July-August 2021 | Food & Drink

Staying strong

The pandemic threatened to put these Asian restaurant owners out of business, and racism continues to test their resilience

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Chris Zhu, co-owner of China Garden in Rockville. Photo by Deb Lindsey

In early March, Javier Fernandez instituted a buddy system at his Rockville restaurant, Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly. In the past, a manager or sous-chef often locked up the restaurant alone, sometimes staying well beyond the 9 p.m. closing time, but now Fernandez encourages staff to leave together—never by themselves—and to keep an eye on each other as they walk to their cars in the White Flint Plaza parking lot.

News stories throughout the pandemic about anti-Asian hate around the country have been unsettling to Fernandez, 37, who lives in Rockville with his wife, Jennifer, and their two young daughters. “It has been a roller coaster of emotions about the Asian hate going on,” he says. “I was born in the Philippines and grew up in [Montgomery County], and never really thought [being Asian] was a big problem, but this past year it feels like we’re being targeted, especially as a business and what’s going on with Chinese restaurants. Every day I feel like we have to watch our backs. Going for a run, I think, ‘What if a driver drives by and thinks I’m Asian and spits on me?’ ”

Two incidents early this year in which women of Asian descent were followed home from their Montgomery County restaurants and robbed violently at gunpoint (one on Jan. 7, the other on Feb. 16) hit Fernandez close to home—the parents of one of his managers own a Chinese carryout not far from one of the victims’ restaurants. This made it clearer to Fernandez that all Asians are in this fight together.

Fernandez says that being Filipino, rather than Chinese, doesn’t mean he’s less susceptible to anti-Asian hatred, because the people who express it don’t necessarily make a distinction. Jennifer Fernandez, 33, who handles the payroll and marketing for Kuya Ja’s and, before the pandemic, worked the line or the counter when necessary, says, “They start with Chinese and then they group all Asians as Chinese. I was hoping that as a Filipino establishment we’d be less targeted, but at the same time we are all Asian.”

Jennifer says she often experienced anti-Chinese bullying while at Damascus High School, where there were few Asian students. “I’m actually mixed—Chinese, Cambodian and Thai,” she says. “My parents were welcomed here as refugees [from Cambodia]. They didn’t do anything illegal to get here, if that’s what [people are] thinking. Plenty of times growing up, people would say to me, ‘Go back to China.’ I’ve never been to China. I was born here. I’m American.” The anti-Asian environment was so pervasive when she went to the University of North Carolina Wilmington that she transferred to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) after one semester. That’s where she and Javier met in 2006. “Some people [at school] called [UMBC] ‘You Must Be Chinese’ because it has a large Asian population,” Javier says.

All cultures bring something special to the table, including Asian entrepreneurs, who contribute significantly to Montgomery County’s food scene. Of the 10 new restaurants spotlighted in Bethesda Magazine’s May/June 2021 issue, four are Asian—Hawkers Asian Street Food (pan-Asian), ChiKo (Chinese Korean) and two Indian restaurants, Chennai Hoppers and Virraaj Fine Indian Cuisine. Of more than 375 restaurants in the magazine’s dining guide, about 20% are Asian.

The pandemic hit all small business owners hard, but Asian Americans bore and continue to bear the extra burdens of xenophobia and racism, with the fear of verbal or physical attacks hanging over them. On March 16, 2020, the day Gov. Larry Hogan ordered bars and restaurants closed for indoor dining, then-President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” in a tweet. A University of California, San Francisco study published a year later that analyzed nearly 700,000 tweets the week before and after March 16 found that “there was a significantly greater increase in anti-Asian hashtags associated with #chinesevirus compared with #covid19.” Recently, Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate, an organization founded on March 19, 2020, to track self-reported incidents of anti-Asian hate, violence, harassment, bullying and shunning in the U.S., announced that 6,603 such incidents took place between that date and March 31, 2021, with a significant jump in March 2021.

Hollywood East Cafe owner Janet Yu and her sons Tim (left) and Corey, who work at the restaurant with her. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Chris Zhu, the majority owner of China Garden in Rockville, recounts that before the restaurant closed for the shutdown, a customer who had to wait a little for his takeout said, “F— China! F— Wuhan! F— the Wuhan virus!” on his way out the door. Danny Lee, who opened an outlet of ChiKo in Bethesda this past January, says that such comments shouldn’t be taken lightly. “I’ve been called ‘China virus’ many times walking to my car [in Washington, D.C.]. Even though it’s verbal, it’s an assault. It’s not a brush-it-off innocent comment. It is a hateful assault.”

Chef Satang Ruangsangwatana, co-owner of Silver Spring-based Thai supper club Fat Nomads, now drives from her Wheaton home to a consulting gig at Thai Chef Street Food in Dupont Circle. “I would get harassed on the Metro by people talking mock Chinese to me. One day, I was wearing black pants and a white shirt and they called me ‘panda.’ I’m a middle-aged person. I’m in the target group,” says Ruangsangwatana, 42.

On March 16, 2021, six of the eight people killed in shootings at three Atlanta-area locations were women of Asian descent. It hasn’t been determined in a court of law that these were anti-Asian hate crimes, but Lydia Chang, who spearheads business development for her family’s restaurant group—which includes Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda and Peter Chang Rockville—doesn’t require proof.

Three days after the Atlanta-area shootings, Chang, 33, wrote a piece for the restaurant software and media company Resy entitled, “What It’s Like to be an Asian American Restaurant Owner Right Now.” In it, she expresses her frustration when people ask her how she knows that crimes—including two smashed-window burglaries at Chang properties, one at Q this past January and the other two months later at their Baltimore restaurant, NiHao—are anti-Asian. “I want to say to them: ‘Do you know what it feels like to be an Asian American right now?’ ” she wrote. “How do you actually prove a hate crime against Asian Americans? In a lot of these cases, you can’t. But we do see a pattern here; a lot of the victims are Asian, so how do you explain that? How do people around us not know that that matters?”

The Lunar New Year on Jan. 25, 2020, should have meant big business for Chinese restaurants in the U.S., with celebrations taking place for weeks afterward. Chinese restaurant owners had indications early in 2020 that their businesses could be in for a rough ride. Information about COVID in China was being shared on WeChat, the app many Chinese Americans use to communicate with relatives in China. Lockdowns were taking place in various Chinese cities in January 2020. Wuhan went under quarantine on Jan. 23.

On Jan. 27, the city of Rockville canceled its annual Lunar New Year festival scheduled for Feb. 1. A week later, Chris Zhu knew there was a problem at her 8,600-square-foot, 400-seat restaurant and banquet hall, which specializes in dim sum and Cantonese food. “That was the day we had our lion dance for the New Year,” she says, referring to the ceremony in which dancers in a lion costume make their way through the crowd for prosperity and good luck. “Usually we’d be full, with a line to get in, but we weren’t. Many large parties, each for maybe 200 or 300 people, canceled in February.” Chinese people, who account for at least half of her clientele, weren’t in the mood for celebrating and were afraid to go out. Employees didn’t want to come to work. Zhu says she noticed less non-Chinese business at the restaurant at the onset of the pandemic. After the incident with the customer spewing racial insults, Zhu, who is 41 and lives in North Potomac, experienced sadness and a shocking bolt of reality, because she hadn’t previously experienced any such enmity. “I realized that this coronavirus will really affect my business because of some of the American thinking,” she says. It’s hard to say if that business has returned to its pre-pandemic level because her customers still prefer takeout to dining inside or on the restaurant’s 15-seat patio.

Zhu and a business partner bought the original China Garden, which had opened in Rosslyn, Virginia, in 1973, from its owners, Ken and Linda Lee, in 2015. When the landlord bought back the lease two years later, Zhu moved China Garden to Rockville. The Lees had taken Zhu under their wings when she emigrated from Canton in China in 2000 to get married. Her wedding was at China Garden, as was her daughter’s first birthday. (A child’s first birthday is a seminal celebration in Chinese culture.) Zhu became a certified image consultant in 2006. “Community leaders encouraged me to create a pageant to teach the younger generation to have a good image,” she says, so she started the Washington Metropolitan Miss Chinese American Pageant in 2008, which became the Pacific Miss Asian American Beauty Pageant in 2013. The Lees entrusted China Garden to Zhu, who had created a wide networking base in the Chinese American community. She considered carrying on the restaurant’s legacy a tremendous honor, so it was especially heartbreaking for her to watch the business dwindle from a full dim sum house to a nearly empty one in early March 2020.

When the shutdown came on March 16, she closed the business, stuck with a huge Lunar New Year inventory and a rent of $32,000 a month. She reopened on Mother’s Day, jettisoning pages of the menu and serving only takeout dim sum. “We couldn’t just not pay rent. We negotiated with the landlord to pay less—$26,000—for half a year and got on WeChat, organizing remote deliveries of 30 orders each, cash and check only, to 20 parking lot pickup points a day.” China Garden resumed indoor seating at 50% capacity with social distancing this March. “The chefs are coming back. Business is catching up gradually. Now we pay full rent again,” Zhu says. “We survived.”

Caroline Yi (left) and her sister, Alex Lee, own Sunday Morning Bakehouse in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Permanently closing her Rockville restaurant, Hot Pot Legend, this past April emotionally devastated Ming Chou, 60. “Even though I was a small businesswoman for a long time, I had never failed before. I was really depressed,” she says. Chou’s business problems during the pandemic were largely the result of having a concept that flew in the face of social distancing and that relied greatly on Chinese labor and clientele. Still, she says, her business dropped considerably in February 2020 while non-Asian restaurants remained full, and she attributes the precipitous drop in business (eventually about 90%, she estimates) partly to non-Asian people being afraid to eat in Chinese restaurants.

Chou, who lives in Derwood with her husband, two grown children and mother, has loved the restaurant business since she emigrated from Taiwan to join her parents here in 1981. In 1989, the three of them opened China Harvest in Olney, and the restaurant closed in 2005.

Impressed by the Hot Pot Legend franchise she discovered on a trip to Sichuan province, Chou acquired the rights to bring the concept to the U.S., opening a location in Rockville in July 2018. Much of her clientele was Asian, many of them Chinese students attending D.C.-area colleges.

It took a while to appeal to a wider crowd. A YouTube video made by one of Chou’s managers and demonstrating the establishment’s all-you-can-eat concept—cooking bits of meat, seafood and vegetables by dipping them in a pot of bubbling stock set in the center of the table—helped get the word out. Eventually, there were lines to get into the 2,700-square-foot, 80-seat restaurant.

“I realized when the pandemic started that I’d have to close the restaurant. Once people started hearing about COVID, business dropped. The Chinese employees were afraid to work,” Chou says. “In Rockville, there are so many Asians and they don’t go out to eat. If they pick [food] up, they wear double masks and double gloves and they had you put [their food] in the car for them.” Schools had closed and Chinese students returned to China, because, she surmises, their wealthy parents feared the U.S. government wouldn’t handle the pandemic well. “I closed on March 21 and reopened in late April [2020] as carryout only, but people don’t want hot pot to go. There were no orders, and the employees just sat there.” Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money—$60,000—came and went. Without knowing when the pandemic would end, she stuck it out, not taking a paycheck and losing about $30,000 a month. The restaurant was so small that few people could dine there when 25% capacity was allowed. Also, hot pot—like dim sum carts, Korean barbecue, and buffets—is a communal experience that doesn’t adapt well to social distancing. Chou says the landlord was unwilling to negotiate on the rent, so she shuttered the restaurant.

Chou had signed a pre-pandemic deal to open a Hot Pot Legend in Ashburn, Virginia. It opened in January, designed with social distancing in mind. It’s a much larger space and seats 160.

The restaurant business is in Janet Yu’s blood. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from China in 1948 and settled in the Wheaton area. In 1960, when Yu was 5, they opened China Royal restaurant in Silver Spring, which had a 30-year run. Yu opened Hollywood East Cafe, specializing in Hong Kong-style cooking, including dim sum, in 1996. It has been in its current location—Westfield Wheaton mall—since 2010.

“I grew up in a restaurant and so did my four boys,” says Yu, who is 66. “The new [Chinese] generation’s thing is that most don’t go into the business, so when the parents get old, the business ends there. But two of my boys [Tim, 28, and Corey, 34] are still in it with me. They really stepped up.”

Yu is hesitant to call out anti-Asian racism but attests to its existence and to having experienced it. She explains that some customers assume that she doesn’t speak English because Hollywood East is a Chinese restaurant. When they realize she speaks it perfectly, she says, the discrimination stops. “Sometimes, I’m appalled to think that very sophisticated people would have that kind of feeling,” Yu says. “Each person is different. I wouldn’t say all of society is that way, but there still is a lot.”

Hollywood East held its 2020 lion dance festivities on Jan. 25, before COVID panic really grew. “Yes, we did lose some business because there was some, ‘You guys started it,’ ” but all in all, Yu says, business was good for the Lunar New Year. The restaurant was busy, even after the March 16 shutdown, with carryout and delivery orders. “We operated through March and the beginning of April. Then my husband [Alan] got sick and my whole life changed,” Yu says.

Yu remembers a customer coming in at the end of March without a mask when Alan was working. The next day, he developed symptoms of COVID. She relates what happened with the calm weariness of someone still in a state of shock. Alan’s symptoms worsened. On Thursday, April 9, Corey dropped him off outside the emergency room at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. Yu spoke to her husband over the phone for the next two days. On Saturday, they intubated him. On Monday, before midnight, the hospital called to say Alan’s condition was dire and asked what Yu wanted them to do. “Save him,” she said. He died a few hours later. He was 64.

She closed the restaurant for a month. Before she reopened, she had a company do deep cleaning and sanitizing. “The cooks, mostly Chinese, were afraid to come in at first. The stories from home were all over WeChat,” Yu says. She, her boys, a friend and her brother-in-law, who hadn’t cooked in 15 years, worked. She took difficult-to-make dishes off the menu and cut back hours.

The pared down carryout operation is doing well, but Yu faces another obstacle—her lease expires at the end of June. The landlord, as of this writing, hasn’t told her if he’d renegotiate, and she doesn’t even know if she wants to. “Maybe I’ll do a food truck,” she says.

Rockville resident and Montgomery County native Caroline Yi opened Sunday Morning Bakehouse with her sister, Alex Lee, in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development in October 2019 and soon amassed a cadre of regulars who couldn’t get enough of pastry chef Yi’s croissants, doughnuts and brioche. “When the shutdown came, I thought we’d be closed for a week—and that would be devastating. March 17 [2020] was the last day we were open. No one was coming in. There wasn’t a soul on Grand Park Avenue. My dad came in and said, ‘I think we’ll have to close,’ ” Yi says. She shut down for a couple of days, trying to figure out what to do. “My best way to communicate with my customers is through Instagram. I posted saying we had to close, but if you’re interested in preorder, I would do it. We got hundreds of responses.” Prepaid, contactless pickup orders from 9 a.m. to noon became the new normal for two months, and she sold out every weekend. In June 2020, Yi reopened for regular business with COVID precautions in place. The bakery returned to a pre-COVID level of sales a few months after reopening.

Yi, 29, attended Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville and the University of Maryland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies. She says there are maybe two or three times in her life that she felt discriminated against, but she is keenly aware of the AAPI hate brought to the forefront during the pandemic and feels strongly about raising awareness.

“A lot of people think if they don’t know someone personally that has been treated violently, it’s like it doesn’t exist,” she says. “I grew up in diverse places, Prince George’s County and Rockville. My high school was more than 30% Asian, but there was still subtle racism. I’d say I went to Wootton, and [people] would say, ‘Oh, Wonton High School?’ Asians and non-Asians alike would say that because it’s so normalized.” She talks of the times people have come into Sunday Morning Bakehouse, looked at her and asked if it’s an Asian bakery. “I tell them that the style is more French and American. I think, Do they see anything Asian in the case? I just happen to be a Korean who likes to bake French-style pastries. I try not to take it too personally.”

All of the millennials interviewed for this story said that recent anti-Asian violence has prompted them to become outspoken. Says Lydia Chang, “For the longest time, we have been quiet and silent. We like to embrace and endure. In Chinese, there is a phrase—‘eating bitter.’ We are proud of eating bitter. It makes you more resilient. At the same time, we need to say, ‘Enough is enough!’ ”

Chang and Javier Fernandez have participated in Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, a series of dinners organized by D.C. chefs Tim Ma and Kevin Tien to raise money for nonprofits such as Stop AAPI Hate. At a fundraising dinner Danny Lee organized in April at his D.C. restaurant Anju, he raised $20,000 for EmbraceRace, an organization that promotes children’s racial learning. Yi raised $1,000 for the American Civil Liberties Union by dedicating a weekend’s worth of bread sales to them. “Anti-Asian racism and hate have unfortunately been around for quite some time, but awareness in the American public has not,” Lee says.

“There is anti-Asian sentiment and there always was,” Janet Yu says. “We work hard to earn respect, but I still don’t think we are treated the way we should be. My father came here and served in the U.S. Army. So did my uncles. A lot of Chinese people served. And of course, before that, our grandfathers built the railroads, but do people know that?”

David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine and the co-author of several cookbooks, including Rasika: Flavors of India and My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve.