How Asian Americans in the food industry are fighting back against hate

The Bay Area has experienced an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans this year, particularly with the elderly. The news stories have become sadly familiar, from an 84-year-old Thai immigrant who was fatally shoved by an attacker in January to an elderly woman who was assaulted in broad daylight […]

The Bay Area has experienced an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans this year, particularly with the elderly. The news stories have become sadly familiar, from an 84-year-old Thai immigrant who was fatally shoved by an attacker in January to an elderly woman who was assaulted in broad daylight and tried to fight him off with a board. From violent encounters like these to everyday verbal harassment on the street, Asian Americans have been feeling the strain and blame of the pandemic in myriad ways.

San Francisco chef Eric Ehler had his own brief encounter with racism in an experience he wrote about on Instagram in late March. While biking near Duboce Park, Ehler says he was cut off by a driver who then followed him before threatening him with a police baton. Ehler said he typically lets most things roll off his back — he’s gotten a lot of flak as a skateboarder through the years — but this incident shook him enough that he took to social media to highlight it.

“I was wanting people to be very, very alert and aware of what’s going on in their surroundings and that, San Francisco is what it is, but we’re still in a big city,” Ehler said. “…So I want to continue to create awareness that we do need to watch out for each other and watch out for ourselves and have a little bit more heightened sense of awareness when we’re out.” 

Given the rise in violence against Asian Americans this year, it makes sense to have these conversations and be more aware. Hate incidents have increased from March 2020 to March 2021 by 65%, and physical assaults against Asian Americans went from 10.2% in 2020 to 16.7% in 2021, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate, in an analysis of more than 6,600 hate incidents reported to the center. In California, hate-based crimes against people of color increased by 31% overall, the Guardian reported.

“It sucks, it makes me angry. I don’t think anyone should ever have to see an x-ray of an old woman with a knife in her chest — that’s traumatizing for everybody, you know?” Ehler said, referring to an early May stabbing of two Asian American senior women on Market Street. “And just the idea that this is happening in a city that I love so much, it’s starting to really weigh heavy on my soul. And I know that’s happening with a lot of people too.” 

A number of local food industry professionals are looking inward to start conversations around the rise of anti-Asian American hate. As more news stories documented both local and national incidents of hate crimes in the spring, the food community quickly rallied to raise money through bake sales, dinners and more to fund initiatives such as placing security cameras on the streets of Chinatown, safety kits for the elderly, and supporting local nonprofits.

Now, some industry folks are wondering how to keep the momentum (and conversation) going. Hanson Li is a founder of Salt Partners Group, a development and investment company that works with some of the biggest restaurants in San Francisco, including Atelier Crenn, Humphry Slocombe and Last Rites. Beyond his restaurant work, Li has been involved with Asian-American professional groups, including Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). He has watched the acceleration of hate crimes toward the Asian American community, culminating in the tragedy of the Atlanta spa shootings in February, and Li was wondering how he can help.

“In terms of being that quiet minority, how do we speak up a little more and having that voice … me being Asian American within the food industry, what is there that we can do to uplift the conversation?” Li asked.

Li was one of the many people who signed his name to a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal in March. The ad featured a letter from Dave Lu, co-founder of the app Pared, and has since bloomed to over 8,000 signatories, from business leaders at Google, Zoom, the Warriors and more. The ad has raised nearly $2 million for the Catalyst Fund for Justice, according to Li, with all pledging to support AAPI communities and end discrimination and violence.

Debby Soo is the CEO of OpenTable and one of the signatories of the letter. According to Soo, OpenTable has been supporting the AAPI community both internally within the company through listening sessions, as well as externally with restaurants, partnering with the organization Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate in cities across the U.S. to raise money for local non-profits to help stop anti-Asian violence.

“As an Asian woman CEO, it’s really critical that I use my platform and voice to speak up for my community and for all communities who are facing discrimination and injustice,” Soo said. “… And aside from sharing anger and frustration and just how heartbreaking it is to see these incidents continue to persist, the purpose of the pledge was to mobilize and really take action. ”

Debby Soo, CEO of OpenTable.

Debby Soo, CEO of OpenTable.

Courtesy OpenTable

On a more immediate level, restaurants like Rooster & Rice have formed their own initiatives. The local Thai food chain dubbed its 10 locations a “safe space” for those in distress, instructing staff on how to help those in need, along with raising money in May for the organization Stop AAPI Hate. Like most of those interviewed for this story, Rooster & Rice co-owner Bryan Lew felt a connection to the victims of anti-Asian hate.

​​”It hit home personally for me, just because I’m Chinese-American, born and raised in San Francisco,” Lew said. “My mom and dad still walk the streets of San Francisco. They’re in their eighties and it hit home right away with the attacks on those ladies in Chinatown and on Market Street. And I was just like, ‘Man, that’s my mom, or that’s my grandmother.’”

Although some may not make the connection between food and activism, those that have formed their lives around the world of food see the dinner table as the facilitator for many things, not just physical nourishment.

“I think food and the dinner table is a place for conversation. I think maybe food in itself is not the solution, but I think that act of eating could be part of the process, by two words: communication and understanding,” Li said. “… The act of eating encourages communication and then, based on the fact that Asian food is the most Asian thing a lot of Americans might be in touch with, maybe that’s a way for us who serve Asian food to further that education and understanding.”

Lew agreed.

“Food is what brings people together. I think it’s wild, too, when it’s sometimes — I don’t want to generalize — but it’s just like, ‘Hey, I’m going to strike out’ or ‘I’m gonna be hateful against this person,’ but, you know, I just ate at Panda Express, I’m eating an orange chicken, or I’m eating food that’s rooted in Asian culture,” Lew said. “I just think food ties everybody together … I always have felt I’m going to learn a lot from the foods that I eat, from different cultures — it’s immersive.”

Although the momentum of this movement has waned after AAPI Month in May — #stopaapihate has seen a decrease in search on Google as a highlighted topic, Li noted — he and others are dedicated to keeping the activism going. The Bay Area group Asians Are Strong began in March as hate crimes in San Francisco seemed to be ramping up. 

Hudson Liao is the founder of the group, and he said that he began worrying for his mom when she would go out by herself. Asians Are Strong focuses on personal safety, self defense and bystander intervention, as well as empowering the Asian community. Their Instagram page, @asiansarestrong offers safety tips and highlights ways to diffuse attacks in public. 

“Our ambitious goal is to stop all anti-Asian racism, and negative stereotypes against us,” Liao said. “And we know that’s a long journey and we need to start somewhere. Personal safety is the foundation because to us, if you don’t feel physically safe, you’re not going to feel mentally safe. And if you’re not going to feel mentally safe, you’re not going to feel individually empowered. And if you don’t feel empowered, you’re not going to engage with the community. And if you don’t engage with the community, we can’t create a movement. And without a movement, we can’t create change.”

Liao said he wanted to take the negative feelings he was having around the attacks on elderly Asians and create something positive. Asians Are Strong held its first rally at San Francisco City Hall in April, but have organized a second rally on July 31 to keep the activism around the Asian community going.

“There’s a reason why we wanted to do another rally, because we felt that [the movement] was kind of waning a little bit,” Liao said, citing “protest fatigue.” “… Our goal is that if we have a protest, a rally, or work with the community, we’re adding tangible value in some way, where people that are involved will leave and [feel] like they did something for our community and we want them to be a part of it … It’s not easy, you know, to be like, ‘Oh, we’re going to take on racism.’ Like, for one person to take on racism is pretty tough. But if they feel like there’s an organization that aligns with them and can support them, people are more empowered because they don’t feel alone. And that’s our goal is to make sure people know that they’re not alone.”

A sense of community (and conversation) has arisen with this push in local Asian American activism. Soo has been struck by the allyship that she’s witnessed, calling it inspiring and impactful. Describing her own upbringing, she said that her parents raised her to put her head down and to work hard as an immigrant, while she’s had a different mindset as an Asian American.

“I grew up here, this is it, this is my home. And so, no, I’m not just going to put my head down and work and not speak up when things aren’t right, because I’m a stakeholder, right?” Soo said. “This is my home and I have a responsibility to make it better and make it a better home for my son.”

Hanson Li, partner at Salt Partners Group.

Hanson Li, partner at Salt Partners Group.

Courtesy Hanson Li

Li also cited his children as a reason to keep moving forward with combating anti-Asian hate and seeing the movement go forward in younger generations.

“The rallies … are impressions on the younger generations that is gonna stick,” Li said. “My kids know about diversity and equity initiatives in companies; they know about [and] they read and learn about BLM. They ask questions about Asian American history being taught at school. And again, this is not a three-day issue or three-month issue. I’m excited to see how my kids will take this and have that ingrained as part of their future.

“The coming-together within the AAPI community I’ve seen over the last six months has been incredible,” Li later added. “My top-of-the-list hope is that our community can recognize that in unity, we can do more while knowing that being united doesn’t mean we have to compromise our distinctive identity or goals. For our friends, I hope they recognize that many of us — me included — are for the first time finding our voice in activism.  From them, I hope they will lend a hand and be a guide.”

San Francisco chef Eric Ehler.

San Francisco chef Eric Ehler.

Lance Yamamoto / Special to SFGATE

Ehler, too, has been encouraged by the conversation happening at large, but also within the chef community he’s part of. 

“I’m really, really happy and glad that people in my community are putting their foot forward to be a part of the conversation,” Ehler said. “Because largely in the past, we’ve stayed quiet or we just said that we didn’t have time to talk about these things, but I’m happy that my generation of chefs coming up, that we’ll be able to do our part within the community to educate our staff about these things and keep them more aware, because it’s a trickle down effect: The more people that we talk to and the more people that are educated, that there are these threats out there or that you can talk to your family members, then we just continue to spread the word and those small things.

“… And if we can change one person from going out and attacking [someone] or doing something horrendous in the street, that’s a win in itself,” Ehler continued. “We’re not going to be able to just do it all at once, but one by one we’ll be able to fix those bad apples. Hopefully.”

Push Forward! rally is happening at San Francisco City Hall, Saturday, July 31 from 2:30-4 p.m. For more information, head to or


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