Young barbers help carry on Chinatown's legacy, bridge generational divide

CHINATOWN, Manhattan (WABC) -- A younger generation is helping to keep Chinatown afloat amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

If you want to check the pulse of Chinatown or feel its heartbeat -- some say look no further than Pell Street.

But the heart of Chinatown is darker and lonelier today than its former self. Because Chinatown didn't get a vaccine for COVID or for shutdowns or for xenophobia.

Yet the iconic barbershops that line the block are plowing forward -- despite their empty seats.

Except a closer look at one tiny hole-in-the-wall shop reveals that inside it's actually bursting with young energy.

"I would like to say this is like our best-kept secret," Karho Leung said.

Leung is a founder and co-owner of 12 Pell barbershop.

For a former corporate accountant, it was way outside his comfort zone.

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"Growing up as Asian-Americans, a lot of that story, the narrative, is very set for us," he said.

Tim Hui and Kevin Lin both agreed and said they were afraid of disappointing their parents or that they would look down on them.

But a funny thing happens when you combine passion and hard work: people start to notice.

A TikTok video about their experience explained their story:

"Over the summer something crazy happened to us. We were featured in the Chinese newspaper for our effort to bring business back into Chinatown. This was a big deal for us because as Asian-Americans, success in our parents' eyes meant being something professional like a doctor or a lawyer. So when these two grandpas came in because of the feature, it meant the world to us because it finally felt like we were being acknowledged by our elders."

They are part of the next generation in Chinatown. Born and raised in Chinatown. Replanting their roots in the neighborhood they are from.

It begs the question, if they weren't doing this, how much longer would Chinatown exist?

"This was the block that we chilled on," Lin said. "So it was cool to be able to start something here."

"I think out of all this though, I've gotten a lot closer with my parents," Leung said. "My dad would.. he would pass by every day. An eventually at first it was slow for us. That was real. It was slow. And then as slowly it would pick up, he would show up with a friend pointing through the glass and show off the store."

Who would have thought cutting hair could carry on the legacy of a neighborhood -- and bridge a generational divide.

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