As Emotions Run High in Oakland Chinatown, a Dumpling Class Promotes Asian and Black Unity

When Oakland-raised cook Adrian Chang first saw the videos of the violent attacks against elderly Asian people in Oakland Chinatown that have circulated the internet in recent weeks, he felt enraged.

The wave of attacks, including a clip of a 91-year-old man getting shoved headfirst onto the pavement in broad daylight, felt personal for Chang, as they did for many Asian Americans. Just last month, he and Erin Wilkins, the proprietor of Herb Folk, an Asian-American herbalist shop in Petaluma, had launched a yearlong workshop series focused on Asian-American folk traditions and the use of food as medicine — a deliberate effort to reclaim those practices’ Asian roots.

“Everything that we do is based in the celebration of the wisdom of our ancestors, our elders,” says Chang, a third-generation Chinese American who now lives in Sonoma County. “So we really felt called to do something.”

To further complicate things, because several of the suspects seen in the videos were young Black men, the attacks have made the already-fraught relationship between the Bay Area’s Black and Asian American communities even more tense.

So, on Saturday, February 20, Chang and Wilkins will do what they always do: host an online workshop, this one focused on making dumplings during Lunar New Year. But this time, the theme of the event — “Dumplings for Unity” — is a response to the raw emotion that these attacks on the elderly have produced. Against that backdrop, the cook-along will aim to promote Black and Asian unity. More specifically, it will serve as a fundraiser for Good Good Eatz, an Oakland-based initiative that Chang and Wilkins credit with building bridges between the two communities.

Wilkins and Chang say that part of the rage they felt stemmed from the fact that, initially, it didn’t seem like the mainstream media was even covering the attacks at all. “This event was created as a response to the anger and the helplessness that came up,” says Wilkins, a fourth-generation Japanese American. “My grandmother is 95. I can’t help but see her face and imagine her when I’m seeing these images.”

But then, Chang says, when the attacks did start to get nationwide attention, it seemed like the narrative that was being pushed was that it was “Asian against Black,” with a lot of inflammatory rhetoric directed toward the Black community in general, as well as calls for more intense police presence in Chinatown — both trends that made Chang uncomfortable.

“We have to call the demon out for what it is,” Chang says. “It is system racism: There is a history in this country of the system pitting [the Asian and Black] communities against each other.”

What, then, can a 90-minute cooking class do to solve a problem as deeply entrenched as systemic racism? Not much, perhaps. That said, the Dumplings for Unity workshop is the spiritual descendent of “Dumplings for Black Farmers,” a series of cook-along events that Chang’s friend, Christine Su, started in San Francisco over the summer in solidarity with the George Floyd protests. Chang was one of the featured cooks for those classes, which raised thousands of dollars to support local Black-owned farms.

A plate of finished, uncooked dumplings with pleated edges

The class will teach participants how to make two different dumpling fillings
Adrian Chang

Likewise, Chang stresses that he doesn’t have any specific background in social justice activism. But he and Wilkins wanted to use their platform to support those who are already on the ground doing important anti-racist work. That’s why they’ve made the class a fundraiser to support the work of Good Good Eatz, a community organization that had already been doing on-the-ground work to build bridges between the Black and Asian communities in Oakland Chinatown and beyond. It was one of several community groups that helped organize a big rally in Chinatown this past weekend — a gathering that condemned anti-Asian violence and discrimination but also pushed back against the idea that the Black community, as a whole, was targeting Asians.

“We always try to root our approach to these difficult situations in compassion, empathy, and solutions that stand in solidarity with the communities we serve,” Good Good Eatz co-founder Trinh Banh says.

When looting adjacent to last summer’s George Floyd protests impacted Oakland Chinatown storefronts, Good Good Eatz launched a big Asian x Black x Unity campaign, which included a line Black Panther-inspired apparel that declared solidarity between the two communities. Now, as a response to the recent violent attacks in Chinatown, the initiative is collaborating with Asian Health Services and other Chinatown community organizations to relaunch the now-discontinued “Chinatown Ambassador” program that Good Good Eatz co-founder Tommy Wong had helped create several years ago — a program in which formerly incarcerated folks who have roots in Chinatown provide support to the local merchants.

“That’s the solution we want to see,” Banh says. “They know the merchants. They’re familiar faces. Some of them speak the language. They’re not ‘patrolling.’”

Chang and Wilkins plan to raise all of these issues during the Dumplings for Unity class. At its core, however, it’s a cooking class. It’s meant to be affirming and fun. Chang plans to teach participants how to make two different fillings — one, with pork and chives, is his grandmother’s recipe. The other will be vegan. And then everyone will boil, steam, and eat the dumplings together.

“Food as a symbol is so significant and powerful for me,” Chang says. “It’s the sharing of food that brings BIPOC communities — Asian and Black communities — together.”

Dumplings for Unity will take place on Saturday, February 20, from noon to 1:30 p.m. The suggested donation is $30, $40, or $50, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Those interested should reserve their spot at least a couple of days in advance to leave time to shop for the ingredients.

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