Asian American business leaders in Durham describe fear of rising hatred and violence in the country
Sitting at the back of his Durham restaurant, Kenny Wong says he fled Vietnam at the age of eight as one of hundreds of thousands of “boat people” – refugees who left the country by sea after the Vietnam War.
He and his family spent seven days in the Pacific Ocean with more than 50 people on a small ship, surviving hunger, dehydration and an encounter with pirates.
“I don’t think anything can bring me down,” Wong said.
But lately, it has been difficult to stay afloat. Wong opened Secrets Pho & Noodle Bar last July after years of wanting to run his own Vietnamese restaurant. When he signed the lease in September 2019, there was no way to predict that a global coronavirus pandemic would devastate the economy and devastate the restaurant industry.
In addition to the daily challenges of operating a restaurant under COVID-19 restrictions, Secrets was recently broken into twice in a month: first on February 7 and then again on March 3. day, Wong said. Having to shut down for repairs for about a week didn’t help.
“It cost us a lot of emotions,” says Henessee Asaro, manager of Secrets. “And then, when the second one arrived, we wondered why again? And why us again?
Small businesses in Durham have seen an increase in commercial burglaries amid the pandemic, local crime data shows. But for Asian-owned establishments, the attacks also come amid increased discrimination and violence against Asians and Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The national advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate received 3,795 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021, of which 35% were in businesses.
A shootout targeting three Asian companies in Atlanta in March that left eight people dead, including six Asian women, only heightened the sense of fear in Asian-American communities.
“It’s really scary,” says Janet Lee, owner of ZenFish Poké Bar. The restaurant has three locations in the Triangle area, one of which is a few doors down from Secrets on Ninth Street.
Lee says there was an attempted break-in at ZenFish’s Ninth Street location around the same time Secrets was robbed in February. She bought pepper spray for each store and stopped carrying cash there.
“You’re sort of in a battle with yourself wondering if this is targeted at Asians or if it just happens to be like a lot of other burglaries,” says Lee. “It’s horrible to have someone break into your restaurant or business, whether it’s Asian hate or not. But if it’s Asian hate, it’s even worse. They don’t just target your business, but they target your race based on who you are. “
Durham Police spokesman Lamont Minor said the ministry is not currently investigating any incidents at Asian businesses as potential hate crimes.
“We have no reason to believe that there is currently a specific target for Asian restaurants,” Minor said in an email.
Mayor Steve Schewel noted that the Durham Police Department had worked closely with a group of Asian restaurateurs in recent years after several Asian-owned restaurants were targeted for thefts. The owner of the Chinese restaurant in Durham, Hong Zheng, was shot and killed in an armed attack in 2018.
“We know there is a wave of anti-Asian violence in our country now, and we cannot – and we will not accept – this in Durham,” Schewel said in an email. “We welcome and welcome our Asian communities to Durham, and we will do everything in our power to protect them.”
Lawrence Yoo, owner of Sushioki restaurant in Durham and senior pastor of Waypoint Church, remembers suffering at least two racist attacks in the past year. In one incident, he was driving home after shutting down Sushioki for the night when the driver in front of him stopped their car and started yelling racist slurs and profanity at him.
Growing up, the son of Korean immigrants who owned small businesses, Yoo says thefts were a constant fear, if not a wait.
“People thought Asians would keep a lot more money, which is not the case anymore,” he says. “I was at home waiting and praying that my parents would come home safe and sound every night after closing the restaurant. I have been living with this fear for some time.
In addition to the break-ins, many establishments in Asian countries began to feel the effects of the pandemic long before the statewide lockdowns last March. National media reported that some small Asian businesses across the country saw their revenues decline in early 2020 due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak originating in China, despite few reported cases of COVID in the United States in the United States. era and no evidence of foodborne coronavirus transmission.
Supporters say anti-Asian sentiments have been fueled by rhetoric from leaders like former President Donald Trump, who continually referred to the coronavirus in racialized terms such as “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu”.
“If you look at the reviews online, there are people who for a long time wouldn’t go to a Chinese restaurant,” says Heidi Kim, director of the University of North Carolina at the Asian American Center in Chapel. Hill. “There are probably people who still don’t go to Asian restaurants or Asian supermarkets.”
Many Asian immigrant small business owners also find it difficult to apply for COVID relief from government loans like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other institutional resources due to language barriers, says Ricky Leung, the group’s senior director of programs. defense of the Asian Americans of North Carolina. Together.
“Many of the issues faced by our communities during the pandemic are not necessarily unique to the pandemic,” says Leung.
Wong, owner of Secrets, was unable to apply for PPP loans because the restaurant was not operational until February 2020, a condition of program eligibility.
“It’s hard. Right now I’m using all my resources. It’s really hard to fundraise,” said Wong. “Sometimes people ask, ‘How are you? How do you stay open in this? moment? I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.
These days, Wong is focused on keeping the doors of Secrets open and his 10 paid, healthy, and safe employees. He wants his restaurant to inspire his two children, ages 12 and 15, and believes in his mission to serve the community of Durham with traditional and healthy Vietnamese cuisine – from a bowl of pho to banh mi to noodles. with favorite eggs. .
“I just have to take it everyday,” Wong says. “Every morning is a second chance.”
Comment this story at [email protected].
Support local independent journalism. Join the INDY press club to help us ensure the viability of intrepid surveillance reporting and essential artistic and cultural coverage in the Triangle.