As Chinatown fills with the atmosphere of Lunar New Year, a holiday that embodies family and reunion, few are as busy as the handful of travel agencies that managed to survive the pandemic. The 38 agencies that once lined the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown have dwindled to 12, but with the New Year and the end of China’s quarantine policy on Jan. 8, a new vigor has crept back into the surviving agencies.
“I hope this Lunar New Year is a new beginning,” said Edward Siu, owner of Classics Tour on Jackson Street. He is delighted to see the number of people coming to him to buy, and inquire about, airline tickets growing little by little. Fanny Cai, owner of Universal Tours on Stockton Street, said that she sold 20 plane tickets for Thursday alone. “The loosening of quarantine is the best Lunar New Year present for me,” she said.
For decades, the industry has thrived on niche clients, often new immigrants, without a confident grasp of English, which makes it hard to navigate airline sites on the internet or manage itinerary changes. That stopped with the pandemic’s lockdown and China’s long quarantine policies that made return home difficult at best.
“The pandemic has been a reshuffle for Chinatown travel agencies,” said Siu, who has been in the business since 1981. He doesn’t talk about a full recovery, but, rather, a glimpse of hope. “Before 2020, around 200 people bought tickets from me every week during the Lunar New Year, but this year only 10 people,” said Siu. More remain on the fence. The $1,800 tickets remain costly, and it’s still challenging to get a visa without a Chinese passport. Other seniors are simply waiting for the chilly winter to pass, and the covid policies in China to stabilize, said Siu.
Siu’s business survived because he did not depend entirely on ticket sales. “I am primarily in the group tour businesses, and have some sort of reserve money,” he said.
Even so, the shift in China’s quarantine policy in December came when Siu was on his last legs. “To be honest,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have made it through the pandemic if it had lasted 4 years.”
Right now, Siu’s hoping that, by June, he can re-open his signature group tour brand, “Classics Tour.” Its Chinese name, 瀟灑走一回, comes from “Run Without Care,” a song by Taiwanese singer Sally Yeh. It’s a well-known tune among many American Chinese, and encourages a carefree and bold attitude toward life.
“When the time comes, I will definitely lead the group myself,” said Siu. “I’ll be the soul of the group.”
Cai, from Universal Tours, was more optimistic. Prior to the pandemic, many Chinese seniors in San Francisco enjoyed annual trips back to China to visit family or travel. Having not made the trip in three years, many jumped at the chance when the government relaxed its policies.
Cai’s desk is littered with reminders of what kept her business alive: Piles of masks and international calling cards. To survive, she also broadened her focus to group tours in areas as disparate as Europe, and as close as Las Vegas or Yosemite, favorites for seniors without cars. After the Chinese consulate shut down its services during the pandemic, renewing Chinese passports on behalf of clients also became an important pillar of her business.
Unlike Sui and Cai, Fenny Wu of International Chinese Affairs on Grant Avenue said she survived thanks to a broader business base.
Wu’s agency is one of many in Chinatown that focuses on providing services to new immigrants. And, once they become clients, they’ll stay her clients. She helps unmarried immigrants look for partners, mostly women, who want to marry back in China; teaches new immigrants how to pass citizen tests; helps them find a job; gets them a license to sell food or open a restaurant. She is a one-woman social service agency, providing help in getting a mortgage, dealing with the IRS, getting a visa, or applying for school and pension.
A big winner in the pandemic: Helping her clients to send ashes between China and the United States.
At one point, with an air of exaggeration, she said: Find any restaurant in Chinatown, find any table in that restaurant, and you will run into one of my clients.
Nowadays, Wu said, “I can finally make plans.”