Puerto Rico’s Chinese community faces pandemic and xenophobia
By Luis Joel Méndez González | Center for Investigative Journalism
WeChat, a Chinese mobile app similar to Facebook that she uses to text and call, is open on her phone.
Meili Deng, who emigrated in 2010 to work as a visiting professor of Mandarin at Sacred Heart University, connects through WeChat with 1,500 Chinese living in Puerto Rico.
In China, the app is even used to pay online. In Puerto Rico, they use it to communicate with each other and with relatives back in China. WeChat allows up to 500 members per group, and on the island there are three groups of 500 at maximum capacity. Members generally add Chinese newcomers.
Older members use the groups to sell fruit, post job offers or send out news about Puerto Rico and the United States that they translate from Spanish or English to Mandarin. They also coordinate the Chinese New Year celebration that takes place at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras Campus, and share the most recent COVID-19 data.
There are two other WeChat groups, which were created 10 years ago, and bring together people that hail from Cantón, a Chinese province with more than 113 million inhabitants, who live in Puerto Rico.
The US Census Puerto Rico Community Survey showed that in 2019, an estimated 1,843 residents of the island identified themselves as Chinese.
At the Mandarin El Futuro Institute — which Meili opened last year — she offered in-person courses during the first semester of 2020 but the pandemic forced her to go online during the second semester.
The institute is in her house, painted white and gray on José de Diego Avenue in San Juan. Inside there are dozens of boxes of N-95 masks that Deng bought at the beginning of the pandemic to distribute among people over 65. The living room’s white wall contrasts with the red of the traditional Chinese wall lamps. There are books with brightly colored covers and Chinese texts.
Although Deng kept her institute open during the pandemic, the experience of other Chinese entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico was different.
Chinese restaurants estimate significant losses
The economic losses at the Kung Fu China restaurant on Roberto H. Todd Avenue in Santurce increased when the business closed due to the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in March of last year.
Restaurant Manager Angela Feng said the economic impact the establishment faced after Hurricane María was compounded by losses brought on by the pandemic.
Ordinarily, the dining room would fill up with customers at noon buying mostly sushi, she explained. Although they launched special offers, drive-thru service, and safety and hygiene measures, they continued to experience a 70% revenue loss. The manager was hopeful that her finances would improve along the way, as the restaurant had been her and her employees’ livelihood. But this did not happen.
Meanwhile, Estrella Wu, former vice president of the Chamber of Commerce between China and Latin America — an organization that was dissolved in 2016 — said that her TaoPR restaurant is the only source of income for her and her family. So, she did not rule out the possibility of moving from the island in case the economic and labor crisis in Puerto Rico worsens after the pandemic.
She estimated that her business lost 20% of its profits to the costs of protective gear. This was on top of what she spent on platforms such as Uber Eats and FoodNet to try to make up for the loss of 90% of customers who visited the restaurant.
Rosa Nazario Sepulveda, manager of Gourmet China in Canóvanas, said her restaurant experienced economic losses after closing from March to April 2020 because of the pandemic. The decision caused food to spoil, and required them to continue paying for water, electricity and rent despite not using the facilities.
“Because this was an overnight thing, not like a hurricane, which you prepare for, the plantains and meat went bad,” she recalled.
Due to the temporary closure, the employees applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) as well as unemployment benefits through the Department of Labor and Human Resources, said Nazario Sepulveda – who has worked with the restaurant’s owner for 10 years, Yan Juan Chen.
Low customer traffic and the reduced capacity of patrons allowed in their dining rooms, which has fluctuated between 25% and 55% in response to government executive orders, affected all Chinese food restaurants, Yuan Bin Cen, president of the China Chamber of Commerce in Puerto Rico, said.
What helped Chinese retailers and entrepreneurs to survive, despite the losses during the pandemic, was to lead “a conservative lifestyle both in their daily lives and in their personal and business expenses,” he said. Chinese culture, in general, promotes thinking about the future, so it is a tradition to save and support each other.
The executive director of the Association of Asian Youth and Communities (ACYA, in Spanish) in Puerto Rico, Stephen Leung Mok, also said there were Chinese food restaurants that were closed and sold. In part, because their owners emigrated due to the multiple economic challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Chinese food restaurants closed six to eight weeks after the arrival of COVID-19 and experienced a drop in sales between May and June last year, Lueng Monk said. In certain restaurants, the closure was so protracted that they applied for Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans, although it is unusual for Chinese retailers to apply for government aid.
They used the money mainly to pay the rent of their establishments, he said.
Given the absence of specific statistics on Chinese retailers applying for incentives and loans from the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC) or the US Small Business Administration (SBA), the CPI interviewed five accountants who serve this business community to learn about the situation.
Accountant Raúl López Bayron said Chinese retailers on the island who he has offered services to during the pandemic have mostly requested the DDEC’s incentives of $5,000 to $10,000 for small and medium-sized companies for unbudgeted expenses. They have applied for PPP loans as a second option.
López Bayron learned of two Chinese restaurants that closed in that period due to the compounding economic challenges they dragged for several years.
Taxes and refund claims specialist, Francisco Vázquez Pantojas, also said the Chinese retailers he assisted during the pandemic applied for PPP loans. Chinese retailers were “very tight” on money due to the pandemic when they applied for the loans, he said.
Accountants Ana Valentín Torres and Edwin Ortiz, who for several years have provided services to Chinese restaurants, said these businesses requested the PPP to pay employee salaries during the emergency.
While Ortiz believes that federal loans helped these establishments stay afloat, he worries about what will happen when the aid ends.
Accountant Amador Cruz Reyes also said the Chinese retailers he assisted during the pandemic applied for the PPP and that, when they closed their restaurants following the government’s executive order calling for a full shutdown, employees at several of the locations applied for the PUA to tide them over until they reopened.
“Things aren’t the way they were before the pandemic,” he replied when asked about Chinese restaurant sales.
The reduction of hours and the discrimination shown by clients resulted in a drop in sales, the accountant explained.
The Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California released a joint report titled COVID-19´s Employment Disruptions to Asian Americans in which an estimated 233,000 Asian-run small businesses in the United States closed in February to April of last year. It named xenophobia among other reasons for the 28% drop.
Meanwhile, Valentín recalled how some of the Chinese people he offered services to were sad, embarrassed and seemed guilty about the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.
Fear and prejudice surface during the pandemic
Eddie Ng, an employee and successor at La Pagoda China restaurant in Lares, told the CPI that sales there fell between 10% and 20%, specifically from February to March last year. The economic hardship resulted in a reduced payroll for employees, who were offered fewer workdays. The entrepreneur believes the sales drop was due to customer prejudice related to incorrect information about the virus and fear that because they are Chinese, they could spread it.
While he was at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, after a flight from Puerto Rico, Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) officials took his temperature despite being told that he had not been to Asia or Europe. Then they asked him some basic questions, which made him feel strange, especially because of how the other passengers looked at him. Back in Puerto Rico, Eddie Ng entered a pharmacy, and a client asked one of the employees not to let him in because she feared that he would infect her with the virus.
His father was asked if he was infected with the virus and he noticed, for weeks, how customers left immediately after walking into the restaurant and not seeing someone they knew.
After both experiences, he felt fear. There were many times when he wondered if they would attack him as it happened to his stateside peers, simply because of his ancestry. Eddie Ng shared how outraged he felt over this kind of rejection because he was born and raised in Puerto Rico. In his 31 years, he has crossed over between Chinese and Puerto Rican culture, celebrating the Chinese New Year with his mother in New York, studying in a bilingual school, like many young Chinese, and working 12 hours a day in his father’s restaurant. It’s easy to detect his Puerto Rican connection in his accent.
“When the virus arrived here, my father wasn’t so affected [emotionally], although I was,” he said.
“I felt a bit judged by people’s ignorance, although I also understand, because it’s about the other person’s safety. They were a few tough months,” he said.
For Stephanie Leung, daughter of the owners of the Shi Wei Tian restaurant in Manatí, the prejudice against Chinese people on the island began before the pandemic.
“It’s not uncommon for employees to speak to you in English when you go to a store because they assume you are not fluent in Spanish,” she said. When she answers them in Spanish, they are surprised. There have been instances when people have even made disrespectful comments about her, believing that she does not understand them.
One time, while she was at the grocery store, the person behind her in line exclaimed, “Look at this Chinese girl!”. At that moment, Leung remembers that she turned around and looked her fixedly in the eyes to convey that she understood what she said.
Calling her by her ethnicity, instead of her name, is discriminatory, she stressed.
Leung said that her fellow nationals are looked upon strangely, are not properly attended to or are simply not considered.
“When Puerto Rico didn’t had COVID-19 cases (…) the business’ sales were affected because they [customers] thought the Chinese people were to blame and there were always inappropriate comments,” she said, referring to her parent’s restaurant where losses were estimated at 70% and which was closed from March to June of last year.
The prejudice toward Chinese people during the pandemic happened because when the virus was discovered in China, some media outlets called the new strain the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus.” Even though the World Health Organization later named the virus COVID-19, the use of the old name persisted, with former US President Donald Trump as the most notorious case, as he incorporated the term into his daily public speeches.
The Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate advocacy center — a coalition of three academic and nonprofit organizations in the United States established in the wake of the pandemic — confirmed that from March to December last year, 2,808 people reported a racist attack, and 40.7% were against Chinese people.
José Lee Borges, author of “Los Chinos en Puerto Rico” and assistant professor in the History Department of the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, is not surprised by the discrimination that the Chinese food restaurants owners suffered during the pandemic.
He said that the Chinese work in their restaurants for up to 12 and 14 hours, as managers, employees or owners.
“A Chinese person in a restaurant possibly works from Monday to Saturday from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. What time do they have to go out? None,” said the assistant professor.
“People wonder where they are because they’re not seen,” he said. “Well, they’re not seen because they work a lot.”
In his book “Los Chinos en Puerto Rico,” Lee Borges shares that the first Chinese that came to the island experienced painful experiences working on the construction of the central road, the Culebrita Lighthouse and the Tendal de Ladrillos in Ponce. They suffered injuries from dynamite explosions and accidents when removing large rocks. Those who later got their freedom established the first Chinese food restaurants in Puerto Rico during the 19th century.
As it has been documented, the first Chinese people to enter the island were more than 350 inmates sent from Cuba between 1865 and 1880. They were part of some 500,000 Chinese people who arrived in America between 1847 and 1873 as contract workers. These workers were transported under the signing of a voluntary contract to the New World. The guarantee was that they would work temporarily in exchange for certain payments and benefits, which, in many cases, did not happen.
On the island, they are little understood, said Lee Borges. “In Puerto Rico there’s a lot of misinformation on the part of the government (…) especially about the Chinese,” he said.
A lack of statistics makes them invisible
The Treasury Department and the DDEC don’t have a record of how many Chinese people received government incentives during the pandemic, both agencies told the CPI.
The DDEC has no data on the economic impact that COVID-19 has had on Chinese entrepreneurs because the agency does not collect the nationality of the entrepreneurs and manufacturers it attends. Treasury, meanwhile, does not collect information on the taxpayer’s nationality or ethnicity on tax returns or on the economic impact form included in its Unified Internal Revenue System (SURI, in Spanish).
The SBA responded that it could not send the data because it is an information field that is optionally and manually completed in loan applications submitted to that agency, and that during the pandemic, they lack the necessary staff to review the forms individually.
Last September, the State Department’s Electronic Registry of Corporations and Entities showed there were about 131 active Chinese food restaurants and sushi establishments in Puerto Rico. The agency’s figures contrast with a Google search, which showed that there were at least 259 Chinese restaurants on the island. For example, in Moca there are two, although the State Department does not list any.
The discrepancy may be due to the fact that not every entrepreneur has to register their business in the Registry of Corporations, the agency explained. Only those who wish to join, if they meet all the requirements, would be on the agency’s list.
“In the case of Chinese restaurants … it may be that some of them have been established as personal businesses, which is equally valid,” said State Department Press Officer Juan Carlos Hernández.
Professional organizations lack info
Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Miguel L. Vargas Jiménez acknowledged that prejudice has been a stumbling block that Chinese entrepreneurs faced when the pandemic began.
Vargas Jiménez said the Chamber of Commerce does not have member data broken down by nationality and recalled only having had a single Chinese member.
The Executive Director of Puerto Rico Restaurants Association (ASORE), Gadiel Lebrón Sagardía, said the group has only one Chinese restaurant in its enrollment.
Some restaurants in the association have lost 50% of their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. However, he does not know what the economic impact has been on Chinese food restaurants in particular, because for the trade group as well as the government, they are all the same: prepared food businesses.
José E. Ledesma Fuentes, former chairman of the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce’s Asian Affairs Committee — which organized trade missions between the island and Asia in the past — agreed with Lebrón Sagardía that the challenges faced by Chinese restaurants are similar to the rest of the restaurants.
He added that most Chinese entrepreneurs tend to operate and establish their restaurants with their family because trust is important to them.
Some businesses managed to adapt to the pandemic
The Asia Market supermarket is located on Fernández Juncos Avenue, in Santurce.
Lisa Lee opened it in 2002, after owning three Chinese food restaurants in San Lorenzo, Caguas and Hato Rey. When she first moved to the island, many Chinese restaurant owners imported their products from New York through relatives. That motivated her to open the supermarket.
Lisa is a strong, gray-haired, funny and cheerful woman. She speaks Spanish, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. She was wearing a pink mask and a yellow blouse with flowers. She moved to Puerto Rico from San Francisco in 1984 after marrying a Chinese man who lived here.
In the grocery store, across from the cash register and tea kettle, it smelled of dry noodles and soy, as if a Chinese soup package had just been opened.
Her fellow nationals would meet in the afternoons to have tea with her, she said. They talked in their native dialects and watched news about their country thanks to a converter box connected to two analog and two digital TVs.
However, they have not come back since the pandemic began. They were older, so they were among the most vulnerable.
Red, green, yellow, brown, orange, violet and blue products stood out in the Asia Market. They were made in China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Korea. The walls were white, the air conditioning unit was buzzing. The shelves had empty spaces. The refrigerator at the back of the store held unfamiliar foods.
After the first major shutdown that the government ordered in March 2020, Lisa kept her supermarket open with due precautions. She only allowed four customers to enter at a time. Despite the limitations, the flow of customers increased rather than decreased, as it was one of the few stores open in the area. It is not uncommon for her to work more since the pandemic began, since disinfecting the supermarket after closing it at 6:30 p.m. is added to the day.
“I’ve lost 10 pounds,” she joked.
On the wall there is a figure of a man with a red face, a black beard and golden armor. He is the warrior god Kuang Kung, a sage who won many battles, and that the Chinese place in their businesses or in their homes to get success, prosperity and riches, according to the book “Cuchirrican,” by Violeta Chang, a Cuban immigrant of Chinese descent living in Puerto Rico.
The book also tells how, after living in Miami following the triumph of the Cuban revolution, the author settled in Puerto Rico with her husband, Alfredo Louk.
On October 30, 1964, her husband opened the Rex Cream ice cream shop in Guayama. He picked the southeastern municipality for its 45,000 residents, an important criterion for a dessert business to thrive at the time. The brand became popular after more Chinese immigrants established their own Rex Cream ice cream shops in different municipalities.
The key to establishing the ice cream store when they had just emigrated was the teaching of their Chinese parents: “savings are the foundation of capital.”
“My mother used to tell me: if you get a dollar, you can spend 75 cents, but you have to save 25,” she added.
The businesswoman and author with tanned skin, slanted eyes, and auburn hair is sometimes asked if she is Filipina. Her first language is Spanish, but she also speaks Cantonese. She wears the medal of a virgin on her neck.
While we talked, the ice cream shop still looked the same despite having closed two months before the interview. A smell of passion fruit flooded the place whose iron bars looked out on Derkes Street, in Guayama. The owner saw passersby through the bars.
The ice cream shop had resisted 115 robberies, an economic recession in the early 1980s, and the death of urban centers. However, it closed down during the pandemic.
“The business had been dragging since María and for many years,” Aileen Louk, Violeta’s daughter, said.
The first-generation Puerto Rican is the current administrator of the two ice cream stores that remain in the family, located in Guayama and Cayey.
The ice cream shop that generated the most income was a second, smaller one that they had opened in the Guayama public square. Because it is a smaller location, it required less protection and disinfection materials to keep it clean and in compliance with social distancing during the pandemic.
This story was the result of a grant from the CPI’s Journalism Training Institute, with the support of the Ángel Ramos Foundation.