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Asian American businesses are defending themselves against rise in anti-Asian violence

There’s an economic cost to racism as business owners reduce hours, shell out for security in the wake of the Atlanta shootings

Mike Nguyen looks at racist slurs written on the windows of his San Antonio restaurant. (Tyler Prince)

To San Antonio restaurateur Mike Nguyen, the threat was clear. Alongside the racist graffiti covering the windows of his ramen shop — “Kung flu,” “Commie,” “Ramen noodle flu” — were these words, spray-painted in red: “Hope u die.”

Shock and hurt turned to rage, then fear. After Nguyen reported the vandalism to local law enforcement and the FBI, police agreed to step up drive-by patrols. But he and his employees would be left largely on their own.

Since the March 14 incident, the threats to Nguyen’s life and business have escalated. Last week, someone wrote “hope it burns down” on the Instagram account for his restaurant, Noodle Tree. An anonymous man phoned the restaurant, reciting Nguyen’s home address with a warning: “We’re coming for you.”

“The threats are getting more violent, more extreme,” said Nguyen, 33.

The United States is no stranger to anti-Asian racism. As early as 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration for 10 years. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Asian American entrepreneurs across the country are combating a sharp rise in racist threats and attacks on their businesses that many feel authorities are not taking seriously, even after last week’s shooting rampage targeting three Asian spas in Atlanta left eight people dead.

Perspective | Grief, anger and fear envelops Atlanta’s Asian American community

Amid heightened fears, business owners have begun hiring their own security, buying guns and cutting their hours of operation as well as advertising, among other costly safety measures that limit their profits — and profile — at a time when businesses are already struggling, according to Asian American chambers of commerce and other business organizations.

Asian-owned restaurants, salons and shops rapidly lost business at the start of the pandemic because of racial stigma, fueled by President Donald Trump’s repeated references to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu.” Now, community leaders warn that the racism targeting these businesses could hamper the country’s economic recovery from the coronavirus-induced recession.

“What happened in Atlanta is a very extreme example of the threat to human life, and folks have got to understand that as we try to emerge from covid-19 and try to conduct business, there are other threats to contend with,” said Lamar Heystek, president of the San Francisco-based ASIAN Inc., a nonprofit that works with the U.S. Department of Commerce to develop economic opportunity for Asian Americans and other minorities. “It doesn’t take an economist to see how that could really dampen business activity and an economic recovery in which Asian American Pacific Islander-owned businesses take part.”

Asian Americans owned more than 10 percent of all U.S. businesses in 2018. These firms earned $863 billion in receipts and employed 5.1 million people, Census Bureau data shows.

“How is that contribution muted by hate, discrimination and violence?” Heystek said. “We need to appreciate the systemic effect of these incidents that range from graffiti all the way up to death.”

It’s not only businesses in urban centers like Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York that have become targets of racial harassment. So have Asian-owned businesses in suburban strip malls and rural America, Heystek said.

Businesses have been vandalized, robbed, attacked online in racist Yelp reviews. Employees, regardless of their ethnicity, have been blamed for the spread of the coronavirus.

At Nguyen’s two-year-old ramen restaurant, graffiti scrawled on a patio table admonished him to “Go back 2 China.” He is of Vietnamese and French descent.

The racist abuse began after he criticized the decision in early March by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to rescind a statewide mask mandate that was in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

With the perpetrators still at large, Nguyen, who is undergoing cancer treatment, said he has never feared more for his life. The threats come daily now, making him so “paranoid” that he does not allow people to get within 10 feet.

He had delayed fully reopening indoor dining because of the lack of police presence — and now must budget $5,700 a month on private security for the four days a week his restaurant is open. He temporarily left town. And he reluctantly bought a gun.

“I am personally against guns, but we had to get one just to protect ourselves now,” Nguyen said. “I can understand why a lot of Asian Americans don’t want to report these things because of retaliation and lack of protection. Will it take for me to get seriously hurt or die for someone to take these threats seriously?”

The San Antonio Police Department issued a written statement saying “officers continue to provide drive-bys to the business. We have additionally contacted others in the area to report any suspicious activity and we will respond accordingly. This case remains actively under investigation and anyone with information is urged to contact police.”

Asian American doctors and nurses are fighting racism and the coronavirus

A small business owner describes the anti-Asian harassment she’s faced at her butcher shop in Sacramento. (Video: James Cornsilk, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Among the most vulnerable are retail businesses, restaurants and salons whose storefronts open to public sidewalks. Many store owners have kept their doors wide-open to improve ventilation during the pandemic. Not only have they recently begun shutting their doors, they’re locking them and removing cultural signage and decor that could make them easy targets for people looking to terrorize Asian businesses, according to business owners and community leaders.

“Right now, the key word is alert,” said Kevin Chan, 51, owner of Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown, who said he has received threatening phone calls after he intervened when a customer was attacked in front of his store. He now locks the gate to his shop at 5 p.m., even though the store is open until 9.

“To me, we don’t have much freedom at all,” Chan said. “We have to watch our backs. That’s how I feel right now as an old immigrant, as an American.”

Employees newly wary of taking public transportation to work are shifting their hours, asking not to come in early or work late — fearful of what they may encounter along their commute in light of viral videos of Asian pedestrians being violently assaulted.

“We have to start quantifying the economic effect of hate,” Heystek said. “We cannot ignore this grave threat to our economy.”

Resentment against Asian Americans has long existed in this country. They’ve been a frequent scapegoat during economic woes and disease outbreaks, and in wartime propaganda. Racist incidents today are more easily recorded on smartphones and shared over social media, contributing to increased fear.

There is no comprehensive data measuring anti-Asian hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic. One in three female Asian American business owners reported experiencing anti-Asian sentiment, according to a 2020 survey by minority business organizations.

A recent analysis of self-reported incidents by Russell Jeung, chairman of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University, who is studying racism and xenophobia during the pandemic, shows at least 3,800 cases of harassment and assault against Asians since March 2020, with more than twice as many women as men saying they have been mistreated. Most incidents, experts say, are never reported to law enforcement.

Immigrant business owners whose instinct is not to report racial harassment to police are instead seeking help from culturally aligned organizations like ASIAN, Inc.

“What they are saying is, ‘I’m fearful of opening my doors to the public. I don’t want to put my workers in harm’s way. If they can hurt a shop in Atlanta, what prevents them from hurting a shop in San Francisco?’” Heystek said. “Folks have got to feel empowered to do business in this climate.”

In response, Asian American organizations are helping small business owners secure funding to install security cameras that record video and audio, distribute personal security alarms to employees that can be programmed to call 911, and connect them with self-defense training.

The National Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship held an emergency Zoom meeting last week to discuss anti-Asian hate and the Atlanta shootings that drew more than four dozen business leaders.

“There are two illnesses attacking AAPI small businesses: One is covid. The other is hate,” said Chiling Tong, president and chief executive of the national chamber, who has been fielding calls and emails from around the country from businesses seeking guidance. “They are just very scared to operate, especially after the attacks in Atlanta.”

Geri Guidote Hernandez, the Filipina American owner of Savory Crust, an empanada carryout in a Chicago-area ethnic strip mall, said the attacks compelled her this week to draw up an emergency active-shooter plan for her employees, who include her two daughters.

“Growing up, anytime we felt racism, what do our parents say? ‘Just ignore that.’ So we do it over our whole lifetime,” she said. “It’s a different environment now.”

In Southern California, the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which has tracked hate incidents since 1995, recorded a tenfold increase of incidents targeting Asian Americans in 2020 from prior years.

On Tuesday, a Vietnamese American owned beauty school in Orange County, where a fifth of the population is Asian, hosted a self-defense workshop for salon and spa workers. Tam Nguyen, president of Advance Beauty College, started 34 years ago by his parents, said he plans to also offer workshops on de-escalation, safe confrontation and the use of Mace. He and other nail-care industry leaders are distributing cards and fliers listing newly created police hotlines for reporting hate crimes in Vietnamese and Korean. And businesses are chipping in for private security guards to patrol Asian shopping plazas.

The coronavirus recession could wipe out minority-owned businesses, fueling displacement from historic ethnic neighborhoods

In Sacramento, Kelly Shum, owner of Mad Butcher Meat Co., said she started spending $5,000 a month for a security guard after a customer last spring tried to attack her younger sister, who was enforcing the mask policy at the door. Shum said she had called police, but she said they never responded. So she stepped in with a baseball bat to get the man to leave.

The Sacramento Police Department said it has no record of a call from Shum’s business at the time of the incident.

The 28-year-old entrepreneur said she felt she had little choice but to incur the extra expense to protect her employees, nearly all of whom are Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant women. Three of them have quit out of fear.

“Having a security guard is extreme just to fight off racists,” Shum said. But “so many customers are calling us ‘coronavirus,’ ‘China virus’ and saying, ‘Why should I be wearing a mask if you people are the dirty ones?’

“No one feels safe. No one wants to come to work,” she said. The security guard “is literally only here so we can do our job.”

But that did not stop a car from waiting in the parking lot for her father to leave the shop and tailing him, according to footage from a security camera. Her sister, who was also driving home in a separate car, told Shum that the car tried to run their father off the road.

In February, a customer left a mutilated cat in their parking lot, invoking a racist stereotype of Asians. Shum said her lone White employee volunteered to dispose of the carcass, aware of the implications of an Asian American being seen discarding the animal.

“All of us knew what it meant and understood the gravity of the situation. This was a very obvious hate crime,” Shum said.

When she posted about the incident on social media, Shum was aghast that some users defended the man who left the cat. “People were like, ‘Don’t you guys do that? Don’t you guys butcher up cats and dogs? Maybe he was on to something?’” she said.

Shum said that even when police arrived to take a report of the incident, one officer questioned why she considered it a hate crime. The perpetrator was not arrested, but Shum said he called the shop to apologize after seeing surveillance video of himself on the news and said he was “having a bad day.”

“It’s domestic terrorism,” she said.

Karl Chan, a Sacramento police spokesman, said the case remains open and detectives are investigating it as a hate crime.

“In order for a crime to fall under the definition of a bias or hate related incident a distinction must be made that the crime/incident was motivated by bias,” Chan said in a written statement. “One of the ways that officers can make this distinction during the preliminary investigation is by asking questions that would identify how the victim perceived the crime or incident.”

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Shum, a former Los Angeles television producer and marketing manager, had returned to Sacramento in late 2019 to take over the butcher shop from her parents, immigrants who came from China in the 1980s. She had grand promotion plans for the store, which serves a predominantly low-income community. She built a website and started online orders and deliveries, to make the shop more accessible.

“We’re now hiding and not promoting in a way that we want to or used to,” Shum said. “That is so detrimental to us, but we’re scared of people finding out who we are.”

Shum has removed most of her mother’s Chinese brush paintings and other cultural decor to make the business appear “less Asian.” She stopped marketing the business on social media with photos of a cat figurine waving one paw, a common symbol that Asian-owned businesses display to bring good luck.

“You have to minimize yourself in hopes that nobody notices you and attacks you,” she said. “It’s such a miserable half-existence.”

Last weekend, in the wake of the Atlanta attacks, Shum thought about hiring extra security to check for weapons at the door. But she could not afford it.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.