Hidden Gems: Chatting with Justin McKibben of Send Chinatown Love
If you’re breathing a sigh of relief that some of your beloved, off-the-grid Chinatown restaurants are still in business, Send Chinatown Love could be to thank. The volunteer-run organization is the brainchild of software engineer and Chinatown resident, Justin McKibben. McKibben, 27, along with 26 core volunteers, have helped raise over $20,000 for seven immigrant-owned Chinese restaurants by building them online platforms to sell gift cards and to receive donations during COVID-19 closures.
Last month, McKibben chatted with us over Google Hangs from his hometown in Lubbock, Texas, where he was spending quarantine with his family. Below he shares his top five Chinatown eats, how to problem solve for low-tech businesses and imagining a Manhattan without Chinatown.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Bowery Boogie: You live in Chinatown, right?
JM: Yeah, I live in Chinatown off of East Broadway and Rutgers.
BB: It’s been really quiet here. But right now there are helicopters that hopefully you can’t hear, looking at the protest over at Worth St.
JM: Oh my.
BB: It’s been kind of intense, but I’m glad that you can be with family and how amazing that you’re able to do this service from far away to help [local] restaurants. So, what’s your favorite thing about living in Chinatown?
JM: I love the mix of both the art and culture as well as the food. I think Manhattan’s Chinatown is actually very underappreciated for the art it has. It’s a little bit more real and more grungy. I don’t know. I really love the culture there.
BB: Tell me a little about the lightbulb moment to start putting your efforts into Send Chinatown Love and to focus specifically on non-English-speaking, immigrant-owned restaurants.
JM: Back when everyone was trying to hoard food because they weren’t sure if grocery stores were going to close down…Everyone was going to Trader Joe’s to wait for 45 minutes in a line but I just went to Chinatown grocery stores and there were a lot of people, but there was no big horrible line. So I bought some stuff from there and got some non-perishables…Then, some of my friends were buying frozen dumplings from 88 Lan Zhou and other dumpling places. I thought, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” So, the following day, I went to 88 Lan Zhou. I go there all the time…And I walked by it and I didn’t see it….And then I looked around and I noticed it was actually just closed—like, covered with garage doors.
I looked around and was like “what’s going on,” and I saw a sign posted that said something along the lines of “Dear customers, we are really sorry but in the last couple of weeks amidst Covid, we’ve seen a slow down in our business and we decided to close down. We don’t know how long it will be or whether or not we’ll open up, but we had to shut down because we weren’t seeing enough business.”
I think that was the a-ha moment that I realized that Chinatown is closing down and it’s really kind of only affecting Asian businesses at the current moment. This was back before there were any mandated shut-downs.
BB: I see.
JM: I was like, how can I give money to support 88 Lan Zhou because I go all the time and I love this place. I could start a GoFund me, but I had no idea who to give the money to. I can’t just leave cash at their door, that won’t work. Over time, I saw a bunch of other businesses slowly close and it was alarming some of my other friends. That was just the start of the idea.
BB: So how did you start outreach? I’ve read some things about business owners not necessarily asking for help. That culturally, it’s sometimes stigmatized to ask for help. So how has your experience been with outreach?
JM: That is very true. It’s stigmatized to ask for help. In our initial week that we started Send Chinatown Love, we had no idea what we were going to build. And what we did first was like, let’s call all the merchants we possibly can and see if we can knock on doors and say “Hey, if we could raise money for you, would you be down to accept it?” That was when we kind of realized this problem was going to be a lot harder to solve than we thought it was. You go to any other American restaurant and say “Hey, we’ll give you free money,” they’re like “Ok yeah, just give it to me.” Some responses we got from merchants were, “We still have a roof over our heads and we’re not starving, so we don’t want to accept money.” [They were like] “If we have to close our businesses, then that’s something that we have to do. But we have a savings and we’ll be able to make due.”
Sort of the big struggle was that we had to emphasize the importance of their business to us and to Chinatown. It’s not a survival thing, it’s [more] your business and what it provides to me and the happiness it brings to our friends and this community, and in whole, New York City. It was definitely a big struggle, it’s something that we had to overcome over time. In our initial weeks, we’d reach out to 30 different merchants and out of all of the merchants, none of them wanted to accept donations.
Then we were like, “well, what about gift cards?” It’s sort of like a short term, no-interest loan. People were more down to accept that, but the things that they were hesitant about was the technology involved and how it would make redemption complicated…I think the bulk of the engineering that was involved in making the Send Chinatown Love gift card system wasn’t really tech engineering. It was coming up with a really simple analog workflow to essentially make the merchants comfortable enough to be willing to accept selling these gift cards.
BB: Smart. What are your top five places that you would suggest people go?
JM: I work in Soho, so I go to May Wah often for their fried chicken or their fried pork.
BB: So affordable.
JM: Yeah, it really is. I live down the street from Taste of Northern China, which is kind of like the authentic version of Xi’an Famous Foods. It’s a little bit less known, but it’s really good. And also really affordable. King’s Kitchen is also an amazing one. They have a braised, caramelized pork belly, it’s super-delicious, they serve it in a clay pot…88 Lan Zhou is my favorite dumpling place in Manhattan that I’ve found so far.
I also find myself going to Friendship BBQ very often, which actually just opened up. I know that they’re based in Flushing, they may or may not be a chain. They have Chinese BBQ skewers. Since they just opened up, their Manhattan location isn’t too popular yet, so me and my friends have found ourselves going once a week and ordering a ton of skewers. Another thing people don’t know is that they are BYOB, they don’t advertise it but if you bring in beers, they’ll let you drink them. It’s a really cool social place to go to.
BB: You mentioned that it feels like a little taste of home to eat at these places, what else do you really love about them and Chinatown that is special and worth saving?
JM: I just love the little hidden gems sprinkled around Chinatown. [There are] Chinese eateries, and what-not but also these cool little boutiques [for] whatever you’re looking for. Regardless of whether you are Chinese or of Asian descent, everyone can appreciate Chinatown and its cheap eats and I think in that essence, it brings a lot of people together. I actually didn’t grow up with much of my Asian culture and I didn’t really start feeling Asian until college. But I do feel like being in Chinatown there is a sense of belonging, even though it’s not necessarily something that I grew up with.
I can’t imagine a world where Manhattan’s Chinatown were to disappear. I think it’s such a unique place. In the hustle and bustle of New York where New York is advancing, neighborhoods are getting gentrified, everyone is moving on to tech, there’s still this one little area where everything is still spread around word of mouth. People are still using pen and paper. There are still these little tiny hidden gems, places that have the best braised pork belly or places with super-cheap BBQ skewers that nobody knows about because it’s completely off the grid. Everything in Chinatown is kind of like a hidden speakeasy in a way.
To volunteer, donate or if you’re a small business owner looking for help, email here.
Donate to the Send Chinatown Love GoFundMe here.