CINCINNATI — Yvonne Low and her husband, Joe, have worked hard to keep their Clifton Heights restaurant, Tea ’N’ Bowl, open through the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Cincinnati’s switch to remote learning cost them essential foot traffic from students — the lifeblood of most businesses in a crowded neighborhood where parking is scarce. They adapted.
But this spring, racist phone calls and fake orders began pouring in, costing the Low family time, money and supplies. Low is worried she’ll have to close her restaurant for good to escape the harassment.
“I’m not sure whether to stay open anymore, because people hate us,” she said. “And then, with all this… My mom is in Malaysia. They are so worried, seeing everything that’s happening. They say, ‘Just close it.’”
The calls go like this: A caller will place a large order over the phone, promising to pay in cash when they arrive to pick it up. Low and her staff prepare the food. The customer never appears.
Low said she had called back some of the numbers, hoping to find the customer who had placed the order. Typically, the person answering will claim she’s got a wrong number. In one case, they made another comment.
“The person on the other end said, ‘We don’t even eat dogs,” she said. “I was like, ‘Uh, OK.’ We hear a lot of that, actually: ‘You eat cats, you eat dogs.’ Sometimes they call and they laugh, laugh, laugh.”
Many recent instances of anti-Asian violence and prejudice have been linked to fear and prejudice caused by misunderstandings about COVID-19, which was first observed in Wuhan, China. Some right-wing politicians and pundits call the disease the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus,” which activists say strengthens the harmful association. Asian Americans have reported being harassed by people who blame them, as a group, for the pandemic.
An Asian Americans Advancing Justice study found 3,000 hate crimes against Asian Americans were reported in 2020 — six times more than the previous two years combined.
And restaurants like Low’s, often the most visible examples of Asian culture in many American communities, are easy targets for the kind of people who go out of their way to engage in racist harassment.
Oriental Wok, a Chinese restaurant with two Cincinnati locations, posted this on Facebook in mid-March:
Low said she’s especially disheartened because her restaurant is a family business for herself, her husband and their young children.
“I have my kids all the time in the restaurant, and that's not what I want them to perceive, like, ‘Oh, we are inferior,’” she said.
Lee Wong, a West Chester Township trustee, gained national media attention in March for denouncing anti-Asian hate publicly, recounting his own personal experiences being racially harassed and bullied throughout his life, and showing the scars on his chest from his time in the United States Army.
Since then, he said, he’s been contacted by many Asian-owned businesses seeking help and guidance as they deal with similar acts of racist harassment.
“My message is very clear: Just be kind to each other,” he said. “We are all human beings and have to be gentler, kinder, treat each other with respect and some civility.”
Low said she feels downtrodden by the atmosphere around her and the efforts of the prank-callers to make her business feel unwelcome in Cincinnati.
“But I have to stay open, because rent has to go on, everything goes on, and then my employees — they need us. They have been with us for so long,” she said. “I cannot just let them go.”
“I don’t want to really create a scene or something,” she added. “I just want to let everybody around my neighborhood know, you know, there’s things that happen out there like that. Just be careful out there.”