“For the restaurant industry, the wages are so broken. People can’t live on those wages.”
The morning of June 9 started off like any ordinary Tuesday. But as staffers prepared to open Sumiao Hunan Kitchen in Cambridge for lunch, they were shocked to find the restaurant’s front door vandalized with red paint.
“Nobody got hurt physically, but emotionally, that morning everybody was shocked,” said owner Sumiao Chen, founder of the Kendall Square eatery. “I was away in Virginia and my general manager shot the picture for me, and I was shocked too.”
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 2,200 anti-Asian hate crimes and hate incidents have been reported in America. An Asian American father and his children were slashed in Texas by an attacker who blamed them for causing the coronavirus. An Asian woman in Brooklyn suffered burns from a suspected acid attack, thrown while she was taking out trash.
The paint at Sumiao Hunan Kitchen was removed in hours, and Cambridge police responded but were unable to identify a suspect from surveillance footage. Chen was relieved no one got hurt and said that otherwise, her workers have not faced discrimination for being Chinese at the restaurant.
“If there are any racist incidents, I will definitely voice them out,” the owner said.
Chen recalled a nonrestaurant incident when her marketing manager’s Uber driver refused to pick her up because of her ethnicity. Meanwhile, across the river in Boston, one restaurateur made headlines for his outspokenness about the lockdown’s impact and earned the ire of many in the process. Frankie Mendoza, who co-owns Monica’s Trattoria in the North End, said in a viral video, “I’ll take coronavirus over losing my business,” and used the hashtag #chinavirus, which was later deleted.
Mendoza’s business did not respond to interview requests, but Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, was disappointed by the sentiment.
“Comments like ‘China virus’ are racist,” she said. “Anti-China sentiment also has an impact on Chinese and Chinese Americans.”
Few Chinatown workers reported discrimination for being Asian, said Chen, who is not related to Sumiao Chen. Of the restaurant workers Chen has spoken with, most are wearing masks when they go out; otherwise, they try to stay home.
Physical attacks have also been rare in the area, but there’s been no shortage of verbal harassment. Bethany Li, Asian outreach unit director at Greater Boston Legal Services, said, “We have been hearing about some incidents for the Asian Community Emergency Relief Fund. There’s been name-calling causing discomfort, but nothing violent I’ve heard so far.”
Li and her legal advocates are fielding questions about returning to work.
“The ironic thing is some people who’ve gone to culinary school are getting more on unemployment insurance than when they were working,” Li said. “For the restaurant industry, the wages are so broken. People can’t live on those wages.”
Workers have to weigh risks to their health and savings. Many employers provide personal protective equipment to workers, although not in all industries. Li noted how nail salon workers have long worn masks because of the toxic chemicals, and were expected to buy their own masks before the coronavirus.
As Massachusetts reopens, the landscape suggests that racism has already hurt Chinatown restaurants. Even prior to the shutdown, Boston leaders rallied behind City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu in an effort to bring customers back to the area, as business had been negatively affected by reactions to headlines from overseas. All these months later, the impact is tangible. In one major loss, the beloved Banh Mi Saigon shuttered after 23 years in the neighborhood. In many other cases, restaurants are still struggling to bring back workers and patrons.
“Because people think the virus is from China, no one wants to eat in Chinatown,” Sumiao Chen said. “The owners of restaurants in Chinatown suffer from stigma.”