A room full of empty tables. A pile of plastic to-go containers. Almost complete silence if not for the muffled television. Grace Park, the owner of a Korean Restaurant called Soy Tofu, sitting at a table, staring down at a stack of papers.
The xenophobic narrative surrounding COVID-19 has implemented strains directly to Park’s business. She reminisces about the times before the pandemic when the tables were filled with customers– usually her regulars who were mostly non-Korean. As the pandemic prolonged, however, that image has become a distant memory.
Park, accompanied by her husband, is the only employee clocked-in at her small restaurant in Orange County. The thinning revenue eventually necessitated a layoff of her employees. “I am the only employee who is working right now, so there are times when I am anxious,” she said.
A by-product of the pandemic is drastically reduced customer traffic and plummeting profits. Yet Asian American owners, like Park, are finding themselves combating an additional Goliath.
“I felt a little bit of discrimination in the beginning,” Park said in an interview at her restaurant.
Statements by elected officials, such as President Trump labeling COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” have incited xenophobia according to Russell Jeung, chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. “Clearly, with such political framing, Asians of different ethnicities are being racially profiled as a foreign threat,” he wrote in a statement.
Since the start of the pandemic, Park has not only experienced the inevitable economic consequences, but is now also processing through unforeseen emotions. “When the BLM protests were said to happen in our neighborhood, we stayed closed. We were being extra cautious because we were fearful being Asian,” she said.
Henry Chau, the owner of Henry’s Cuisine, closed his business on March 9 and has not reopened. The Asian Fusion and Cantonese style restaurant is located in San Gabriel Valley, which is known for its vast and diverse community of Asian Americans. “Since we see a lot of tension from different places, we locked it down,” Chau said during a phone interview. Chau recalled the uneasiness of his community and decided to close his restaurant early on due to heightening safety concerns for his employees.
For Asian American restaurants that remained open, community members rallied in support. Three San Gabriel Valley locals, Megan Lam, Alan An, and Brian Ngoy, created a Facebook group called SGV Eats after they noticed many of the local businesses, especially mom and pop shops, lacked the means to promote their businesses online. The Facebook group was created for the community to post updated menus and operating hours.
“Even before the Safer at Home order, we visited a few Asian restaurants as well as boba shops and noticed they were emptier than usual. We speculated that people may have been avoiding these businesses at the onset of COVID-19 due to some xenophobia,” Lam wrote in an email.
According to Womply, a data subscription service, Asian American restaurants were closing at a far higher rate than non-Asian restaurants. Even amongst Asian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were significantly impacted with the highest rate of 61%.
Tony Yan and Lisa Li, co-owners of Minado Buffet in Washington, closed their restaurant doors in March in accordance with the state’s shelter-in-place. When they arrived to check on the restaurant, there were broken windows and a message was spray-painted in black across the restaurant’s wall: “Take the corona back you chink.”
The nonprofit group STOP AAPI HATE launched a reporting center website on March 19. Within the first week, the group logged 673 reports of coronavirus discrimination against Asian Americans. In the May press release statement, the logged reports rose to nearly 1,900 incidents. Over an eight-week period, the reports tripled in anti-Asian discrimination across the U.S.
The increase in anti-Asian sentiments and xenophobia only further imposed fear and anxiety.
Jeff Jun, the owner of Jun Won Restaurant in Koreatown, Los Angeles, shut his doors the final Friday of July.
Jun Won Restaurant was established in 1994 by his mother, Jung Ye Jun. In 2004, she opened a second restaurant that only sold Korean side dishes. In 2016 she closed her store and started helping her son when he relocated Jun Won to the present location. At the start of this year as he saw the growth of his restaurant, he remembers telling his mom, “Wow mom, we’re back.”
Numbers were looking similar to and even better than the sales from the original location. At the end of April, there was a rumor that flooded social media about a Korean Airlines flight attendant, who visited Koreatown in L.A., was later diagnosed with COVID-19 by Korea Center for Disease Control upon returning to South Korea. The post included a list of five popular Korean restaurants that were rumored she visited– fortunately, Jun Won was not listed. However, his business still suffered. “Starting that time, the whole restaurant scene in Koreatown started shaking. From then on, it never ended,” Jun said.
When July came around, Jun was looking at $350 in sales daily. "From a restaurant that operates for 8 hours: 4 hours lunch and 4 hours dinner, for us to put $300 or $500 didn’t make sense for a place that used to make $4,000 a day, '' he said. Despite the colossal decrease in sales, Jun believed in his employees and hoped they would endure the hard times.
But on July 28 at 5 a.m. Jun Won was robbed. A window was shattered, leaving broken glass all over, files splashed on the floor and the cash register missing.
Jun believes the theft to be targeted because the surveillance footage shows the robbers knew exactly what they were doing: They parked at an angle so their faces wouldn’t be detected and they broke in and out in two minutes. “They wanted our place,” he said.
Inevitably, he questioned if it was racially targeted. He knew as an Asian American minority it was a possibility. “Because we’re quiet and good, they think they could take advantage of us,” he said.
With that final event, Jun and his mother believed it was best to acknowledge their tremendous efforts thus far, but accept it was time to close. “My mom is a very stubborn person. But for her to say you know what enough is enough. Let’s stop doing this. For her, it takes a lot,” he said.
Parallel to the increased anti-Asian sentiments, there is a rise in community-driven organizations to combat the discrimination and stand in solidarity. One of the movement’s pioneer is #HATEISAVIRUS.
Michelle Hanabusa, the co-founder of #HATEISAVIRUS, trailblazed the movement with the core value based on a community-driven organization to aid Asian American businesses affected by COVID-19 and the xenophobia that immediately followed.
Since in-person events seemed dangerous, Hanabusa knew it was essential to take it to the digital space. With the help of her amazing team, who she calls “warriors of change,” they came up with three main goals for the movement.
The first goal is to bring awareness. They released a PSA video. They “collaborated with community leaders and influencers where we agreed we don’t want to stay silent,” said Hanabusa.
The second is what she considers the core DNA, which is to educate. “There’s a lot of misinformation we want to debunk, even why calling it the “China virus” or the “Kung flu” is not okay.” Across the platforms, there are infographics that can be downloaded and shared. The main idea is to encourage people to have these hard conversations with friends and family.
The last is to raise money, which is the group’s main focus now. It launched a virtual event called Raise A Million. “Through the series, we want to raise $1 million to help support small Asian businesses,” she explained.
Movements and community-based organizations like #HATEISAVIRUS are becoming more essential to Asian American communities. They are providing platforms for the silenced voices to rise and create a space for the Asian American community to come together in solidarity to combat racial discrimination all the while navigating through the hardships of a pandemic.
Lam and her team have worked hard to keep the restaurant scene in San Gabriel Valley afloat. Her efforts to keep the Facebook group positive and resourceful have ripple effects. “The community really came together and the group has evolved to so much more. People started sharing stories of childhood memories of eating at certain restaurants, their favorite dishes, the latest quarantine deals, the newest trends, etc. As a result, these restaurants started to see an increase in customers,” Lam wrote.
The pandemic promises no end. The survival of Asian American restaurants depends heavily on the collective work as a community. Even though Asian American businesses are affected twice as hard, there is beauty in solidarity and resilience as a whole when the world is yelling to be divisive. Hanabusa said, “There’s still a lot of work to be done. As long as we keep pushing forward and more people are talking about this, these actions are all going to add up.”