There is a certain serenity to be found in the clarity of sounds in an empty city. The sharpness of the birds chirping; beautiful but eerie in the echo produced by the now, not so subtle sounds that used to be absorbed in bodies and in the bustle of whatever people were doing before and whatever it was we were rushing towards. It is a different Chinatown. It is a new brave layer in an ever-changing world.
Where once a thick hiss of town traffic loomed, there is pause between the woosh of passing cars as in cycles of breath. The signals of life reduced to a sprinkle of face-masked patrons with their take-out orders in boxes in bags, returning to their vehicles. “Closed until further notice,” signs posted in shop front windows of all other small and local businesses and half the restaurants...
I stand behind the Oahu Banks Journal store window that has that same sign taped to it, only I am preparing and packing orders placed through our online shop. I am still here, in reduced hours, but daily. I am still gaging the feels of our Chinatown as it lies in rest for this virus to pass. Banks was the first in our little community to respond to what was then the mounting threat of a global pandemic. On March 12th (merely 24 hours after WHO would recognize COVID-19 as a global pandemic phenomenon) Rama sent out a message that relayed the concern for the safety of staff and customers and extended to the office staff the option of working from home and announced the closure of both the Downtown LA and the Chinatown, Oahu brick and mortar stores. Four days BEFORE the president of the United States would limit social gatherings to under 10 people and over a week before Honolulu Mayor, Kirk Caldwell, would issue “stay-at-home" orders.
Other small Chinatown businesses followed suit during the next week, trying to balance all the unknowns against the ideas of what was safer for our communities at large whilst ultimately striving for survival. Seemingly pitting general welfare against health and well-being... we found ourselves in a true “rock and hard place” situation. In this time, Banks Journal’s unique positioning as a slightly bigger small business allowed its founders to respond quickly and aptly and its voice emerged as a point of clarity in a sliding landscape that drew foggier by the minute. Just before our store’s closure, I would confer with Missy, Owner of Owens & Co., and Ashley of In4mation (well-known and dear local shops kitty corner to Banks): What risks are we posing to ourselves, our employees and customers by staying open..? What risks are we running in our ability to tackle day to day operational expenses and rent, if we close..? What does that mean for our employees..? And in what timeframe..? All those questions were answered in that message from Rama. Banks drew the lines: The health and safety of our employees, our customers, and community at large, extending outwards from those points, come first. And we act now. The business will have to adjust where it can, but bend under those principles first.
In the following week the nation saw closures of all non-essential businesses which meant the freezing of virtually all Banks Journal wholesale accounts. Rama and Motoo arrange for an emergency, company wide group call where they will be making “some important announcements.” We had just opened the Oahu store a little over three months ago and the shop still has much momentum to gain and I’m thinking, “Well... Bummer. It was nice to meet these guys and start something up...weird times. But I understand... It was nice knowing y’all...” For sure, since I was one of the newest additions to the fam, I would gracefully bow out to help the health of the business moving forward.
But this wasn’t going to be the case! Motoo and Rama, addressed the group together, in a sobering tone, confirming that they did look at and weigh all available options of moving the business forward given the circumstances and came to a hard decision: instead of letting anyone go; that if we chose to ride this out with the company, that we would all hunker down together and there would be 30% reduction in pay across the board. What!? After that feeling of relief, and then a sort of disbelief of what I thought was the sure reality of having to figure something else out... I came to an understanding of the heart of Banks’ decision: We can’t choose the circumstances we are faced with, but when the hardest times hit, the truest will use those hard times as an opportunity to show heart. That is to say, Rama and Motoo expressed their voice and stance clearly: If and when we do come out of this, we come out together as a shining example of how pressure can galvanize the principles upon which we started. And what will emerge will be what has always been... Heart. To persevere in such a manner that preserves our initial ideals is to turn faith into belief.
So I unlock the doors of our Chinatown Banks Journal store every day. Grateful for a job that I actually enjoy, thankful that I even still have one at all, but most of all inspired by the people that have brought me on and excited for the times to come. For the good times and otherwise. Because we can’t control what comes next and shit is unpredictable most times, but I have seen firsthand that we can persevere with heart in a way that we’d be proud to chronicle. And when we look back on the current of this shifting course, that recognition is what makes Banks Journal. We were made for everyday journeys.
A big mahalo to our Oahu shop manager Justin Nakasone for the wonderful words and photos shot on Minolta point and shoot (HI-MATIC AF2) and 10 years expired Kodak 800 film.