David Ching opened his Guangzhou-style Chinese barbecue restaurant Hay Hay Roasted, on Mott Street, in Manhattan’s Chinatown at the beginning of 2021. Right from the opening, he began closing his restaurant at 7 p.m., even though he would have liked to welcome customers till 8 p.m. or later. Part of it was that Chinatown’s streets were just empty past 7 p.m., he says, but a more pressing concern was the prolonged rise in violence against Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S.
Since the restaurant’s opening, Ching says he’s been encouraging his eight staffers to travel in groups when possible. Many of his employees commute from Brooklyn and Queens, so closing early allows them more time to travel home safely. “They are scared, of course, because of the rise in violence,” he says, referring to his employees. “They are using the subway and they hear of people being pushed onto the tracks. They worry they will be the victims of a hate crime.”
For many Asian and Asian-American restaurant owners in New York City, the murders of eight people outside of Atlanta, Georgia — six of them women of Asian descent — has only reinforced what they’ve been saying for more than a year now: The rise in violent, racist, and xenophobic attacks has made it increasingly untenable for them to continue operating their businesses while also reeling from the pandemic downturn felt by the restaurant industry as a whole.
“What was just looming and talk among our own kind — on phone calls to our parents, on Asian-focused Instagrams like Nextshark — is now a violence that is so gross it has finally crossed the barrier into the national conversation that usually skips over us,” say Peter Tondreau and Victor Huang, co-owners of the popular Chelsea Market hand-pulled noodle destination Very Fresh Noodles, in an email to Eater.
The duo say they were already aware of the discrimination against Asian-American businesses before reopening their Chelsea restaurant in June following a three-month pause due to the pandemic. After the reopening, though, the owners had to confront it in person. Tondreau and Huang recounted an incident where a white man walked into their restaurant and asked one of their white staffers, “Do you sell Corona?” When the customer was confronted about the question, they say the man excused it by saying he had just woken up following a night of drinking.
Though it didn’t rise to the level of physical violence, the incident at Very Fresh Noodles is part of a broader, sustained rise of discrimination and hate against Asian Americans since at least January 2020, the same month that the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. The nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate recently released a report that showed 3,795 incidents of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021. Asian-American women reported twice as many incidents as men during that same time.
New York was second only to California in the number of cases recorded across states in the U.S., with 517 reported incidents of hate compared to California’s 1,691. The group’s data includes incidents of physical assault, verbal harassment, workplace discrimination, and online harassment, among others. Verbal harassment and shunning made up the largest proportion (more than 80 percent) of the incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate. According to a New York Times report, NYC recorded the largest increase in hate crimes against Asians among large U.S. cities, with 28 incidents reported in 2020 versus 3 incidents in 2019.
Still, many instances of harassment and assault often go unreported, and even fewer cases are classified as hate crimes in NYC. Joanne Kwong, the second-generation family owner of NYC institution Pearl River Mart and newly opened Pearl River Mart Foods in Chelsea Market, says discrimination against her employees began in January 2020 in part because many began wearing masks well before a majority of the population was doing it in the U.S. Hateful comments and other incidents have occurred at all hours, and in many places. “It’s not even like, ‘I’m going to go through this dangerous area,’” says Kwong. “It’s just random and it is everywhere. It is close to home. Wherever your home is, I guarantee you it has happened.”
There has only been one person prosecuted for an anti-Asian hate crime in NYC so far this year, according to the New York Times report, despite repeated acts of violence against Asians and Asian Americans occurring over the past three months. These incidents included a man assaulting an Asian woman outside of a Flushing bakery in February; a week later, a Chinese man was stabbed by a stranger in Manhattan. Neither have been prosecuted as hate crimes. On Tuesday, March 16, a group of teenagers attacked a 13-year-old Asian-American boy and reportedly told him to “go back to your country,” according to the NYPD, which has assigned its Hate Crime Task Force to look into the matter.
The rise in violence against Asians and Asian Americans in the city adds an extra layer of fear and uncertainty for Asian restaurant and food business owners, who are already struggling to keep operations going during the pandemic. Apart from Hay Hay Roasted, many other Asian-owned restaurants and businesses across the city have either curtailed hours or asked employees to travel in groups for safety reasons, including Pearl River Mart, Flushing Taiwanese night market-style spot Playdate, and the collection of buzzy Japanese restaurants, such as Shabu-Tatsu and Curry-Ya, owned by the T.I.C. Restaurant Group.
“We’ve already been closing earlier than pre-pandemic times because it is dangerous to walk on the emptier sidewalks,” T.I.C. chief operating officer Sakura Yagi says. “That’s been the case since the start of the pandemic. The thing that many people don’t get is that from the start of the pandemic, Asian businesses have been impacted differently than other businesses because of the way the virus has been categorized as an Asian disease.”
Asian-American businesses were hit early and hard last year as foot traffic dropped almost overnight, while former President Trump used racist rhetoric like the terms “kung flu” and “China virus” to describe COVID-19 to the nation. Manhattan Chinatown restaurants, including Nom Wah and Hwa Yuan, reported sales declines of 40 percent as early as the first week of February 2020, according to Grub Street. Chinese restaurants in the city were forced to upgrade their delivery efforts due to lack of dine-in customers long before dining rooms were shut down by the state. And it hasn’t stopped: Last week, Trump again used the term “China virus” to describe COVID-19 during an appearance on Fox.
In the face of this growing crisis, and the lack of any meaningful change over the last year, many Asian-American restaurant owners and advocacy groups have taken it upon themselves to combat the rise in violence and raise awareness of acts of racism against Asians and Asian Americans. Community nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown is co-hosting an AAPI Rally Against Hate on Sunday, March 21, in Manhattan’s Columbus Park. #EnoughIsEnough, a project led by 886 owner Eric Sze, brought together NYC restaurants including Málà Project and Fish Cheeks to donate meals to homeless shelters and people experiencing food insecurity in the city, in the hopes of raising awareness about hate crimes in the process.
“I think it’s important, as New Yorkers and Americans, to know that there are ways to combat what is happening, whether it is lobbying elected leaders or supporting business so they can pay for better lighting and pay their employees such that closing at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. is still feasible,” Kwong says. “Even just a kind word or a supportive message means a lot, because for months and months, especially during the pandemic, it was something that was just ignored. Every small piece of advocacy that anyone can do kind of helps everyone.”