In the years after college, my friends and I spent almost every Sunday in Manhattan’s Chinatown. We met for dim sum, circulating between Ping’s and Golden Unicorn and Congee Village. In front of food that reminded us of what we had grown up with, we complained about the work week and joked like our old friends. Bellies satiated, we spent the rest of our lazy afternoon sipping taro boba and savoring thick toast topped with condensed milk. Before heading home, we could go to one of the grocery stores or sidewalk stands to buy Asian vegetables and fruits that we couldn’t find anywhere else, and, for good measure, stop by the bakery. to stock up on pineapple buns, egg tarts and charsiu rolls for the week.
“Chinatown was my home away from home,” Justin McKibben tells me. He is the founder of Send Chinatown Love, an organization that supports small businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “It was the only place I could have a meal that felt like a home-cooked meal in a city that can be very isolated.”
McKibben launched Send Chinatown Love in February 2020, just before cities began to shut down. By then, Chinatowns across the country were already feeling the effects of anti-Asian xenophobia. Family businesses in these immigrant communities, many of which already operate on thin margins, have seen declining customer numbers. McKibben, who lived in Chinatown at the time, noticed that some of his favorite restaurants had closed, unable to pay rent or workers’ wages.
With a background in software engineering, McKibben says his first instinct was to help them by signing them up for food delivery apps or creating websites and social media for them. But very quickly, he realized that what companies needed was money, and fast. Unable to apply or ineligible for government assistance due to their cash-only nature, many desperately needed a way to pay their rent and workers. So McKibben and a small team of volunteers began raising money for businesses, cutting checks directly from them.
“We came in with an idea of how we would help, but we were very, very intentional about making sure we weren’t prescribing help,” says McKibben. While many business owners were initially wary of these young people offering unconditional help, McKibben says taking the time to listen to their needs, as well as being fully transparent in operations and SCL fundraiser, helped gain the trust of an immigrant community that had felt exploited in the past and had learned to expect little from government programs and foreigners claiming to offer help.
Since then, the organization has expanded its offerings of assistance. He organizes food tours to encourage the return of pedestrians to establishments in Chinatown. He organizes a meal donation project in which community members raise funds for meals from restaurants (some with owners who might otherwise be reluctant to receive “handouts,” as McKibben put it) to then serve to food shelters. And yes, it now offers business development services that include website creation, marketing strategies, and online delivery assistance.
When I ask Tsai what she took away from the experience of running Heart of Dinner, she echoes McKibben. “Something Yin and I both learned is to really listen, especially to our elders,” Tsai says. An integral part of their job is to listen to the needs of the people they serve. Every week, volunteers call seniors to remind them that their care kit will be delivered the next day – in case they have forgotten or have another appointment, they may have to reschedule. When these seniors face crises, they also feel comfortable making demands of the team. A man, recovering from an assault, declined offers from the team to raise money for his care and only asked for an extra egg that week in his meal, Tsai says. While anyone might feel the need to push for this fundraiser, the Heart of Dinner team wanted to honor the man’s wishes.