But after his business was targeted, college students, neighbors, patrons, fellow business owners and local officials told the 33-year-old restaurant owner they were not going to tolerate ignorance and hate.
“Yesterday started off very negative, but the positive is that it showed the unity,” Nguyen told The Washington Post on Monday. “Even though we have a division in Texas, I’ve had people on both sides of the stance say, ‘This isn’t right.’”
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus voiced his disgust at a the incident during a news conference Tuesday. “I try not to display my anger when I see things like this, but this is nothing but a bigoted, cowardly move to do something like that. It’s not San Antonio by any means."
The solidarity hasn’t completely set Nguyen at ease: He said he is staying outside of San Antonio until the shop resumes regular hours on Thursday for safety and personal reasons. One person spoofing the restaurant’s number called his personal phone to threaten him, saying they wanted to punch Nguyen in the face. He’s also worried for other Asian American individuals and store owners being targeted by violence elsewhere in Texas.
That is among the reasons Nguyen said he will push for the attack on his business to be investigated as a hate crime. The San Antonio Police Department as of Monday had not made a determination and told The Post that preliminary information was not yet available.
Nguyen said he would let the police do their due diligence, and he hopes they will do the right thing. “If I feel it’s not adequate, I’m going to push for it,” he said of the hate crime designation.
“I’m not going to give up,” he added, saying he would not be intimated or discouraged. “I’ve had two bouts with cancer. It’s going to take more than some paint on my window to rattle me.”
The Sunday incident targeting his store appears to combine two disturbing national trends: A backlash to mask mandates that has often turned violent and destructive, and a surge of racist attacks and threats against Asian Americans, which some advocates tie to then-President Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric over the pandemic.
Among the terms spray-painted in red on Nguyen’s windows on Sunday was the phrase “Kung flu,” a racist slur that Trump helped popularize during his campaign rallies and other appearances.
Local officials swiftly denounced the vandalism.
“Thank you to all the neighbors who showed up to help & proved that we’re better than this one hateful act,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg tweeted Sunday. “We must work together to eradicate racism from our city.”
For the past two years, Nguyen, a California native who moved to San Antonio in 2016, has owned the Noodle Tree restaurant, which sits across from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s campus. Nguyen is undergoing treatment for lymphoma, his second bout with cancer.
The condition forced Nguyen, who is immunocompromised, to close his restaurant for six months last year. So even though Abbott ended Texas’s statewide mask mandate last week — a move opposed by public health officials — Nguyen still requires all indoor customers to wear masks when they are not eating.
Hours before he appeared Wednesday on CNN’s “The Newsroom,” Nguyen pondered whether denouncing Abbott’s decision would be worth the backlash he would likely court. But he decided he needed to speak out.
“It needed to be said,” Nguyen wrote Wednesday on the restaurant’s Instagram account.
On-air with CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto, Nguyen accused the governor of placing him and millions of Texans at risk by lifting the mandate.
“His decision to drop the mask mandate is selfish and cowardly. There’s no reason to do it,” Nguyen told CNN. “A lot of us feel like he’s putting a lot of us in danger.”
Near the end of the almost six-minute segment, Nguyen said the recent rise of violent attacks and harassment against Asian Americans posed additional concerns for him and his business.
“Since I’m an Asian American, we’ve seen a lot of attacks against Asian Americans and that’s a huge concern for me,” Nguyen said. “We see all these incidents of that and this is an opportunity. It opens up that opportunity.”
On Sunday, Nguyen woke up to messages alerting him that his restaurant had been covered with graffiti. When he got to the store, he counted at least seven spray-painted phrases, including one urging him to “Go back 2 China” and another one reading “Hope u die.”
“They did it on the windows where everybody who drives could see it,” Nguyen told The Post.
Nguyen called San Antonio police, who photographed the damage and filed an incident report.
Nguyen was initially so rattled by the vandalism that he wasn’t sure whether he should open for business. But after asking his staff whether they still felt comfortable showing up for work, Nguyen decided he would open an hour later than usual.
“We all decided whatever their motive was, we weren’t going to let them win,” Nguyen said.
By the time his first customer arrived to pick up her food, Nguyen, bucket and sponge in hand, was just beginning to scrub the graffiti on the patio tables. “She said, ‘If you have another sponge, I’d love to help,’” Nguyen recalled.
About a dozen other strangers who had heard the news later showed up with cleaning supplies and paint remover. By the end of the day, the storefront was clean again.
“We’re not going to get past this unless we’re unified,” Nguyen said. “The longer we’re divided, we’re only going to go backwards.”