Thursday, November 26, 2020

Proposed WeChat Ban Could Further Wreck Business for NYC Chinese Restaurants

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WeChat, the world’s third-largest messaging app, with over 1 billion users, is scheduled to be banned from the U.S. by the Trump administration alongside another Chinese-owned video-sharing app, TikTok. The proposed ban — which has been temporarily halted in court and is currently under appeal — has left Chinese restaurant owners and Chinese communities across America rattled and anxious.

Unlike TikTok, with its widespread popularity among Americans, WeChat in the U.S. is mostly used by Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants, and its potential ban received considerably less attention compared to the monthslong bid war over TikTok. Nonetheless, the ban may cause disruptions among Chinese immigrant communities and restaurants: Over recent years, WeChat has brought together a sizable food network that’s largely unknown to non-Chinese eaters in the city. During the pandemic, it also became a lifeline for restaurants’ survival. But as U.S.-China relations grow increasingly hostile, the businesses, customers, and new Chinese cuisines that have popped up in America over the past few years could all be collateral damage in the wake of the intensifying feud.

The Restaurants

August Gatherings, one of the few places in Manhattan serving premium Cantonese fusion cuisine, closed in March and reopened in August. As at most New York diners, the comeback was an uphill battle: Its outdoor seating is less than a quarter of its indoor capacity; the commission fee from delivery platforms, sometimes as high as 30 percent, can eat up the bulk of profits; and after the four-month hiatus, customers were growing suspicious that the place wouldn’t survive the pandemic.

On August 1, in an effort to get in touch with former customers and inform them about the restaurant’s reopening, August Gatherings created its first WeChat group without expecting much. The platform works just like Facebook Messenger: Anyone can create their own chat, and all members can add friends to the conversation until the group reaches a 500-member limit.

Over 70 percent of August Gatherings customers are of Chinese descent, according to the restaurant, and more than half of them are Chinese international students — nearly all of them are on WeChat. Tom Tang, the owner, first added dozens of old customers into the group. But as word got out, the group exploded, hitting the 500-member cap within hours.

“People were ecstatic seeing August Gathering is alive,” says Linda Chen, a customer who volunteered to be the administrator, “and they brought friends into the group.”

New members filled up the second group in less than 48 hours. By the end of the month, August Gatherings’ WeChat groups had evolved into an online community where one could directly talk to the restaurant and order food. Now there are some 7,000 loyal customers in 15 WeChat groups divided by geographic location, from upstate New York to south New Jersey.

This is different than simply being on Instagram, which restaurants often use to share photos and attract followers that they can only hope will become consumers. On WeChat, group members are primarily either returning customers or soon-to-be customers who can place orders directly with the restaurant without leaving the app. August Gatherings posts the latest menu and specials into the groups every day, along with links to purchase. Residents who live farther from the restaurant, in places like Princeton or East Brunswick, can pool orders in advance in their geographically specific groups, and the restaurant will carry out long-distance deliveries a couple of times a week. Two full-time employees and Chen, the volunteer administrator, stand by in the groups to answer questions from thousands of members.

It is like a fan-filled Facebook page, a commission-free Seamless, a long-distance Groupon, and a three-person Zendesk rolled into one. And August Gathering was able to create the elaborate but effective network, which has accounted for one-third of the restaurant’s orders each month since reopening, in a matter of days.

A copy of a WeChat messaging board

The administrator posts purchase links in August Gatherings’ New Jersey WeChat Group.
Tony Lin/Eater

Turning loyal Chinese customers into a WeChat-based community is not a business model exclusive to August Gatherings. Heat Noodle, a Wuhan-style noodle stall based inside Flushing’s New World Mall, takes orders from its nearly 800 group members while many other restaurants in the mall remain shut. Junzi Kitchen, the fast-growing modern Chinese restaurant chain, has a 400-member group where employees frequently post information about discounts and tasting menus. Sup Crab, a seafood joint in Chinatown, doesn’t host group chats. Instead, the restaurant uses a personal WeChat account to add customers as friends and take orders individually. Its timeline is filled with the latest updates on the freshest seafood available each day.

In the past few years, WeChat’s use as a secret business weapon has risen to prominence, beginning in China before expanding to Chinese diasporic communities overseas. The app is free to set up, and WeChat is already woven into most Chinese customers’ digital life, with no additional downloads or learning curve necessary. As in the case of August Gatherings, if enough people are willing to refer friends, the operation can scale dramatically overnight.

”[On WeChat], customers can search your restaurant’s name and interact with you directly without going through platforms like Google,” says Yong Zhao, the CEO of Junzi Kitchen, who says communicating with customers on WeChat is effective and cost-efficient. “To obtain the same level of access from [non-Chinese] customers, you might need several different apps here.”

This model is only viable because of WeChat’s omnipresence among Chinese customers, and existing user habits treating it as an all-in-one “super-app”: WeChat has an embedded payment system; a built-in, Twitter-esque social media function; and powerful third-party “mini-programs” that allow users to carry out all kinds of tasks, from hailing a car to ordering a massage.

“Most of my friends, relatives, and customers are on WeChat,” says August Gatherings’ Tom Tang. “I don’t see there’s any other app that can replace it at the moment.”

The Network

For Chinese restaurants, the secret power of WeChat ultimately stems from its user network.

It’s estimated that there are 5 million people of Chinese descent living in the United States, making it one of the country’s fastest-growing ethnic communities and a sizable user base for WeChat. In New York, the number of foreign-born Chinese residents grew by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2015, while the city’s population overall increased by about 7 percent. This growth is accompanied by a drastic demographic shift.

Beginning in the 19th century, early generations of immigrants from China emigrated to America willingly or unwillingly and ended up working as railroad and factory workers, miners, farmers, and other forms of low-skilled laborers. Facing rampant xenophobia and racist legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, many had no choice but to work in restaurants, as they offered one of the few types of employment that allowed Chinese immigrants to re-enter America and bring in employees. Since the restaurants mainly catered to non-Chinese customers, the food served was often Americanized and reinvented.

More recent Chinese immigrants — often international students, academics, high-skilled laborers, and their families — are generally more affluent and better educated. Coming from a wealthier China, the newcomers have the option to maintain the lifestyles they had at home, which involves modern, authentic Chinese cuisine, mobile payment, and WeChat.

A WeChat message thread with a photo of a giant crab up top

Sup Crab posts daily fresh seafood on its WeChat Timeline
Tony Lin/Eater

In the past few years, this demographic shift fueled the city’s proliferation of Chinese regional cuisine from Shaanxi (Xi’an Famous Foods), Yunan (Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle), Guizhou (Guizhou Huaxi Wang Noodle), and Chongqing (Master Yin Chongqing Authentic Hot Pot), as well as the success of multiple mini-Chinatowns and food courts all over the city. This change also contributed to the growth of WeChat-based communities for immigrants to discover and review authentic Chinese foods in New York.

“When I was a freshman, I had no idea where to buy Chinese groceries,” says Jingyao Huang, a recent graduate from the School of Visual Arts and a co-founder of WeChat group SVA Pig Farming. The nearly 700-member group, like many similar ones created by Chinese diaspora, was designed to let users exchange Chinese food secrets in the city: where to find Wuhan-style spicy duck neck, where to buy the best zongzi before Dragonboat Festival, where to eat the best Chongqing hot pot in town.

Such survival tips are crucial to immigrants but often difficult to come by. Chinese immigrants are rarely the targeted audience in English cyberspace. Yet information on the Chinese internet isn’t always helpful or timely for those dwelling in America. In the past, immigrants addressed their loneliness by building Chinatowns as support systems. The newcomers found similar networks on WeChat.

“Most of us are international students without family here. It’s less lonely when there is a community to share food, and it’s much easier to organize food hangouts now,” Huang says. “The group changed New York for me.”

The new immigrants’ epicurean obsessions also gave birth to an active network of WeChat-based food media and influencers, creating the biggest source of Chinese restaurant reviews in New York. Many customers deem them more trustworthy than the American mainstream outlets, as the influencers share their language and have similar cultural backgrounds.

“Recommendations like Sichuan-style pig intestines are nothing unusual for Chinese eaters. The American public might have a hard time understanding it, although Sichuan cuisine is widely accepted here,” says Hei Hei, the editor-in-chief of WeChat-based blog Eatnyc (纽约吃啥哟).

On WeChat, users can follow verified accounts that post articles. With nearly 80,000 subscribers, Eatnyc is among the biggest WeChat accounts publishing New York dining recommendations and branded content specifically selected for Chinese tastes. Northern Chinese barbecue, grass carp hotpot, numbing and spicy crawfish — the dishes and restaurants are familiar to many Chinese communities, but lesser known by many American audiences.

Immigrants’ pursuit of authentic Chinese cuisines is ultimately manifested in how they use WeChat for food. The app assists restaurant owners and workers in targeting customers, helps eaters to discover local Chinese food, and gives a platform to Chinese-language influencers and marketers. Delivery platforms serving Chinese immigrants also created “mini-programs” in WeChat to take orders straight from the app.

“It deeply seeps into our everyday life,” says Hei, “it’s part of our habit.”

A phone in front of a bar code next to a red bag

Hunan Slurp says its business will suffer even more without WeChat.
Hunan Slurp [Official]

The Future

Much like TikTok, as U.S.-China relations quickly deteriorated, WeChat came under fire due to concerns over data security issues and the Chinese government’s ties with Tencent, WeChat’s parent company. Critics also say the app censors content based on Chinese government guidelines, creates large-scale disinformation bubbles, and facilitates the spread of propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party, global right-wing groups, and other extremists.

The looming ban of WeChat, however, could also leave a huge number of immigrants and restaurants stranded without basic communication tools and support networks.

“We will lose one of the most used channels to communicate with Chinese customers, which makes the business even worse,” says Chao Wang, the owner and chef of Hunan Slurp.

“The impact can be huge,” says August Gatherings’ Tom Tang of how operating the business will change without the messaging app. “It feels like your sense of direction is suddenly stripped away when you’re simply walking down the street and minding your own business.”

A phone being held up in front of a table with a QR code on the side

Restaurants like Dian Kitchen say they can rely on other social media platforms as well.
Dian Kitchen [Official]

Restaurants with other social media presences, like East Village-based Dian Kitchen, have fewer concerns about immediate business disruptions from the ban. Places like Junzi Kitchen and Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, which have developed a sizable non-Chinese following over recent years, might lose an important promotional channel. But overall, they are less reliant on WeChat to bring in customers.

“The restaurants catering to new immigrants will be the most affected, and it’s not just about WeChat,” says Junzi Kitchen’s Yong Zhao.

What Zhao refers to is the drastically shifting environment for new immigrants — especially those from China. The federal government has made several attempts this year to bar newly enrolled international students from entering the U.S. Changes to immigration laws also created unprecedented barriers for high-skilled workers attempting to remain in the country. The population, which brought in tastes and businesses that largely diversified New York’s Chinese restaurant scene, is struggling to adjust to an increasingly hostile American political climate.

In the midst of issues like trade disputes, a sharp decline in the numbers of international students, tourism slumps, and the tightening of immigration laws, the impending loss of WeChat could be one of the most visceral and direct impacts brought by the standoff between the U.S. and China.

Some new immigrants have begun to mentally prepare for the app ban. Chen, August Gatherings’ WeChat administrator, says she has faith in the loyal customers will find them if the app is banned. The students in the SVA group have discussed the possibility of using VPNs for WeChat, like how people in China circumvent the country’s internet firewall to access Facebook and Instagram. Hei, the influencer, thought about migrating to other social media platforms, though few have the same direct reach to Chinese immigrants.

None of these temporary solutions, however, can address the bigger issue: a precarious and unpredictable future between the two superpowers.

“We are nobodies. We are inconsequential,” says Hei. “But these policies change every single day. It’s impossible to follow.”

When he’s not planning his next meal, Tony Lin makes videos and writes about food and the world around him.



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