Last Tuesday night, Yvonne Gu Khan was in shock.
Her restaurant, Gu's Dumplings, is just 3.5 miles south of the Gold Massage Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta, where four Asian women were shot and killed earlier that evening, after which four other people, including two Asian women, were killed at Young's Asian Massage in nearby Acworth, Georgia. Quickly, Khan assessed her building's security and was reassured to remember that guards lock the doors after 9 p.m. "We feel pretty safe," she says. "But at the same time, we're terrified."
The motives of the assailant, who was apprehended later that night in south Georgia, may have been at least partly racially motivated. The incident hits home for many business owners of Asian and Pacific-Island descent, some of whom have experienced heightened amounts of racism during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which has, in some circles, been blamed on China, has been accompanied by a shocking uptick in anti-Asian racism across the country. Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group created last March to combat xenophobia and bigotry against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., has counted 3,800 reports of hate incidents over just the past year, from verbal harassment to physical assault. Earlier this month, an analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, reported that anti-Asian hate crimes in America's largest cities rose by 149 percent in 2020--even as the total number of hate crimes dropped by 7 percent.
Asian American small-business owners are particularly exposed: 60 percent of Asian American-owned small businesses are in service industries, according to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce (USPAACC).
Khan's restaurant has done relatively well since last March. She's retained all 30-plus employees on her payroll, and kept the doors open through the tough pandemic winter. Loyal customers have continued to support the business, with some even dropping off $100 tips for employees. That hasn't stopped other people from airing racist sentiments.
One customer, Khan says, refused to believe "a Chinese woman" could possibly be the restaurant's owner, demanding instead to speak with the "big man behind this business." In another incident, a driver for a third-party delivery service refused to verify his identity to her, loudly calling her a racist slur in response.
Khan, who was born in China and moved to the U.S. in 2003, now continually checks her rearview mirror while driving home from work to make sure nobody is following her. She advises her Chinese American employees to lock their car doors at gas stations, and avoid them entirely after dark.
"This happens so often," she says. "You can see the best and worst parts of people."
Dave Wai Moy saw the writing on the wall months before the Atlanta shootings. He's the co-owner and head instructor at Kings Combat Fitness, a Muay Thai and strongman gym in Queens, New York, and the son of Chinese immigrants. Early in the pandemic, he says, multiple people told his mother to "go back to China," leaving him furious. After Tuesday's shootings, he simply went numb for an entire day.
The gym has been treading water for a year now: Unable to pay himself a salary, Moy started teaching an extra 15 hours of private lessons per week to make ends meet. Yet three weeks ago, he banded together with other New York City-area gym owners to plan a free self-defense seminar for community members. Despite the financial struggle, he says, it feels like the best use of his skills. "When you teach self-defense, you teach knowing your surroundings," he explains. "If you know your surroundings a little more, you might avoid things a little differently."
While hardship during the pandemic knows no ethnicity, many Asian American small-business owners--needing to fend off hateful attitudes--may indeed be faring worse than the general population. Susan Au Allen, president and CEO of USPAACC, anecdotally notes that some are now taking precautions that actively limit their revenue, from closing before dark to limiting weekend hours.
"They go home, because it's no longer safe to be open when it's quiet," says Allen.
Anti-Asian racism in the U.S. isn't a new problem. The recent uptick, however, has led to a level of anger Allen says she has never seen before. To her, last week's wave of protests, rallies, and activism following the Atlanta spa shootings are a step in the right direction. "It's a golden opportunity to make a point when America is listening," Allen says. "Right now, America is listening."
In Atlanta, Khan plans to donate money to organizations like Stop AAPI Hate. And in Washington, D.C., Allen hopes to persuade policymakers and business owners to take this issue seriously. Her plea to CEOs nationwide: Set aside a day for an all-hands town hall to speak about anti-Asian racism. "What happened to Asian Americans in the past year is wrong," she says. "We should all be aware of that, and show them that we care."
Meanwhile, Allen has a different message for business owners like Khan and Moy: "Be hopeful, because change is in the air. Look at the people in the streets. But don't stop."