Neighborhood United

Younger Generations Boost Chinatown–International District Businesses

Digital literacy and cultural immersion have mattered in times of crisis.

By Erin Wong March 19, 2021

Carol Xie took on a digital role for Purple Dot Cafe, the Chinese restaurant owned by her father, Jason.

In January 2020, Carol Xie noticed her father's Chinese restaurant, Purple Dot Cafe, sat oddly quiet. The dining room usually teemed with patrons devouring platefuls of noodles and rice. She checked the sales report, then checked it again. Then she went to her father, Jason, who confessed they were lucky to serve five tables a day.

Purple Dot was hardly the only establishment struggling in Seattle’s Chinatown—International District at the onset of 2020. The district began its pandemic saga weeks before the citywide shutdown, as reports of a novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China, spread in December. The rise in violence against Asian Americans over the next year demonstrated that rhetoric surrounding the virus’s origin reignited existing xenophobia and racism. Language barriers and digital literacy also loomed as invisible hurdles for the neighborhood’s population of older and immigrant shop owners. For many, it was the first time they considered applying for grants, let alone prepared the papers.

The CID Small Business Relief Fund, a partnership between three local nonprofits, responded with a groundswell of translation, consultations, and outreach. The fund distributed over $1 million in grants to more than 160 ground-level shop owners in just over a year. Staff also supported successful applications for approximately $2 million in grants beyond the CID fund, increasing access in particular to Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking owners.

Every grantee, however, still had to fight for customers as foot traffic plummeted and commerce moved online. It was an unfamiliar arena for older business owners—but not for their kids.

The now-archived, 20,000-strong Support the CID—Community United Facebook group saw an outpour of students and millennials posting about their family businesses last year. Some sent links for Venmo donations, while others announced delivery updates.

Xie found herself at a digital and cultural advantage over her dad. “He doesn’t know social media outside of WeChat, Facebook,” Xie says with a laugh. Meanwhile, she charms over 2,300 followers on Instagram with luminous photos of her Pomeranian and Shiba Inu.

When her father admitted the decline in sales, Xie knew what to do. She locked down real estate for Purple Dot online: Instagram, Facebook, a Squarespace website complete with merch.

Ethan and Adeline, the children of Mi La Cay owner Trinh Ong, have divvied up their internet tasks to support the Vietnamese restaurant. Ethan posts updates on Mi La Cay’s Facebook page, while Adeline edits photos of their beaming mom and her mouthwatering dishes, like barbecue pork noodle soup.

Like Xie’s father, Ong didn't tell her children about her restaurant’s financial woes. A first-generation refugee from Binh Duong, Vietnam, she had no idea grants were available online. When she found out, most of the application windows had closed. She broke down in tears when a customer asked about her business in April, when Mi La Cay brought in less than $100 per day. The customer, Hong Torres, wrote about the encounter on the Support the CID Facebook page, earning Mi La Cay 130 takeout orders, and more the following day.

Only then did Ong realize the true power of social media. Soon enough, she began to use her own voice, requesting that Ethan write in support of frontline workers and Black Lives Matter.

Trinh Ong leaned on her children's internet savvy.

Carol Xie has worked shifts at Purple Dot Cafe since 2013, her first year of college, often on weekends during crowded dim-sum hours. To her and many second-generation Asian Americans, helping out at the family business is nothing new. Though her office job means she won’t be able to be physically present at Purple Dot long-term, she runs the restaurant’s social media accounts for a few hours every week and continues to apply for grants and loans on behalf of her dad.

She marvels at how the pandemic flipped the script on the typical immigrant story, in which parents move to the U.S. in search of a better future for their children. They take on odd jobs or open their own storefronts, while their children earn a good education and advance to higher-paid professional careers.

Now, it’s the younger generations who are circling back to help their parents navigate the internet age. “This is just one thing I can do for my tribe, you know?” Xie says, “If that’s all it takes, I’m more than happy to do it.”