CB3 OKs a New French Bistro in Heart of Chinatown, Stirs Local Controversy

Some activists opposed the application because they say they’re worried about cultural preservation in Chinatown, while some say keeping non-Chinese businesses out of the historic district smacks of discrimination.

| 25 Sep 2023 | 03:05

An application for a restaurant’s liquor license in Chinatown sparked controversy at a recent meeting of Community Board 3’s State Liquor Authority Committee. Some Chinatown activists argued that a soon-to-be-opening French bistro, Mara, that Sam Lawrence and Nicolas Mouchel hope to operate, should be granted a provisional wine and beer license, rather than a full liquor license.

This recommendation caused harsh accusations that those against the liquor license were prejudiced against Mouchel and Lawrence due to their non-Chinese race. Mouchel and Lawrence’s restaurant will operate right at a busy intersection of many of Chinatown’s key streets, at 9 Chatham Square. Many activists believe that it is important to preserve Chinatown as a cultural center of safe harbor for Chinese immigrants, particularly after the pandemic.

“This really is a Pandora’s box. It’s like cockroaches, you see one but there are nine,” said Amy Chin, the President of Think!Chinatown, about non-Chinatown natives currently attempting to open storefronts in Chinatown. Chin said that many businesses “come into Chinatown to benefit their pocketbooks, not the local community.” Jan Lee, the President of the Chinatown Core Block Association, said that the liquor license should not be recommended mainly because the wannabe owner-operators Nicolas Mouchel and Sam Lawrence “had never previously held a liquor license.”

Some argued that Lee, Chin and those they spoke on behalf of were against the liquor license because of Mouchel and Lawrence’s non-Chinese race. “I find it alarming — and, frankly, discriminatory—that this restaurant would not be granted a liquor license because it is not a Chinese-owned business,” said Jaja Liao, a Chinatown local, during CB3’s meeting. Multiple other sources claimed that other Chinese-owned businesses were fully supported by local advocates for a full liquor license in similar circumstances.

Lee and Chin claim that these accusations of “discrimination” are unfounded. “It’s not because these operators are white, or non-Chinese,” said Chin. “It’s about what will be good for the neighborhood.” Lee said that alcohol—and liquor licenses—are often the first step to gentrification, which often reduces the quality of life for many residents. Restaurants apply to liquor licenses through their local Community Boards, which make the boards hotspots of conflict over changing neighborhoods amidst new waves of gentrification. The Committees do not have the final say, but make recommendations to the New York State Liquor Authority, which ultimately has the final say on who is granted liquor licenses.

Lee and Chin similarly advocated against a proposed late-night club in Chinatown, Duck Club. Duck Club’s license was not recommended by CB3’s SLA Committee. The Club sparked controversy in Chinatown due to its main logo: two ducks hanging from their necks on a wire, which Lee called “racist imagery.” But Lee said that owner-operators Mouchel and Lawrencegave every indication that they would operate in a respectful manner to the community, unlike many other non-Chinatown entrepreneurs now attempting to gain full liquor licenses. Mouchel and Lawrence did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Despite Lee and Chin’s advocacy, many local community members still said that Chinatown could use investment and foodie diversity. The liquor license had 107 letters of support from locals during the Community Board meeting.

“Chinatown needs help, and we can’t put up walls to keep investment out,” said Karlin Chan, a founder of Chinatown Block Watch and a member of Community Board 3. Many Chinatown natives feel the same. “We work here, so it’s nice to have choices,” said Naso Jiang, a worker at Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea, located just two blocks from Mara. The board decided to recommend granting the liquor license on the assumption that the restaurant will continue to “work with the local community” and “operate in good faith,” according to Board Member Sarah Batchu. The board’s recommendation will then be assessed by the New York SLA. But Jan Lee is still determined to ensure what he feels were the discriminatory accusations made during the meeting are not taken lightly.

“These are very serious accusations being made against us,” said Lee in an interview. “I would hold those committee members responsible in the future to stop the meeting when someone makes a charge of racial bias.”