Hannah Vuong opened Gong Cha, a bubble tea shop on Southbridge Street in Worcester, about six months ago.
She always knew her business could be a potential target of anti-Asian hate, but didn’t think much of it until earlier this month, when a customer uttered a racial slur to one of her employees.
“His wife came in and apologized, but it didn’t make us feel that much better,” she said. “We are an Asian brand, and our logo itself has Chinese characters. I’m worried about that.”
Her fears have been dramatically heightened since last week’s shootings at three spas in Georgia, which left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent. Like other Asian business owners, Vuong was devastated but, sadly, not surprised.
Many Asian-American business owners have been reeling from the downturn caused by the pandemic, and some are struggling with discrimination and cultural barriers that make it difficult to seek support. Some owners are calling for a commitment from civic leaders and the general public to acknowledge and denounce the rise in anti-Asian incidents, rather than trying to increase security measures around their businesses.
In response to the Georgia murders, Vuong said she and her husband held a staff meeting with their 14 employees to figure out how best to protect themselves. The group emerged from the conversation with new protocols, including a buddy system for when staff go outside to take out the trash or walk to their cars at the end of a shift.
“We’re going to start checking up on each other to see if everyone got home safely or not,” she said. Vuong added that running a new business is stressful enough, and the threat of harassment and violence makes it “overwhelming.”
Anti-Asian violence has sharply increased since the onset of COVID-19 and the xenophobic rhetoric used by Donald Trump and other politicians to blame China for its spread. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition formed to address anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, has received reports of 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents since last March. The group found that businesses are the primary location where these incidents occur, followed by public streets and parks.
Ben Hires, chief executive of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, said the Atlanta shootings were “quite the gut punch.”
“I instantly thought about our staff and the people we support . . . The women that were tragically murdered in Atlanta . . . we know them, we serve them every day here locally,” said Hires, who is of South Korean descent.
Hires said the killings underscore an ugly reality that many have ignored until now: that racism and prejudice have always targeted the Asian business community. He said business owners were already grappling with a loss of revenue due to xenophobia and Asians being scapegoated for the coronavirus, so the “violence adds another layer of fear.”
“Women in our community are on the front line of the business sectors . . . They are nail salon workers, restaurant workers, they are taking care of their families,” he said. “Low-wage workers and even white-collar workers like myself . . . you are living through these days with a heightened sense of safety, being more aware of your surroundings.”
Thao Ho, who works as a paralegal and community organizer to support nail salon workers in Massachusetts, said the industry is staffed mostly by Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom are undocumented. One salon worker who has been putting in longer hours to earn enough to get by during the pandemic told her she’s uneasy about traveling home later at night than she used to.
“The day after the murders . . . she told me she was really afraid of taking the subway,” Ho said. “Although she can’t actually point to any [violence against her], she feels in her heart that it is a necessity to even switch train cars so that she is not by herself.”
A business owner in Chinatown, who declined to provide his name for fear of being targeted, said he feels especially anxious when walking down poorly lit streets at night. A drop in foot traffic due to the pandemic hasn’t helped.
“I would be lying if I say I have no concerns or fear,” he said through a translator. “It seems like the racial tension is on the rise.”
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council is in the midst of a months-long effort to reach small businesses owned by Asian immigrants, with the goal of making policy recommendations on how local governments can better serve the community. Some of the recommendations, announced in a presentation Wednesday, include more translation services for business owners so they can better access resources, as well as a commitment from local governments to denounce xenophobia and racism against the Asian American community.
The MAPC, which plans to formally present its recommendations to officials in the coming weeks, also suggested the state invest in tracking and researching anti-Asian acts of hate and violence. Some cities have already said they would increase their police presence in Asian communities following the shootings.
But Hires said that some Asian business owners may find it difficult to report acts of racism or violence if they do not speak English well.
“Imagine trying to communicate through a system that may not feel welcoming,” he said. “I think everyone wants to have issues addressed, but people are probably weighing a feeling of whether they will be taken seriously.”
Karen Chen, the head of Boston’s Chinese Progressive Association, an advocacy group, said increased police patrolling will go only so far in solving the problem.
“Those are temporary solutions,” she said. “Long-term, the economic viability of people in the community is important.” She added that some owners are more concerned with paying their rent and their employees than fighting systemic racism.
Ho said even though nail salon workers “know that there is xenophobia and anti-Asian racism being heightened at this time, they still have to think about the next day.” Language and legal-status barriers have hindered many from accessing the business and unemployment assistance they need.
Hires said he wants to see a “community response from people of all walks of life speaking up about this, stepping in and being an ally.”
“People who are marginalized may not be able to do something, but other people would be in a position to support,” he said. “It would help the community feel safer.”