, for yumcha in Chinatown. But two days before, she changed the location to a restaurant in Zone Four, saying we should avoid being around people who’ve come from mainland China, especially on a day when crowds (even by Chinatown standards) were expected. It’s typical of Hong Kongers, who haven’t forgotten Sars and already view the Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders suspiciously.
Chinatown was established by people who came to London from Hong Kong in the 1960s. Now Mainlanders are setting up shop, as many of the children of the previous generation have found better jobs elsewhere. A major reason people work in Chinatown is that English isn’t a requirement – in fact, it’s harder to make a purchase at Lo’s Noodle Factory with it.
The fault-lines in the larger community have widened, and the mutual xenophobia, along with tourists’ nervousness, has contributed to people’s staying away. The area isn’t completely empty, of course: some people are still going there – both Londoners and tourists – because they haven’t heard the rumours, or they want to ‘support’ the businesses, or they understand the risk is negligible, or because it’s their neighbourhood, a vital part of their lives. With luck, this meagre bunch will be enough to sustain Chinatown until the fever breaks.