A local social media initiative, one that includes Vietnamese restaurant owners, hopes to address the violence and help Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI)-owned businesses hurting during the pandemic.
Chicago’s AAPI community was stunned after a 60-year-old Vietnamese man was attacked in March 20 at Broadway and Ainslie Street, in Uptown, in Asia on Argyle, an area known for its pho and banh mi shops. The incident was reminiscent of other attacks against AAPI people across the country, the same acts that have led to the #StopAsianHate, a campaign to raise awareness surrounding racism directed at the Asian community, a behavior many feel that’s been overlooked in America.
Five Chicagoans have teamed up to create Celebrate Argyle. While none work in restaurants, the effort is centered around the industry. Starting with video interviews with community members, photos, and other social media posts (eventually, the hope is to host events as well), their mission, according to their website, is “to elevate the vibrant community and leverage further public and private partnerships.” The effort formally launched on Wednesday, March 31, to “foster community collaboration and bridge cultural divides in the Asia on Argyle district.”
The effort is coming at a time when violence against Asian Americans across the country has been increasing including such tragedies as the Atlanta spa shooting that killed eight people, including six Asian women. The shooting has led to an outpouring of reaction from Chicago’s restaurant industry, particularly from Asian women, who have taken to social media to share their stories of misogyny and racism.
Celebrate Argyle is partnering with 50 area businesses and will kick off with videos from five restaurant owners, says co-organizer Sany Nguyen. She hasn’t revealed which five but says they’ll break down their favorite dishes and share their experiences. Nguyen says many will speak in Vietnamese (with English translation); it’s important to hear the owners’ actual voices, rather than dubbed audio, she says.
As Eater’s Jenny Zhang wrote in February, while Americans may love Asian food, they don’t necessarily love the people who make it: “They treat Chinatowns like playgrounds, their residents like backdrops for photos,”
Nguyen is active on Instagram, taking photos at restaurants, and has amassed close to 30,000 followers. She wants Chicagoans to patronize Asia on Argyle’s stores, bakeries, and other businesses that have been hurt by xenophobic sentiment. She also is hoping to hold events like night markets, and has been encouraging city officials to close Argyle to automobile traffic so restaurants can set up tables. (While neighborhoods like Lakeview, Gold Coast, and River North have secured outdoor dining permits, areas like Asia on Argyle, Little Village, and Devon — where there are fewer English speakers — haven’t had luck gaining city approvals.)
All 50 businesses participating will also receive $750 micro-grants with money secured via a $7,500 grant from DishRoulette Kitchen, a nonprofit that’s been especially busy during the pandemic helping locally owned restaurants survive. Its primary focus is helping restaurants and food businesses run by women, the undocumented, and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
Nguyen says she hopes to showcase Vietnamese dishes beyond those already popularized in Chicago (the group has gone out of its way to avoid showcasing banh mi and pho in videos).
The group has made its stance on the missteps from the former Trump regime clear by writing on their website that “anti-Asian hate has drastically surged during this pandemic, due to hurtful and false rhetoric from the previous administration that scapegoated the AAPI community by referring to COVID-19 as the ‘China Virus’ and ‘Kung Flu.’”
One of Asia on Argyle’s most famous restaurants in Tank Noodle, the pho shop on a prominent corner of Argyle and Broadway. In January its owners flew to Washington to attend a rally in support of former President Donald Trump, an event that led to the Capitol insurrection that left five dead and 140 hurt. Tank Noodle is also under investigation after federal authorities said they owe 60 workers $700,000 in backpay.
“Tank Noodle doesn’t speak on behalf of Asia on Argyle,” Nguyen says. “That’s something that I want people to know.”
Chicago’s restaurant community — particularly AAPI women — have expressed devastation over the recent attacks. Many chefs, including Jennifer Kim (Alt Economy), Margaret Pak (Thattu), and Palita Sritatana (Pink Salt), shared poignant statements via their Instagram accounts about how the Atlanta shooting is yet another reminder of the racist and misogynist treatment they have been subjected to regularly.
“Some days it’s impossible to exist in this skin,” Kim writes. “Where someone can look at you without knowing you and think, I wish they were dead. Where do we put that grief? We’re taught to develop thick skin, but it’s never thick enough to stop a bullet from [a] white [supremacist’s] gun.”
Sritatana details the undercurrent of tension that has come to characterize her experiences as an Asian American, describing the crushing pressure to prove herself to grade school peers who had never met an Asian person before. No matter her efforts, the stream of racist encounters, slurs, even sexual harassment in the workplace, has never stopped.
“I forced myself to work twice as hard in everything so I that I could remove any doubt in my belonging,” she writes. “But even working twice as hard in a world of white supremacy is still not good enough, nor a world I want to exist in.”
Other chefs in the AAPI community have shared their stories and support on Instagram including Derrick Tung of Paulie Gee’s. Won Kim of Kimski is a graffiti artist who expressed his emotions by painting a “Stop Asian Hate” tag on a Chicago wall.
“This isn’t just an Asian thing, it is a human thing,” Kim writes in her Instagram post. “Hate/ignorance is taught and learned and not ingrained in us. Everyone has a story, everyone around struggles. This shouldn’t be about policing as much as it should be about teaching/learning from each other.”
“I don’t care who you are, we have all taken part in this regarding AAPI folk in some way or another,” Esparza writes via Instagram. “Be honest with yourself and do the work in how to show up, because if you know how to find a random bar of soap made from berries grown on a mountainside in Tibet on the internet, then you can figure out how to show up for AAPI!”
Bakers, many who participated in the Bakers Against Racism campaign, have also lent support since the incidents of violence. Heather Bodine-Lederman of vegan bakery Pie, Pie, My Darling put together a flash sale of pink heart-shaped cookies that read “Stop Asian Hate” and donated 100 percent of the proceeds to national nonprofit AAPI Women Lead. Acclaimed local baker Sarah Mispagel-Lustbader of bakery pop-up Loaf Lounge has also put her skills to use, contributing all proceeds from the week’s bread pastry sales to the Chicago chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Asian culture is integral to the Chicago food scene — so much that Michelin inspectors in 2019 awarded stars to four Japanese restaurants and one Korean restaurant out of 25 restaurants. And it stretches beyond the borders of immigrant enclaves like Asia on Argyle and Chinatown. Chefs of all backgrounds have been influenced by Asian flavors and techniques, adding them into tacos, grilling meats on binchotan (Japanese charcoal), and having their culinary careers shaped by slurping noodles at an early age.
Like during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, many in the community are watching restaurateurs’ reactions to instances of bigotry, trying to determine if their statements are performative or genuine, or whether they speak out at all.
Stephanie Izard, who owns a Chinese-inspired restaurant, Duck Duck Goat, in Fulton Market, has been criticized for cultural appropriation, was among those made a statement following the attacks. She writes that she’s “working on a plan to make a long-term, impactful difference and finding the right partners and organizations.” The post received more than 2,400 likes, and while Izard had her share of supporters, the post also drew many of the same critiques as the chef heard earlier in the year.
Like Izard, the owners of Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar (who also own Giant in Logan Square) are not Asian. They made a similar post, condemning the violence and pledging to work with organizations including Asian Americans Advancing Justice. The post garnered more than 300 likes and was generally well received.
Nguyen and her co-organizers said they waited for the right time to announce Celebrate Argyle. COVID-19 restrictions complicated their plans, but after Atlanta, they felt it was time to move. She urges allies to use social media and share content posted from the account’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages.
“We’re Americans just like everyone else,” she says.