The fast-growing Chow Down in Chinatown-Houston group on Facebook hosted an unofficial fund-raising event recently to keep doing what it’s been doing since it came to life during the COVID-19 pandemic: promote local Asian-owned restaurants.

Volunteers gathered at the Shanghai restaurant, 9116 Bellaire Blvd. in Diho Square, to sell Chow Down in Chinatown-Houston T-shirts. Proceeds will go toward reinvigorating the organization’s Pay It Forward initiative to promote the food establishments.

The project gives unexpected meal pre-payments to restaurants. Diners who identify themselves as Chow Downers receive a complimentary dish during an announced time period until the pre-purchased items run out. Such events are posted regularly on the Facebook Community group page.

“It’s just another good way to help foster foot traffic and build business loyalty,” said local food influencer Stevie Vu.

Shanghai became the group’s meeting place in 2020 because it’s one of the oldest restaurants in the Bellaire Boulevard Chinatown corridor and members were already familiar with the shopping center’s property managers.

The group originally thought of making a video about why people flock to Chinatown. But COVID “shelter in place” practices were announced “literary the next day,” Vu said.

Producing the video was suddenly out of the question. Communicating by phone texts, the group pivoted to creating the supportive Facebook page.

From left, Terry Wong, Stevie Vu, Natasha Wilson, Michelle Nguyen, Lonny Yu, Gilbert Landras

Vu and his pal, restaurateur Terry Wong, co-owner of Blood Bros. BBQ, founded Chow Down in Chinatown-Houston as the devastating economic effects of rumor and innuendo against Chinatown businesses (restaurants, especially) during the pandemic, which was first detected in China.

The idea was to fight false narratives and discrimination against Asians by highlighting the good that Asian-owned small businesses do, sharing stories of the cuisines that they love, and encouraging community group followers to support them.

The effort has been wildly successful. The group has grown to almost 24,000 followers who view regular postings about cuisine and restaurants across the area and share their thoughts. The group has also held occasional Facebook Live broadcasts to highlight eateries.

“We feel like we’re helping to make a difference,” Vu said. “We have always viewed food as a way of truly opening doors and as an effective way to promote understanding among all of us as fellow human beings. Chow Down in Chinatown-Houston lets people in our community’s restaurants and Asian-owned businesses know there is love and support for all they do.”

Other similar fundraising events may be held in the near future, Vu added.