These Chinatown Organizations Are Using Food Tours As A Catalyst For Social Change
From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, it’s geared toward a younger, more activist audience.
Written byBenjamin Liong Setiawan
Walking food tours have historically had a reputation for being a fuddy-duddy activity that you’d do on a family vacation as a way to explore a new city. You’d follow some guide with an umbrella, tasting items from shop to shop. But a wave of Chinatown-based organizations across the country, both new and established, is changing that perception. Using a mix of virtual, self-guided, and socially distant food and neighborhood history tours, these reimagined experiences support local communities that have been struggling during the pandemic.
Some, like Wok Wiz, have been around for years. The San Francisco-based tour guide experience was established in 1984 and utilizes the expertise of seniors who are born and raised in the area. Another community mainstay: Philadelphia’s Chinatown Development Corporation, which sprang up in 1969 in response to the planned demolition of an area church. It now serves as a hub that offers social services in addition to fun initiatives, like their self-guided scavenger hunt which helps boost customer traffic to local restaurants and businesses. On the newer side, both Mott Street Girls and Welcome to Chinatown were founded in the past year, as a way to keep the rich legacy of New York City’s Manhattan Chinatown alive. The two are joining forces on a series of tours called “Beyond the Storefront” which aims to educate guests on the tumultuous history behind some of the area’s restaurants and shops.
Whether they’re new or have been around for decades, these Chinatown-based organizations have turned to social media to target a new audience that’s tech savvy, social conscious, and politically active. Such efforts are to hopefully ensure the longevity of these cultural enclaves for generations to come.
We talked with community leaders around the country to learn about some of the initiatives they are working on for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and beyond.
Store: Made in Chinatown
Founded by Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee in 2020
Welcome to Chinatown has a self-guided food tour called In the Mood for Food which is a block walk in an effort to increase foot traffic in Chinatown. It’s meant to re-imagine the lively experience of eating through a night market, in a socially distanced way – to bring the vibrant energy back to Chinatown, while supporting small businesses. The event series was built with businesses top of mind as we worked to remove operational and language barriers.
For APAHM, Welcome to Chinatown and the Mott Street Girls are hosting a series of Chinatown walking tours, called “Beyond the Storefront”. During this walking tour, participants will learn about the beginnings of this cultural enclave, starting with the initial migration of the Chinese to America and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As the tour winds through the streets of Chinatown, it’s also a deeper look into the stories of historical eateries, shops, and institutions that have shaped the community for years and how discriminatory laws gave rise to these shops. Ticket proceeds go towards Welcome to Chinatown’s Longevity Fund.
This summer Welcome to Chinatown will be bringing back our In The Mood for Food block walk series with a few community partners. Stay tuned for more announcements!
Favorite Spots: We’ve collected some of our (and our community’s) favorites in our new Business Directory. For food, a few highlights include: Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle, Wok Wok, Hop Kee, Wo Hop, Wu’s Wonton, Public Village, and Go Believe Bakery. For other goods we love Grand Tea & Imports, Wing on Wo, Ting’s Gift Shop, KK Discount, Sun’s Organic Garden, and Bangkok Grocery.
Founded by Anna Huang and Chloe Chan in 2020
Before we started hosting our own AirBnB experiences, we were volunteer tour guides at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). The stories we shared at the museum weren’t the ones we had learned in school. From the dark origins of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion act to the challenges that Chinese Americans continue to face in pursuit of the American Dream, we saw how prejudice and stigma often stemmed from a lack of knowledge and understanding. As tour guides, we have the duty to share the authentic stories of the Chinese American community with our guests. Education served as our means to empower and promote social change.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw how history often repeats itself. Xenophobia and misinformation decimated tourism in Chinatown and threatened the survival of aging residents and immigrant-owned small businesses. This led us to co-found Mott Street Girls (MSG) to make Chinese American history and culture more accessible to the public. We do this by hosting weekly Chinatown walking tours, creating educational social media posts, and partnering with community organizations. These efforts strive to preserve Chinatown’s rich cultural heritage, drive support to local businesses, and amplify the unheard voices of our community.
We currently lead the Relive Life Under the Chinese Exclusion walking tour every weekend. For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we are partnering with Welcome to Chinatown to host the Beyond the Storefronts walking tour from 5/15 to 5/30. We will be sharing stories of the history and families behind Chinatown’s iconic restaurants and shops. All proceeds will benefit the Longevity Fund, a relief fund that aims to distribute $1 million in grants to small businesses in Chinatown. Reserve your spot on the Welcome to Chinatown Instagram page!
Favorite Spots: Before the pandemic, we would often grab dinner and dessert in Chinatown after our volunteer shifts at the museum. We recommend the roti at Wok Wok and the taro balls at Mango Mango.
Founded by Sally Tiongco in 2009
For the past 12 years, our local AAPI-owned family business has supported fellow LA-based, minority, immigrant and AAPI-owned restaurants. We are proud to be the only female minority-owned food tour company in CA with tour guides of Korean, Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, Pakistinian, Chinese, and Japanese descent. After being closed for most of 2020, we’ve slowly restarted our private walking food tours in select neighborhoods and debuted our Arts District food and booze tour. We cover 11 neighborhoods: Downtown LA, Arts District, Little Tokyo, Sawtelle Japantown, San Gabriel Valley Chinatown, Thai Town, Koreatown, Persian Square, Glendale, Santa Monica, and Hollywood.
Our tours give guests the opportunity to explore, learn about, and appreciate the history, culture, and cuisine of each area. I grew up with kids making fun of my food, culture, and language and my daughter went through the same experience in her preschool. To counteract this generational racism and xenophobia, we try to spread awareness about our history, struggles, culture, and food. Our guides encourage guests to spread the word, order takeout, donate, and support in any way they can to boost business and overall spirits of our restaurant partners.
In celebration of AAPI Heritage month we held a virtual food tour of Little Tokyo, highlighting legacy businesses in the area. This particular event definitely meant a lot to us given the current climate. We are a community of hard workers and humble business owners.
Favorite Spots: Sticky Rice, Badmaash, Simpang Asia, Hui Tou Xiang Noodle House, Ham Ji Park, Ma’am Sir, Pho 999, Sushi Ichiban Kan, Yuko Kitchen, and Cherrystones.
Founded by Z.J. Tong in 2004
This is the 20th anniversary of me developing a Chinatown tour for Chicago. When I first started, a lot of visitors coming to Chinatown would just eat, shop, and leave without knowing much of the community’s rich history or many of the cultural symbols that they see. We started promoting our tours on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve also given several virtual tours of Chinatown during the pandemic to those who could not physically travel down to Chinatown. Our private group tours are open for reservation year round. Our public walking and food tours will start from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Through our walking tours, food tours, and cultural workshops such as dumpling making, tai chi, kite coloring, paper cutting, calligraphy, and painting programs, prior to the pandemic we on average brought 10,000 visitors to Chinatown. Many of these visitors are school students, for whom this is their very first exposure, not only to Chinese culture, but also to a culture not of their own.
Founded in 1969
John Chin, Executive Director
Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) was initially formed in the late 60s when the Vine Street Expressway had plans to demolish a Chinatown pillar, Holy Redeemer Church and School. Since then, the organization serves to promote, protect, preserve, and advocate for Philadelphia’s Chinatown community. Currently the summer edition of the Chinatown Scavenger Hunt, in partnership with Franklin Square, will operate through July 3rd. This self-guided scavenger hunt around Chinatown and Chinatown North allows participants to use their phones to scan QR codes, hunt for clues, earn points for prizes, and discover new spots, whether it be restaurants, retailers, or service providers around historic Chinatown. “The Chinatown Scavenger Hunt is one fun and safe way for families to celebrate. Chinatown will return as a lively and spirited hub soon after the pandemic,” said John Chin, PCDC’s Executive Director.
Favorite Spots PCDC partnered with Visit Philly to put together a restaurant guide to Chinatown: Best Restaurants in Philly’s Chinatown Neighborhood.
Founded in 1984 by Shirley Fong-Torres and currently run by Tina Dong Pavao
Wok Wiz was founded by my mother, Shirley Fong-Torres in the 1980s. She had previously been in corporate management at Levi Strauss and, as a homage to her restaurant family background, was teaching Chinese cooking classes to adults at night. At that time, many of the ingredients were not readily available so she began group shopping groups on occasional weekends. These trips evolved into tours that Shirley decided to pursue full time. She wanted to bring the rich history and culture of Chinatown to local and visiting guests, making it accessible by way of a local expert guide with personal friendships and connections to the community. Each staff member was born in or grew up in Chinatown, some even still reside there. Even after her passing, our tour leaders, many who have been with Wok Wiz for decades, continue in her memory.
We, like so many other neighborhood businesses, were impacted deeply by the pandemic. Our 2020 started off strong with our typical school field trip groups and Lunar New Year plans, which quickly shifted and all our tours were cancelled. With all our leaders being seniors and a vulnerable population, the priority became keeping everyone safe and healthy. The team is now fully vaccinated, feeling safer and ready to welcome guests back to our vibrant neighborhood. We’re resilient and have endured many challenges throughout the years. This has been a big one, but not unsurmountable.
There is still a lot to share about Chinatown and we hope to resume our hosted dim sum luncheons in the future. It’s a great opportunity for the guests to get to know the tour leader as well as other guests. For now, we offer our Classic Chinatown Tour (walking tour only) with suggestions for lunch options after our walk. Soon, our very popular, “I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown” food focused tour will be relaunched. Originated by Shirley, now run by our resident food lover and Chinatown ambassador, Frank Jang, this experience incorporates market visits, bakery stop, local style meal, fortune cookie factory, cookware purveyor, copious amounts of food knowledge and more. Frank has a restaurant management degree, years of restaurant experience, and is now a professional food and event photographer while also being the Vice President of the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers. Everyone in Chinatown knows, respects and loves Frank and his upbeat personality.
Favorite Spots Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, The Wok Shop, I-Cafe, Far East Cafe, Waverly Place, Hang Ah & the adjacent (newly refreshed) Willie “Woo Woo” Wong playground.