- Asian business owners in the US are facing two crises: A surge in hate crimes and the devastating effects of the pandemic.
- The dual disasters are hindering the community's recovery – an integral piece of the US economy.
- Asian American entrepreneurs say clearer communication about aid, better policing, and more mental health resources are vital.
- This article is part of a series called "The Cost of Inequity," examining the hurdles that marginalized and disenfranchised groups face across a range of sectors.
When Ba Mo arrived at his Alhambra, California-based business, Little Sunshine Preschool, one day in February, he was disturbed by what he found: human feces smeared across the front doors.
Two weeks later, someone spray-painted the words "hope u die" across Mike Nguyen's San Antonio restaurant, Noodle Tree. Just two days later, in Atlanta, eight people died in a mass shooting that involved three spas owned or staffed by Asian people.
Asian business owners in the US are facing two crises today: They're experiencing a surge in hate crimes, verbal abuse, and vandalism while battling the personally and financially devastating effects of the pandemic. The dual disasters are hindering the community's recovery – an integral piece of the US economy.
Asian American-owned businesses generate $700 billion in annual GDP (between 3 and 4% of the US GDP) and employ about 3.5 million people, or 2% of the US workforce, according to an August study by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Despite holding a good chunk of the economy, businesses owned by Asian Americans received only $7.7 billion this year from the federal government's 2021 $277 billion Paycheck Protection Program aimed at helping small businesses through the pandemic.
Asian American entrepreneurs say clearer communication about government aid, better policing, and more mental-health resources are vital for their recovery.
Rising hate crimes thwart reopening and recovery efforts
The atrocities that occurred at Mo's, Nguyen's, and the Atlanta businesses are just three examples of a rising trend across the nation. Hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the nation's 16 largest cities jumped 145% between 2019 and 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Meanwhile, there were 3,795 hate crimes reported against Asian Americans between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021, according to the nonprofit organization Stop AAPI Hate. The primary site of these attacks, accounting for 35.4%, was businesses.
Asian entrepreneurs say the uptick in hate crimes is affecting the way they're running and reopening businesses. Karho Leung, the founder of the barbershop and retailer 12 Pell, located in New York City's Chinatown, started closing early to let workers commute home before dark after an Asian man was stabbed with an 8-inch knife in the neighborhood.
"That's what put Chinatown on complete edge," said Leung, noting that many entrepreneurs in the area gave up foot traffic to their business by choosing to shut down before dark. "It's both economics and trying to protect employees."
In other parts of the country, some business owners have temporarily closed their storefronts altogether; others hired security for employees, said Chiling Tong, president and CEO of the National Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship.
"They're limiting their profits at a time when businesses are already struggling," Tong said. "They're trying to figure out how to operate safely."
Sacrificing profits for safety comes after an excruciating year for Asian-owned businesses
Many AAPI business owners say prioritizing safety over earnings is an easy decision, even though sacrificing profits will further delay their recovery from a devastating year.
"I check the news feed every day on the Chinatown Facebook group," said Kenneth Ma, who helps run his parents' four eyewear retailers in New York City. "And every time there's someone else who attacked an elderly woman or spewed some harassing Asian hate statements."
In the past year, Asian-owned businesses suffered disproportionately across several metrics. For starters, misguided fears of the virus shuttered establishments in many Asian American cultural districts a full month before nationwide lockdowns were imposed.
By April 2020, New York City's Chinatown was deserted and essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies permanently closed, Leung said. "It was a dead zone," he added. "We never shut down for anything, so seeing that was eerie and scary."
What's more, the community has been plagued by prolonged rates of unemployment. Asian American unemployment rates surged by more than 450% between February and June 2020, a greater increase than that of other racial groups, according to the McKinsey & Co. report.
Even government and financial support efforts failed the AAPI community. Seventy-five percent of Asian-owned businesses had little chance of obtaining a PPP loan, according to the McKinsey & Company study.
Poor communication from government agencies and a lack of minority-led companies having existing relationships with mainstream banks or credit unions, a key to loan approval, led to the small number of loans, experts told Insider.
"There wasn't enough information spread in our community that this was available," Leung said, noting that many entrepreneurs, like himself, didn't know the loans could be forgiven and didn't apply out of fear of incurring debt. "There was a big gap in understanding."
An uncertain future for an integral part of America's recovery
It's too early to predict how the AAPI community will recover and emerge from the dual disasters, Tong said. To better understand, she plans on conducting another survey on the effects of COVID-19 and restoration efforts, which she aims to publish in May.
Asian entrepreneurs say better policing, more mental-health resources, clearer communication about government aid, and the workforce's return to offices could help businesses bounce back. In the meantime, the AAPI community is forced to organize efforts to help one another.
"The community has organized with volunteers that can accompany people where they need to go," Ma said. "Our community getting together and showing their support is a very bright spot."