这一系列报道是新主流传媒公司与费城华埠发展会（PCDC）合作，和Sojourner Consulting协同，并获得独立公共媒体基金会（the Independence Public Media Foundation）的大力支持。
This article is the third of a series of nine stories which seeks to increase visibility and understanding of the diverse Asian American communities in the Philadelphia region and their strengths, challenges and histories. Now more than ever, we must ensure Asian voices have a platform to speak out against the issues impacting our communities.
This series is developed by New Mainstream Press in partnership with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and in consultation with Sojourner Consulting, with support from the Independence Public Media Foundation.
Closing down her small Chinatown restaurant, T.T Skewer, was not an easy decision for owner Sunny. With little business due to the pandemic and soaring costs on meat like lamb and chicken, like many others, Sunny struggled to keep up with the changing climate of being a small business owner in Philadelphia throughout the shifting health mandates, COVID-19 caseload surges, and false starts of 2020 and beginning of 2021. Staff shortages also contributed to the shutdown of her beloved business, even after recruiting people from different backgrounds where skewers are not a traditional dish.
T.T Skewer before it closed.Photo credits to T.T Skewer
“We tried delivery services such as Uber Eats but it didn’t work well because the food quality gets worse when doing takeout. We had run the business for 7 years before closing it. It was a sad decision for me, especially because the restaurant started really small and became better throughout the years, and then the pandemic happened.”
Finally, in Summer 2021, as the restaurant scene and city scape resumed a temporary pre-pandemic normal, T.T Skewer closed its doors permanently. Sunny’s experience reflected pandemic challenges of small businesses across the country. Now, in a post-pandemic world, businesses are still experiencing the physical and emotional losses of their businesses, and the ones that remain are facing the reality that even though the pandemic is trickling to a close, they are still facing many challenges.
Small businesses are defined as employing between 10-500 employees. Micro businesses are defined as businesses that employ less than 10 people. They typically earn less than $250,000 annually. While micro businesses is a less commonly used term, out of the 13,000 Asian-owned businesses in Philly, 90% of them are considered micro businesses, with a large amount being independently owned and operated by a single person.
Out of this population, many are first generation immigrants who may not speak English fluently, have not had formal business training, lack awareness of resources or how to navigate through public systems relevant to businesses, and lack access to capital or relationships with traditional capital sources such as banks and lenders .We spoke with multiple owners of small and micro businesses in Philadelphia to hear firsthand how the past two years have affected, and in some cases, ruined their businesses.
沈燕南是一名来自中国的法律系博士生。2019年10月，就在新冠爆发的前几个月，他和朋友在北费城联合创办了一家名叫CSZ Consulting LLC的法律咨询公司。在这个行业，面对面的服务能更有效地建立企业和消费者之间的信任，而通过网络开展法律服务多少让人觉得不踏实。新冠疫情爆发后，面对面的服务无法正常展开，大家不得不转而通过网络寻求服务，CSZ的整体业务已经放缓，而且这一趋势在短时间之内很难扭转，这让CSZ陷入了困境。虽然房东允许他们分期付清疫情期间的店面租金，但这并无法有效减轻公司的负担。
Bruce Holmes, who is a Chinese law student who works for CSZ Consulting LLC, a law consulting firm in Northern Philadelphia, agrees and notes that the difficulty is compounded by changing norms around in-person services. Holmes founded the firm with his friend back in October of 2019, just a few months before the pandemic. Many clients are uneasy about meeting with lawyers and similar service providers online, as studies show in-person meetings build trust between providers and consumers. Holmes says for CSZ Consulting, the landlord has allowed them to pay back rent from the pandemic months in increments, but even that has proven difficult since business has undeniably slowed down due to the increasing move to conducting business online, which has been a trend difficult to reverse.
After the lockdown of all Philadelphia dine-in restaurants was announced in March, 2020, Sunny, the owner of TT Skewer, struggled to pay her business’ rent for nearly 18 months before finally closing her doors in July, 2021. This also was not an option for non-restaurant businesses such as salons and retailers who could not offer their services as a take-out or delivery option.
One major issue businesses have faced is the soaring prices of rent and property costs, and lack of ownership of their spaces. “Ownership of the property is so critical for immigrant businesses,” says Dominic Vitiello, Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Somaly Osteen is the Community Development Specialist for SEAMAAC, and agrees that rent prices were the largest complaint of business owners along the organization’s 65-business corridor, which ranges throughout South 7th Street. The corridor is about 50% Cambodian-owned businesses. Of these 65 businesses, about 55% of them own their buildings.
The South 7th Street commercial corridor
Photo credits to WHYY
The pandemic also cut off an important customer base for many Asian businesses: international students. Bubble tea shop owner Fiona Xu, who is Chinese, recounted how with shockingly rapid speed, her customer base of primarily international students vanished. As of 2019, there were over 15,000 full-time international college students in the city, wirth about 40% of those students being from China. Once schools and universities began transferring their classes to an online format, sales at shops popular with Asian international students such as Mr. Deer the Camp in Chinatown and other dessert and drink shops saw significant drops in business.
Bubble Tea Shop – Mr Deer the Camp in Philly Chinatown.Photo credits to Mr Deer the Camp
Now with college campuses returning to normal in-person schedules, business has slowly started to pick back up again. Business for bubble tea shops comes primarily from younger consumers, so a return to in-person classes has been beneficial for Xu.
During unprecedented times in business management, especially for small Asian-owned businesses. “We always think about making a promotion such as giving coupons or putting up ads but don’t quite know where to start.” says Sunny, looking back at the process of closing her restaurant.
Sunny, who worked in the restaurant industry, was also turned away from financial assistance. As a restaurant owner, Sunny still did not meet the qualifications for assistance, which could’ve saved her business. “Small restaurants like us do not receive a lot of help in this pandemic. You have to meet some standards, such as a certain number of employees, to get better resources from the government.”
The PPP loan states it is available to “any small business with 500 or fewer employees,” but other documentation, such as reports on gross income and employee salary are also needed.
Bruce Holmes says that not every business qualifies for assistance, and the ones that are struggling the most do not know where to access help nor do they meet the qualifications for it. Holmes also noted that certain businesses had unique challenges in receiving government aid.
CSZ Consulting LLC. Photo credits to Bruce Holmes
As a small business of less than 2 years in operation and less than 5 employees, Holmes said that CSZ Consulting did not meet the requirements for extra financial support during the pandemic. Since they were open less than a year prior to the pandemic, they did not have enough documentation to report on revenue and income. When they reached out to the PCDC for help, they were faced with the tough reality that they were not eligible for any nonprofit or government assistance.“This is not very helpful to our business…I think it’s very biased.”
According to a small business credit survey, about 20% of small businesses with less than 500 employees were rejected for a PPP loan, and of this, 4% were businesses that employed only one other person besides the owner. Many rejections were due to insubstantial reporting of revenue, since many businesses were less than two years old.
Fiona Xu did not qualify for PPP the first time applying since the bubble tea shop had only opened a year prior and they did not have enough information to prove their revenues before and after the pandemic. Xu received the PPP loan for her business finally, but claimed it was not enough to keep them afloat against customers changing their consuming habits. They also utilized resources provided by the PCDC, who helped Xu and other Chinese-speaking business owners with applications for different permits, such as an outdoor dining permit, during the pandemic.
Isolation from Mainstream Systems
For some immigrant-owned businesses who are used to operating in a more informal economy, a common practice is to keep some revenue purt away and not report it on taxes. This in turn becomes an issue when businesses needed to prove revenue and income for loan and grant paperwork. “There is a lot of hand-holding when it comes to small businesses,” says Osteen about helping businesses apply for loans with SEAMAAC, “it [income] is in the lock box, it’s not paper.”
Somaly Osteen from SEAMAAC (left).Photo credits to WHYY
Dafan Zhang, who is a professor of entrepreneurship at Lincoln University and a lawyer and small-business entrepreneur himself of a car service shop in DelCo says that this isolation from financial support networks is likely the biggest obstacle in the way of business owners seeking financial assistance.The challenge is for business owners to find support within their social groups and communities that allow them to access assistance.
Dafan Zhang, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Lincoln University.Photo credits to Danfan Zhang
“It’s more of a cultural barrier than a language barrier…it’s hard to build trust with someone who doesn’t understand your culture,” he says. According to Zhang, many Asian business owners prefer to communicate in their native language and with people they can comfortably talk to, which eliminates some of the larger Philadelphia organizations offering financial support.
As a lawyer, Zhang says these deals made with other Asian business owners of loans and funding are then hard to report to higher organizations and even for taxes because of the lack of documentation leading to these deals. “These are handshake deals or IOU’s in large amounts of money.”
斯蒂芬尼·米歇尔（Stephanie Michel）是北五街振兴计划组织（North 5th Street Revitalization Project）的主任，该组织致力于增加Olney地区北五街的商业客流，其中包括许多韩裔经营的企业。
Stephanie Michel is the Director of the North 5th Street Revitalization Project, an organization dedicated to increasing commercial traffic along North 5th street in Olney, home to many Korean businesses.
Stephanie Michel.Photo credits to shopnorth5th.com
Michel noted that during the pandemic, many Asian owners struggled to access information and resources because they did not know where to look. “It takes word of mouth,” to spread information, she says. Many older business owners also could not navigate the online formats to get assistance. However, since government turnaround for assistance programs happened fast, word of mouth was not as effective, especially since businesses were no longer operating in-person. “Our usual means of accessing and sharing information was completely taken away.”
“费城逐渐成为更多移民的城市….但是在新冠疫情期间，费城提供移民企业的资源是不平衡的”，宾夕法尼亚大学城市规划和研究专业的副教授多米尼克·维迪罗（Dominic Vitiello）说，“ 哪些费城市政府机构或非营利组织在为移民企业或一般小型企业提供资源服务，一向不是很明晰……一些企业被隔离在这些资金和资源网络之外。”
“Philadelphia is becoming more of an immigrant destination….and over that time support for immigrant businesses has been uneven,” says Vitiello. “It’s not always clear which city agency or which nonprofits are leading support services for immigrant businesses or for small businesses in general..some [businesses] are isolated from these networks for funding and sourcing.”
Anti-Asian hate and politically-driven fear that stemmed from the pandemic also played a factor in hurting businesses, especially those that catered to demographics outside of just Asian consumers. Business owners noticed a drop in business in Chinatown stores and restaurants back in January and February 2020, far before anyone even considered a lockdown. Sunny followed up with the point that people believed you could get infected with the virus by coming to Chinatown.
The slow pace of business did not stop there, since even when businesses could open back up, Chinatown was still a sensitive area to travel to come the summer months of 2020 with riots starting up. “We did come back and run the business again after a short while of closure,” says Sunny. “But the Black Lives Matter movement began [and] there were riots near Chinatown because there’s a police station nearby.” Korean businesses were especially hit hard with looting, and many had to invest in bullet-proof windows and other protective equipment to avoid further damage to their businesses.
Now as we approach Spring of 2022 and the rescinding of all but federal mask and vaccine mandates in Philadelphia, owners are hoping businesses begin to flourish again.
位于南七街的Ashrey’s Beauty Salon是一家只有一个员工的美发店，店主婕妮·张（Leanghiek Cheung）是一位来自柬埔寨的移民。她在接受采访时表示，美发店的生意正在逐渐回暖。虽然有些顾客仍因为疫情而不敢进店消费，她还是很感谢东南亚互助协会（SEAMAAC）和费城政府提供的PPP和EIDL贷款，使她的小店能在疫情期间“活”下来。为了保证顾客的安全，美发店目前仍然保留着社交距离和戴口罩的规定。
Leanghiek Cheung，the owner of Ashrey’s Beauty Salon, a single-employee-owned hair salon on South 7th Street says, she has begun seeing traffic slowly pick back up in her business. While some customers still have slight hesitations because of Covid-19, she is thankful to SEAMAAC and the local government for providing PPP loan and an Economic Disaster Loan (EIDL) so she could remain open throughout the pandemic months. T. As a precaution， the salon has retained a distancing and mask policy.
Leanghiek Cheung，Owner of Ashrey’s Beauty Salon at her S 7th Street location.Photo credits to Leanghiek Cheung
Some owners are still struggling, especially with the rising costs of products like meat, produce, and fuel. The inflation on products is generating a problem because companies that are already struggling to regain their customer bases are hesitant to raise their prices. This is an issue that has been apparent for all small businesses across the nation.
Furthermore, a labor shortage is happening across the country, with many people refusing to re-enter the service industry due to low pay and long hours. Owners of businesses do not know where to get the funds to increase employee compensation, since nearly all covid-related government loans and grants have reached their expiration date. Asian businesses have faced similar challenges, and some take on the additional challenge of wanting to recruit workers within their language or demographic.
一些组织正在大开脑洞，在后疫情时代为小企业提供更多的帮助。东南亚互助协会（SEAMAAC）努力帮助其65家会员企业在疫情之后恢复元气，比如在社群媒体上投放广告，拓展非当地的客户群, 并开始着手出版和当地餐厅相关的美食书籍。林肯大学（Lincoln University）的创业学教授张大帆也正致力于推出一个众筹平台，为小型企业募集资金。
Some organizations are getting creative with the way they will continue to help their businesses thrive in a post-pandemic world. SEAMAAC is also working on helping their 65 businesses thrive post-pandemic by advertising them on social media to try and increase their customer base outside of the local community and beginning to publish cooking lessons with recipes from their clients and restaurants. Dafan Zhang is in the works of launching a crowdfunding portal to raise money for small business owners, which he hopes will make a difference in Philadelphia’s small and micro business landscape.
According to the statistic tied to 2017 research, small businesses Serves 99.7% of Philadelphia’s economy as the core of the city, which is why it is vital to examine the problems they have been facing both during the pandemic and now. Every business faces their own unique challenges through operation, with property ownership, labor shortages, and language barriers being a common dilemma for many. Despite these hardships, business owners hope to come back stronger than before.
正如北五街振兴计划组织（North 5th Street Revitalization Project）的主任斯蒂芬尼·米歇尔（Stephanie Michel）所说，”亚太裔企业非常有韧性，这些经过疫情仍然生存下来的企业，就是最好的证明。”
Michel concluded, “Our AAPI businesses are very resilient, and I think still surviving [after] covid is a testament for that.”