May 21--The market at Hong Kong City Mall on Bellaire Boulevard was humming with shoppers on a recent afternoon. A smattering of customers visited the few hair salons and jewelry stores that were open for business.

At Dun Huang Plaza, a two-level shopping center near the core of the region's Chinatown district, the owners of Yumcha Tea House and Bakery were making plans to reopen their dining room, waiting for most of their employees to feel safe enough to return and likely pushing out the day they resume dine-in by another few weeks.

Signs of life are emerging throughout the strip centers and mini malls that dominate the stretch of Bellaire on either side of Beltway 8. But as with the rest of the city, business and retail reopenings have been spotty, and a return to normalcy feels like a distant concept -- perhaps even more so in Chinatown.

Asian-owned businesses in this part of west Houston started feeling the financial drag of the coronavirus earlier than others, and some say their recovery will take longer. Many businesses that are allowed to reopen remain closed. Some have locks on their doors or "for lease" signs in their windows.

Much of the pain is a direct result of the pandemic and the shutdown that came with it. But business disappeared earlier, and employees are shying away for longer, in part because of Chinatown's identity as an international hub. Many who live there have been especially cautious because of the stories they've heard from family in China, where the pandemic hit first, and America, where cases of anti-Asian harassment are on the rise. Meanwhile, some politicians have taken to blaming the virus on China.

Alex Au-Yeung, owner of Maylaysian street food restaurant Phat Eatery in an Asian-focused shopping center in Katy, said Chinatown faces unique challenges to recovery because there's still a perception that it may be a location with a heightened risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

"They're still pretty slow right now in Chinatown, because it's still in the middle of everything -- at least, that's what people think," Au-Yeung said.

Au-Yeung operated restaurants, bars, a karaoke business and a computer company that served food and beverage establishments before opening Phat Eatery in the Katy Asian Town development, and he said that the area's ethnically diverse customer base helped insulate it from the early dips Chinatown businesses saw immediately after the coronavirus began to spread in Wuhan, China.

Lasting impact

About 50 percent of the retail businesses in Chinatown remain closed, said Kenneth Li, chairman of the Southwest Management District and broker of the real estate firm Southwest Realty Group.

Restaurants and dessert shops, hair salons and massage spas and storefront service professionals like tax preparers and travel agents have posted signs on their doors in English or Chinese informing customers of their status. One restaurant excitedly announced it would open on weekends. Others provided future dates at which they would reopen or were unclear about their future.

Without customers, whether because they remain closed or because patrons have yet to return, many small-business owners are struggling to pay rent.

Mike Wong, a commercial real estate agent who represents landlords and tenants in Chinatown and elsewhere, has been encouraging struggling retailers to talk to their landlords. But Asian business owners, he said, generally don't like asking for help.

"Asians are kind of that silent group. We duck our heads and work. We don't talk about our problems," Wong said. "We kind of wait until the very end."

Some landlords have been willing to offer relief. Others have asked for an "overwhelming amount of paperwork," which can be discouraging to small mom-and-pop shops, Wong said.

And many that do want to reopen have found that many employees are not yet ready to risk interfacing with the public.

After a false rumor spread on social media early this year that a worker at one of the area grocery stores had the virus, some employees of the Yumcha tea shop stopped coming to work, said co-owner John Yang.

"Our employees are just afraid," he said. "They're teenagers. Their parents are are really concerned."

For some businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic will mean the end of the road.

Shirley Qing, a real estate agent who works with clients in Chinatown, said she's recently noticed restaurants quietly shopping themselves around. But buyers are looking for deals.

"If they are approached for $1 million, they say, 'What about half a million?'" Qing said.

A restaurant's worth is based on its revenue and expenses, she explained, and the pandemic has made it impossible to know how future revenues and expenses will compare to those the company is currently experiencing and to its pre-COVID baseline.

Li estimated that about 10 percent of restaurants have been looking to sell because of pandemic-related financial challenges.

Strong fundamentals

Still, Chinatown historically has had strong occupancy among its commercial buildings, according to real estate agents. If a business is not able to survive, another was usually waiting to take its space.

"Before COVID if you drove around Chinatown it appeared as if occupancy rates were pretty close to 100 percent," Wong said.

Li said he used to have a long list of clients waiting to get into Chinatown because of the market's established clientele and relatively affordable rent. "There's demand. Always," he said.

Yang and his partners in Yumcha Tea House and Bakery opened their store in Dun Huang Plaza last fall. They had gone to China to study tea shops and learn different drink recipes using fruit and other fresh ingredients. Their plan was to sell teas made with organic ingredients in a store that had a higher quality design than their competitors.

"We wanted to create a really nice space to hang out not just having a tea," Yang said. "We wanted to put a lot of efforts on the interior design to bring out our branding, to be unique."

Even as they struggle with reopening their store -- two of the owners have full-time jobs outside of the business -- the partners decided a few weeks ago to take over another tea shop whose owner has been struggling to stay afloat.

"We actually got it for a really low price because he was really desperate to sell," Yang said.

The new store is in Katy's Asian Town at the northeast corner of Interstate 10 and the Grand Parkway. They plan to open at the end of June.

"This is one of our biggest decisions we had to make during this time," Yang said, "because we don't know what the future will look like."

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