Restaurants and neighborhoods like Little Tokyo contend with a rise of racist incidents as celebrities come together to raise funds for struggling eateries.
Shirley Chung, a Top Chef finalist and owner of Culver City’s Ms. Chi Cafe, recalls an incident last year in which a group of diners made her staff sanitize their outdoor table — twice. “It was very passive-aggressive racism against us,” says Chung, a Chinese American who says she now goes far above health requirements to overcome the racist connections some people make between COVID-19 and Asian people. “I stepped up service to protect ourselves.”
In the past year, Asian-owned businesses throughout L.A. have been doubly hit — by the pandemic shutdowns and by a rise in racist hate crimes. On March 2, the LAPD announced 15 anti-Asian hate crimes reported in the city in 2020, compared with seven in 2019. A new report by Stop AAPI Hate documents 3,795 racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans from March 2020 to February 2021 nationwide. Six women of Asian descent were among eight killed in shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors on March 16. The killer was white.
“I don’t think L.A. is a safe place. This is already happening everywhere,” says Chung.
RiceBox co-owners Leo and Lydia Lee tell THR they also have experienced racist incidents at their downtown restaurant, with a “dramatic” rise in prank calls asking, “Do you serve COVID here?” (Former President Trump was among those who would call it the “Chinese virus” because the first cases were reported there.) They had one customer push through barricades at the entrance just to come inside the restaurant and cough. This followed a 2018 Yelp review that suggested they were serving cats and dogs on the menu. “When COVID hit, I knew because of what we experienced before that we were going to be a target again,” says Leo Lee.
When these incidents first started, the restaurateur thought he had provided bad customer service or made someone visiting his restaurant upset. “At the end, we realized that actually, we didn’t do anything wrong, we simply existed and we were a target of someone’s jokes or racist comments,” he says.
A chilling effect can be seen in places like Little Tokyo, where fewer people are coming outside after sundown, according to Kristin Fukushima, managing director of the Little Tokyo Community Council. “People just feel a little bit less safe,” she says. And Chinatown is “kind of like a ghost town after 5 p.m.,” says Chinese tearoom Steep LA co-founder Lydia Lin of the newly cautious mood. “Most of the businesses actually close about 6 p.m.; even the restaurants close early.”
Michelle Kang, manager of Koreatown’s Bulgogi Hut, also points to many Asian businesses run by an older generation that doesn’t know how to operate websites, social media and delivery apps, reducing customers even further.
To better equip Asian-American communities against these incidents, activist Esther Lim created a series of booklets in seven languages on how to report hate crimes and what to do during an attack. “People are just finding [COVID] an excuse to be blatantly racist toward us, and I think that was already conditioned in them before the pandemic,” says Lim. “So now it’s like, ‘Open call to hunt them down,’ and it makes us really scared.”
For those wanting to help, activist groups like Hollaback! are holding bystander intervention trainings; others, like David and Nicole Um, have taken to saving Koreatown businesses via social media, highlighting local spots and selling merch through their Ktown Fan Club brand. L.A. Food Gang hosted a Clubhouse chat March 3 with Margaret Cho and Lisa Ling that raised nearly $60,000 for struggling Asian American Pacific Islander restaurants.
“The recent devastating pandemic brings out the worst and the best of us,” says Mr Chow’s Michael Chow. “We all have learned a valuable lesson. Each of us is part of a global society; only together as one can we make the world a better place.”
A version of this story first appeared in the March 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.