Raymond Yuen, above right, bought meat from Sing Hing, inside Oahu Market, in Chinatown yesterday. He said he wasn't worried about SARS when coming to the area to shop.

Business in
Chinatown is slow
at shops, eateries

SARS, war with Iraq and the
economy are given as reasons

Nelson Yang, 33, leaned on a glass counter display of Seiko watches at Kingdom Jade, his family's store on Maunakea Street, and shook his head about how slow business continues to be in Chinatown.

"It's the worst year in the last five," said Yang, whose family has owned the store for 10 years. "I think it's everything -- the war, the economy, SARS. It all just adds up. Tourists and locals just aren't coming to Chinatown."

In recent weeks, owners of Chinatown restaurants and shops have said business has dropped anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. Many blamed false rumors that Chinatown was secretly infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the mysterious viral ailment that was first reported in China and has since stricken thousands of people across Asia and caused the closing of Beijing schools.

But now the SARS rumors have quieted. Last month, Gov. Linda Lingle and her cabinet sampled dim sum and noodles at six Chinatown restaurants with television cameras and reporters in tow to broadcast the message that Chinatown is safe. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce did the same thing last weekend.

Some stores, including the seafood counter at Kekaulike Market, were bustling with shoppers. But business in Chinatown remains slower than usual.

But business in Honolulu's Chinatown remains slower than usual, with several businesses admitting sales are down 50 percent from usual. In the hot stillness of a lazy Saturday afternoon, several business owners stood in their quiet stores and restaurants, offering theories for their sales declines ranging from SARS to the economy and war with Iraq.

Some insisted unfounded SARS rumors are still scaring people away from Chinatown despite the fact that Hawaii has had no confirmed SARS cases and the number of "possible" cases has dropped from a high of five down to one.

To date, the World Health Organization has reported a worldwide total of 6,234 cases of SARS and 435 deaths from the new virus, which is believed to have jumped from animals to people in the Guandong province of China.

A line of shoppers formed in the doorway of Nam Fong on Maunakea Street yesterday.

"People are still scared," said Sammy Au, whose family owns Bo Wah Trading, a grocery store. "Mostly it's local Chinese and Vietnamese customers who are staying away from Chinatown."

Thien Do of Kim Trading also blames persistent SARS rumors for a 50 percent decline in sales.

But Sunny Chan, one of the owners of the Glowing Dragon Seafood Restaurant, where braised shark fin with crab is on special at $5.99, is more optimistic.

"People are coming back," he said. "It's better than a few weeks ago."

Nell Flowers, a tourist from Shreveport, La., strolled the markets of Chinatown yesterday and said, "I didn't think about SARS as a reason not to come." She shopped onward in search of the perfect pineapple, dismissing SARS fears.

Others, like Yang, blamed the economy and the war in Iraq.

"It's a combination of things," concluded Yang.

Whatever the cause, sales are down, uncertainty is high and businesses are doing what they can. For now, the handwritten signs in the windows of the Garden Restaurant are staying: 10 percent off all menu items until May 31.


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