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We must protect our cities’ Asian-owned restaurants at all costs

Xenophobic sentiment toward Asian restaurants puts livelihoods in the balance and lives at risk.

Morgan Olsen
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Morgan Olsen
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Earlier this week, eight people were murdered in a string of shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area. Six of the victims were Asian women. The horrendous rampage isn't an isolated incident—it's more like the exclamation mark on a year of increased violence and harassment against Asian communities across the country. Reporting database Stop AAPI Hate has received 3,785 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans from March 19, 2020 through February 28, 2021. That includes verbal and online harassment, physical assault and civil rights violations.

America's lengthy history of Anti-Asian violence shows no signs of slowing down either. Especially vulnerable right now are Asian-owned restaurants and food businesses, which are particularly visible in our communities. In San Antonio, for instance, ramen shop Noodle Tree was vandalized in hateful slurs over the weekend following the owner Mike Nguyen's TV appearance condemning Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to lift the state's mask mandate. Weeks earlier, over the Lunar New Year, four Asian-owned restaurants in Maryland were burglarized and vandalized overnight. In New York, chain restaurant Xi'an Famous Foods is now closing its doors at 8:30pm to ensure workers can get home safely.

And that's just scratching the surface on incidents that have been reported over the past three months alone. Deep-seated xenophobic sentiment toward Asian restaurants puts livelihoods in the balance and lives at risk.

Support Asian restaurants and love us like you love our food.

Eric Huang, the chef and owner of New York's legendary Pecking House, says that he and his family started noticing depressed sales back in December 2019, when COVID-19 was "simply being labeled as some potential threat out of China." Huang says that in the early days, people encouraged him and his family to advertise the fact that they were American citizens, hired American employees and sourced goods domestically. 

"This was frankly bullshit and incredibly ignorant," Huang says. "We should not have had to advertise and prove our 'American-ness,' and it is frighteningly reminiscent of all the prejudice the Asian-American community has felt from Japanese internment through Motor City competition and L.A. riots and everything in between."

His plea is simple and heart-wrenching: "Support Asian restaurants and love us like you love our food. Asian cuisine is so intricately interwoven into American culture and has been largely underpriced and under-appreciated since the very beginning."

Omsom co-founders Kim and Vanessa Pham
Photograph: Deanie ChenOmsom co-founders Kim and Vanessa Pham

Sisters and Omsom co-founders Kim and Vanessa Pham echo Huang's sentiment, adding that these "dangerous and outright harmful" stereotypes perpetuate racism and can eat away at anyone's psyche.

"On a larger scale, the damage inflicted onto our community has been extraordinarily difficult and triggering for us as individuals and has affected our lives and work in more ways than one," Kim Pham says. "On the one hand, it makes us deeply angry and hurt, and on the other, it keeps us painfully motivated to do what we do best—showcase and celebrate the multitudes within what it means to be Asian American."

The dangers have already materialized in the worst way imaginable.

The sisters, who operate a lauded restaurant-quality food company, worry that ramped-up racism toward Asian Americans—especially women—could stifle a bright new generation of makers that's just emerging.

"The dangers have already materialized in the worst way imaginable," Kim continues. "With more hate crimes, more misogyny, and more racist, belittling and straight-up false rhetoric comes a fear and xenophobia that threatens the incredible potential of future generations of Asian business owners."

Kevin Tien of Moon Rabbit
Photograph: Courtesy Moon Rabbit

In Washington, D.C., Moon Rabbit chef Kevin Tien has been so rocked by recent attacks against his community that he's rallied 45 local chefs and restaurants to participate in a weekly takeout series that will raise funds for Stop AAPI Hate. Tien says that the harassment and avoidance he's experienced outside of the workplace over the past year has served as a "constant reminder."

"People often yell at me to 'go back to China' or make discriminatory remarks," he says. Tien is a Vietnamese American. "It affects our mental health making it hard to work and focus on telling the story of my family and my culture."

Tien urges people to research their own biases and speak out against hateful remarks. "Diners can support local AAPI and BIPOC businesses by ordering takeout, being vocal on social media about the hate and violence that is occurring right now," Tien says. "We cannot be the punchline of a joke or be asked to brush it off. Because we have not said anything before, does not mean that it is okay."

Shirley Chung of Ms Chi Cafe
Photograph: Courtesy Ms Chi CafeShirley Chung of Ms Chi Cafe

Across the country, in Los Angeles, Ms Chi Cafe chef-owner Shirley Chung says that over the past year, it's been exhausting to survive the pandemic and disprove misinformation. She and her staff go above and beyond to alleviate misplaced public concern. "We took extra steps that were not required by the health department in hopes that if we did more, it would make people feel safe to dine with us," the Beijing native says.

Despite it all, the back of her Culver City restaurant has been graffitied, and Chung has installed new locks and a camera for added protection.

Speak up and stand up for us and with us.

So what can diners do to be better allies to her restaurant and other Asian-owned businesses right now? Chung says it's twofold: Frequenting mom-and-pop restaurants like hers is critical. Dining in and ordering takeout provides a necessary lifeline to the community. "Remember that by supporting the smaller restaurants, you are directly supporting the livelihood of the individuals and families that work there," she says.

But perhaps most importantly, Chung urges people to do the right thing when they witness problematic behavior. It's more than being friendly or polite; it's using your privilege to defend others. It's something we can all do to protect the future of Asian-owned businesses in our communities.

"We’ve reached a tipping point and we are going to be louder and fight harder pushing forward," Chung says. "We need our allies to do the same—speak up and stand up for us and with us, because united support is a lot stronger and more powerful."

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