Every day at 10 a.m., Nancy Step under the white arches of the Grand Century Mall and push open the glass doors of their shop, Lac’s Skincare & Cosmetics.
Sometimes she watches an Asian drama on her laptop. Another time she is sitting and people are watching from behind a countertop full of unopened skin care products. Of course, there is the rare customer who inquires about anti-wrinkle creams where only the eyes look over the face mask.
But mostly she sits and waits.
“At the moment everyone is wearing a mask. Nobody needs skin care products, so I couldn’t sell anything, ”said Nancy, who refused to give her last name.
Not far from Nancy’s store in the food court, a clerk said the mall had lost 80% of its customers.
“It’s sterile, paralyzed,” said the employee who works at Cháo Vịt Thanh Đa, an oatmeal restaurant, in Vietnamese. “Some days we only sell tens of dollars’ worth of groceries.”
The employee asked not to be identified.
She moves to the closed store of Bánh Xèo Đinh Công Tráng, a popular Vietnamese crepe stand known for attracting long lines of hungry patrons. A piece of paper from the owner is stuck to the wall – an open call for anyone interested in taking over a lease.
Once full of customers, the Grand Century Mall’s food court is now home to closed storefronts and an enclosed dining area. Photo by Sheila Tran.
In the Grand Century Mall, the Vietnamese shopping mall on Story Road at the entrance to Little Saigon, this is not an uncommon sight these days. The mall is home to around 100 businesses: restaurants serving regional Vietnamese cuisine, hairdressing and nail salons, tax and legal services, and a variety of retail stores selling clothing, jewelry, herbal medicine, home appliances, flowers, fine jewelry, and Vietnamese CDs, pop stars and much more more.
“(The mall is) a place where Vietnamese people can meet, hear their own language, and have their own products like Vietnamese clothing and food,” said Michelle Vu, a lifelong resident of San Jose. “It’s a cultural center and very important for building communities.”
But now the mall is facing the toughest battle of its life as pedestrian traffic is lost, financial support at the local and federal levels is inadequate, and technology and language barriers exist to adapt to the new pandemic reality.
Technology barriers to pandemic survival
Most of the stores in Grand Century Mall, considered one of the few Vietnamese shopping malls in the country, have been there since the mall opened in 2000.
For those facing language barriers and otherwise struggling to start a business or even work in English-speaking establishments, cultural centers like the Grand Century Mall are a rare economic opportunity.
“These companies provide access for the working class,” said James S. Lai, professor of ethnology at Santa Clara University. “They are places of livelihood for those who want to start a business. For those who cannot afford to create one, it is a chance to work and gain experience in these companies. “
In normal times, the Grand Century Mall in East San Jose is a popular destination for the Vietnamese community – a cultural hub where people can eat, shop, and gather. Photo courtesy of sanjose.org.
But at a time when digital literacy is critical to moving to a pandemic business model, these Vietnamese business owners are struggling to keep up.
“We lack a lot of technological infrastructure. As you can imagine, many of these small Vietnamese-American businesses are mom and pop stores, ”said Atkinson Tran, president of the San Jose-based Vietnamese American Roundtable (VAR) community organization. “So you don’t have all the technology to deal with a pandemic.”
This includes the technology and know-how to take online orders, sign up for delivery apps, introduce rewards programs and develop contactless transaction systems.
At the start of the pandemic, VAR board member Christine Pham said there were efforts to support Vietnamese businesses by buying gift cards.
“But we actually found that maintaining a gift certificate program in a small business is quite a chore,” she said. “They just don’t have that infrastructure.”
To counteract the loss in foot traffic, many San Jose companies have shifted their sales online and used social media to drive engagement. However, for most of the Grand Century Mall businesses, which typically lack an online presence and lack the expertise and resources to develop, this was not an option.
The business owners had to crouch and wait – in many cases for help that never came.
More resources are needed
Despite several attempts to apply for financial support, the employee of Cháo Vịt Thanh Đa says the owner did not receive a cent.
The small business has only two employees but has been turned down for the Federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and San Jose Small Business Grant Program. When the owner heard about the second round of the city program, he couldn’t contact an operator to find out more about the requirements. When he was ready to hand in the documents, the application deadline had expired.
According to the city of San Jose, small businesses and sole proprietorships make up more than 97% of active businesses and create more than 43% of all jobs in the city. More than half of these small businesses are immigrant owned and over 60% are owned by paint owners.
The city’s grant program is specifically designed to support those micro-businesses that are the least likely to receive government aid because of their size, said Michelle McGurk, who works at the San Jose Emergency Operations Center.
Applications and information materials were translated into Vietnamese, Spanish and later into Chinese.
“We knew we couldn’t help every single one of these small businesses,” said McGurk. “We really had to prioritize … those who were the most vulnerable and had the least access to a program like the federal PPP program.”
A total of 2,260 applications were received as part of the city’s 3-round funding program. 499 grants were awarded for a total of US $ 6.09 million.
Nancy, who owns the skin care business in Grand Century, said she only received $ 2,000 from the city. Due to the small size of her company, she was not entitled to federal aid – she only has one part-time employee and does not receive a salary because of the low turnover. The scholarship was only enough to pay her worker’s wages.
“(Small businesses like mine) really need help, but when we apply we find we don’t qualify,” she said in Vietnamese. “A lot of companies are in this situation, but we have no choice.”
Lac’s Skincare & Cosmetics, which is located near the entrance to the Grand Century Mall, has made efforts to stay afloat amid the pandemic. Photo by Sheila Tran.
Language barriers to access to resources
San Jose launched targeted outreach for its grant program in the zip codes hardest hit by COVID-19 in the form of direct emails to businesses, distribution of information to business districts and ethnic chambers of commerce, contacting nonprofits, and more.
However, according to David Duong, chairman of the Vietnamese American Business Association, that reach didn’t reach the people who needed it most.
“There isn’t enough information or marketing on these programs to let our community know they can get help,” he said. “We know that many Vietnamese Americans still struggle to understand where, how, or whom to contact in order to apply and seek help.”
Many members of the organization were unaware of their financial support options, Duong said, and struggled to understand the complicated applications and document requirements. And information was not disseminated on the platforms most frequently visited by older Vietnamese such as Vietnamese radio and television broadcasters.
“Many people cannot reach the government or do not get the support they need,” he said. “Some of them don’t even know they exist.”
Time is running out
According to Maya Esparza, council member of District 7, of which Little Saigon is a part, there are no additional local funding programs due to limited resources. However, she is optimistic that a new president and changes in Congress could pave the way for additional support.
“This is part of what the city’s lobbying group is trying to keep us from meeting the new presidential administration – how both the city and states and communities can get the support we need,” Esparza said. “Because we still know that people are hurt and we have to help them.”
But time is running out for Vietnamese businesses, especially those in the Grand Century Mall facing looming rental debt, depleted savings, and an uncertain schedule for a return to normal.
Ron Kwok is the second generation manager of Nước Mía Ninh Kiều, a popular sugarcane juice stand in the food court that was opened by his father nearly 20 years ago. He’s been selling fresh juice in the store since childhood – but he said he had never seen so many closings and changes in the mall before the pandemic.
“A large part of our community is made up of small businesses. It’s the restaurants, food stands and drink stands and everything that both Grand Century and Vietnam Town next door are made of, ”he said. “And small businesses need help, especially in tough times like these.”
For more information on COVID-19 business restrictions, please visit the San Jose COVID-19 Guides website.
For multilingual business assistance in Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish, call the San Jose Economic Development Office hotline at 408-535-8181.
Sheila Tran can be contacted at [email protected]