In 2005, Jason Wang’s father, David Shi, founded Xi’an Famous Foods, a New York City-based chain of fast-casual Chinese restaurants. Before the pandemic, Wang, who is the company’s CEO, ran 14 restaurants in three boroughs. Now only eight shops remain, including the recently reopened Long Island City location, which closed in January 2020 because of a fire. During the pandemic, Xi’an started shipping hand-pulled noodle meal kits and introduced online ordering for pickup and delivery to New Yorkers. Besides slinging noodles, he’s helping Soar Over Hate to raise funds for pepper spray and personal safety devices to give to the Asian elderly, women and LGBTQ communities in New York.
In this edition of Voices in Food, Wang talked to Garin Pirnia about how two of his Asian employees were attacked, what can be done to curtail these crimes and why it’s important to speak up.
We reopened with limited hours in June-July 2020 because there were already attacks happening back in March 2020, when people were being attacked for random reasons, mostly because they’re Asian and their association with the coronavirus. It was concerning to our employees who were coming back, because we all have to take public transit to get to our stores. Restaurants are always open late because we have to feed people. In anticipation of that, we don’t want to have people go home too late. We decided to close earlier and open later for all our locations. (We also close on Sundays, when the transit isn’t as reliable.)
“As an employer, I feel kind of helpless. What can we really do? Arm everyone?”
Even with these precautionary measures, we still had a couple of incidents that I know of where a couple of our employees were attacked. One person was attacked on her way from work to home in the early evening. She was punched. She had a bloody nose and cut lip. And another person was punched on his way to work, around 8 or 9 a.m. He had a swollen face, broken glasses. A guy followed him out of the subway. These things are very random.
As an employer, I feel kind of helpless. What can we really do? Arm everyone? We can’t really do that. Work remotely? For our restaurant industry it’s very difficult, especially because everything is so hands-on. It’s something we have to live with, really.
It’s hard to really put your hand on a solution. I think any human would feel that these attacks are not good and they’re not within the normal bounds of what should happen in our society. I think we can all agree on that. The perpetrators are not rational individuals.
In my opinion, I think there’s short term, medium term and long term. In the short term, there are things such as the presence of police in the subway system. We have to rely on the good police officers — and they are out there — to do the job of keeping us safe. It’s like my friend says, “There’s a fire right now. We can’t talk about why the fire is happening. We gotta put it out first.” Putting it out is the law enforcement side of it. Talking about medium term and long term, it’s more about finding out why the fire is happening. I think more and more it sounds like a problem of recidivism and mental illness coupled with the fact that Asians seem to be the model minority who are easy targets that don’t speak up or fight back.
“If we’re addressing mental health issues, it’s not just the Asians that will benefit from this — it’s everyone.”
My personal position is reforming jail reform, and not tying up the hands of law enforcement and the courts to the point that they cannot keep people safe. There are genuine concerns about the system, but that cannot mean people who commit the same crimes repeatedly should walk free right after being caught. My position is also that as Asians we have to be ready to defend ourselves, and not necessarily just wait to be rescued or protected.
It’s up to the government to fund and focus on mental health initiatives. I hope the next New York City mayor is able to find answers to these questions. There’s a fire right now and you’re talking about how to build this place so it’s more fireproof for the future. No, what you’ve got to be talking about is how to put out the fire first. And then when we have the fire out, there’s no more flames, then we can think about how to rebuild. I’m just a little bit tired of the current [local] administration’s way of doing what sounds good, what’s cool with the times these days, but not what is practical and what’s actually going to get the city into a better place.
As good as it is to have media coverage, I’m always concerned that the media coverage is not hitting the nail on the head on things. It’s saying the story that sounds good, that sounds like we’re making progress. It makes us feel a little warmer inside after we’ve shared the article, but at the end of the day it’s not exposing the ugly side of things. It’s making us feel like that as long as we’re talking about it, it’s going to be better. We’ve got to say the things that are hard to say. Things are gray, not black and white. There’s times when there should not be police involved in situations, but there are times when they need to be; there are times when white supremacy is a direct reason it’s an issue, but there are also times when it’s not the direct reason.
I think alliances are very important. It warms my soul to see the alliances. I know the support is out there. Rational people will condemn these attacks. Anyone who has a heart will condemn these attacks, just like anyone who has a heart will condemn the killings of African Americans by police officers. It’s just wrong. We’ve got to support each other.
One thing that really made me feel good was seeing wide-reaching figures such as Rihanna rallying for Stop Asian Hate. That’s very powerful. Seeing Steph Curry wearing shoes with Bruce Lee’s family picture on it — those things are powerful. I do see a lot of Asians rallying for Black Lives Matter as well, which is what I think we need: that cross-community support. Short term, it’s great to have the attention. Medium term, let’s continue the conversation. Let’s find our voices. Building up these [Asian American and Pacific Islander] monthly events, for example, a lot of people are having more of these talks. That’s great. Now we’re maybe able to move on to the second phase ― OK, let’s talk about this a little more.
The last step is actually implementing change. That’s more for the long term, of having a place around the table to drive policies that’ll help everyone. If we’re addressing mental health issues, it’s not just the Asians that will benefit from this — it’s everyone. For me, having a voice is better than not having a voice.