As the UK confirms its first two cases and the World Health Organisation declares it a global emergency, the usually thriving Soho hub has taken a major business hit, with many feeling racially targeted.
Restaurants and shops said they’ve seen up to a 50 per cent business drop over the last two weeks, when footfall should have been at its annual peak.
Some western tourists were seen burying their faces into chunky scarves pulled up to their eyes, while many Chinese locals and holidaymakers wore medical masks.
Others went about their day as normal, taking leaflets from campaigners or enjoying the area’s famous food inside warmly lit restaurants.
A dessert shop worker in the area, called Zak, is concerned fears over the virus – which has killed more than 200 people in China – has incited racial abuse against the UK’s Chinese community.
He said two of his friends had been attacked on Wednesday while shopping in a supermarket, in Battersea, south-west London.
Zak told Metro.co.uk: ‘Out of nowhere this old lady started screaming at one of the girls because she was wearing a face mask. ‘She was saying:
Then she pushed her from behind onto the floor.“Why are you here? Go back to your country, we don’t want your virus here.”
‘I feel like things like this are happening more and more due to a lack of knowledge about the coronavirus and how to protect yourself.’
Chinese medicine and alternative therapy shop counters were littered with face masks selling for £4 each, but the sight of them has induced fear in some who believe they mark a person as ‘infected’, locals said.
A restaurant manager explained how some Chinese business are refusing entry to people wearing them. Tourist Amy, from Hunan, who started wearing one yesterday, pointed out it’s not uncommon for people from east Asia to wear masks due to pollution but admits they can scare westerners.
However, one shop worker, who did not want to be named, said the masks weren’t enough and has even started sleeping in a different room to her husband.
She wouldn’t allow the Metro.co.uk journalist, or anyone else, within a metre of her over fears of catching the virus and spreading it.
‘I feel like going to Chinatown is like going to war,’ she said. ‘It feels risky. ‘Working here you have no idea if you are going to catch it. So, I feel personally responsible for people I meet. ‘We still don’t know how to protect ourselves and often people will carry it without knowing. I feel like I can’t rest.’
Further up the road, at Dumpling’s Legend restaurant, the bar is filled with antibacterial hand gel bottles. Manager Derek, said in the last two weeks walk-ins have dropped by 50 per cent with many cancelling bookings.
He said the impact of the virus on Chinatown and the community has already been difficult and will only get worse.
‘When a lot of westerners heard about the virus, they didn’t feel comfortable to step into Chinatown,’ he said. ‘What we need to do right now, is be more careful and step up deep cleaning in the restaurant and my staff’s personal hygiene with more handwashing and scrubbing door handles.
‘If anyone gets a cough or a cold they cannot to come to work, I need a GP report to tell me they are safe to come back. Otherwise I’m not allowing them. ‘We have to get ready for this, before this thing explodes. Otherwise we’re going to be too late.’
Restaurant manager, Derrick, at Orient London agreed businesses are doing all they can but admitted the footfall is down as punters know safety ‘can’t be guaranteed’.
‘If you compare Chinese New Year last year, this one is so quiet,’ said Derrick. ‘We’ve seen about a 40 per cent drop in both British and Chinese customers. People are definitely worried here.
‘The high priority is to protect yourself, if you’re feeling unwell you shouldn’t be working for at least a week. All our staff know that. ‘One person can be spread to two, then to four, and it could end up the whole of Chinatown then the UK. ‘Right now we need to do whatever we can to stop it at the first stage.’
Yao, who works at Chinese Medicine on Wardour Street, felt her country had been unfairly blamed for the outbreak and the shop has suffered as a result.
She blamed the media and pointed out Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which has faced considerable backlash for publishing a satirical cartoon of the Chinese flag, with the five gold stars replaced by coronavirus bacteria.
‘That’s our flag. It’s offensive, racist and disrespectful,’ she said. ‘I feel people aren’t being supportive of us or mentioning anything positive China has done during the outbreak.’