In the years right out of college, my friends and I spent nearly every Sunday in Manhattan’s Chinatown. We’d meet for dim sum, circulating between Ping’s and Golden Unicorn and Congee Village. Over food that reminded us of what we had grown up with, we’d gripe about the work week and joke in the way longtime friends do. Bellies sated, we’d spend the rest of our lazy afternoon sipping on taro boba and enjoying thick-cut toast slathered with condensed milk. Before heading home, we might hit up one of the groceries or sidewalk stands to buy Asian vegetables and fruits we couldn’t find anywhere else, and, for good measure, swing by the bakery to load up on pineapple buns, egg tarts, and charsiu buns for the week.
“Chinatown was my home away from home,” Justin McKibben tells me. He’s the founder of Send Chinatown Love, an organization that provides support to small businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “It was the only place I could get a meal that felt like a home-cooked meal in a city that can be very isolating.”
McKibben started Send Chinatown Love in February 2020, just before cities began shutting down. By then, Chinatowns across the nation were already feeling the effects of anti-Asian xenophobia. Mom-and-pop businesses in these immigrant communities, many of which already operate on slim margins, saw a downturn in patrons. McKibben, who lived in Chinatown at the time, noticed that some of his favorite restaurants had shuttered, unable to pay rent or worker wages.
With his background in software engineering, McKibben says his first instinct was to help them by registering them for food delivery apps or building them websites and social media followings. But very quickly he realized that what the businesses needed was money, and fast. Unable to apply or ineligible for government relief due to their cash-only nature, many of them direly needed a way to pay their rent and workers. So McKibben and a small team of volunteers began to fundraise for businesses, directly cutting them checks.
“We went in with an idea of how we would help, but we were very, very intentional to make sure that we weren’t prescribing help,” McKibben says. While many business owners were initially wary of these young people who offered them no-strings-attached aid, McKibben says that taking the time to listen to their needs, as well as showing complete transparency in SCL’s operations and fundraising, helped garner trust with an immigrant community that had felt taken advantage of in the past and learned to expect little from government programs and outsiders claiming to offer aid.
Since then, the organization has expanded its aid offerings. It hosts food crawls to encourage foot traffic back into Chinatown establishments. It organizes a gift-a-meal project in which community members fundraise for meals from restaurants (some with owners who might otherwise be reluctant to receive perceived “handouts,” as McKibben put it) to then serve to food shelters. And yes, it now offers business development services that include website creation, marketing strategies, and online delivery help.
When I ask Tsai what she’s taken away from the experience of running Heart of Dinner, she echoes McKibben. “Something Yin and I have both learned is to really listen, especially to our elders,” Tsai says. An integral part of their work involves hearing the needs of the individuals they serve. Every week, volunteers call elders to remind them their care package will be delivered the next day—in case they’ve forgotten or if they have another appointment they might need to reschedule. When these elders face crises, they similarly feel comfortable to make requests of the team. One man, recovering from a mugging, declined the team’s offers to fundraise for his care, and asked only for an extra egg that week in his meal, Tsai says. While anyone might feel an urge to push for that fundraiser, Heart of Dinner’s team wanted to dignify the man’s wishes.