Seated in the back of his Durham restaurant, Kenny Wong recounts fleeing Vietnam at eight years old as one of hundreds of thousands of “boat people”—refugees who left the country by sea after the Vietnam War.

He and his family spent seven days on the Pacific Ocean with more than 50 people on a tiny vessel, surviving hunger, dehydration, and an encounter with pirates.

“I don’t think anything can get me down,” Wong says.

But lately, it’s been difficult to stay afloat. Wong opened Secrets Pho & Noodle Bar last July after years of wanting to run his own Vietnamese restaurant. When he signed the lease in September 2019, there was no way to predict that a global coronavirus pandemic would ravage the economy and devastate the food service industry.

On top of the day-to-day challenges of operating a restaurant within COVID-19 restrictions, Secrets was recently broken into twice within one month: first on February 7 then again on March 3. The restaurant was already losing up to about $1,000 a day, Wong says. Having to shut down for repairs for roughly a week didn’t help.

“It did take a serious emotional toll on us,” says Secrets manager Henessee Asaro. “And then when the second one happened, we were asking, why again? And why us again?”

Durham small businesses have seen an uptick in commercial burglaries amid the pandemic, local crime data show. But for Asian-owned establishments, the attacks also come amid a rise in discrimination and violence targeting Asians and Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The national advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate received 3,795 reports of hate incidents toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021—35 percent of which occurred at businesses.

A shooting spree targeting three Asian businesses in Atlanta in March that left eight people dead, including six Asian women, has only heightened the sense of fear in Asian American communities.

“It’s definitely frightening,” says Janet Lee, owner of ZenFish Poké Bar. The eatery has three locations in the Triangle area, one of which is a few doors down from Secrets on Ninth Street.

Lee says there was an attempted burglary at ZenFish’s Ninth Street location around the same time Secrets was broken into in February. She purchased pepper spray for each store and stopped carrying cash onsite.

“You’re kind of in a battle with yourself thinking if it’s targeted towards Asians or if it just happens to be like a lot of other break-ins,” Lee says. “Having someone break into your restaurant or business is horrible, whether it is Asian hate or not. But if it is Asian hate, it’s even worse. They’re not only targeting your business, but they’re targeting your race because of who you are.”

Durham police spokesperson Lamont Minor says the department is not currently investigating any incidents at Asian-owned businesses as potential hate crimes.

“We have no reason to believe that there is a specific target to Asian restaurants at this time,” Minor said in an email.

Mayor Steve Schewel noted that the Durham police department has worked closely with a group of Asian restaurant owners over the last several years after several Asian-owned eateries were targeted for robberies. Durham Chinese restaurant owner Hong Zheng was shot and killed during an armed attack in 2018.

“We know that there is a wave of anti-Asian violence in our country now, and we cannot – and will not – accept that in Durham,” Schewel said in an email. “We welcome and embrace our Asian communities in Durham, and we will do everything in our power to protect them.”

Lawrence Yoo, owner of the Durham restaurant Sushioki and lead pastor at Waypoint Church, recalls experiencing at least two racist attacks in the past year. In one incident, he was driving home after closing Sushioki for the night when the driver in front of him stopped their car and proceeded to shout racial slurs and profanities at him.

Growing up the son of Korean immigrant small-business owners, Yoo says robberies were a constant fear, even an expectation.

“People used to think that Asians would keep a lot more cash, which is just not the case anymore,” he says. “I used to be at home waiting and praying for my parents to get home safe every night after they closed out the restaurant. I’ve been living with that fear for a while.”

Apart from burglaries, many Asian-owned establishments began experiencing the effects of the pandemic long before statewide lockdowns last March. National news outlets reported that some Asian small businesses across the country saw drops in revenue early in 2020 amid concerns about the coronavirus outbreak originating in China, despite few reported COVID cases in the United States at the time and no evidence of coronavirus transmission through food.

Advocates say anti-Asian sentiments have been stoked by the rhetoric of leaders like former President Donald Trump, who continually referred to the coronavirus in racialized terms such as “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu.”

“If you look at comments online, there are people who for a long time would not go to a Chinese restaurant,” says Heidi Kim, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Asian American Center. “There probably are people who still are not going to Asian restaurants or Asian supermarkets.”

Many Asian immigrant small-business owners also have difficulty applying for COVID relief from governmental loans like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other institutional resources due to language barriers, says Ricky Leung, senior director of programs for the advocacy group North Carolina Asian Americans Together.

“A lot of issues our communities run into during the pandemic aren’t necessarily something that’s unique to the pandemic,” Leung says.

Wong, owner of Secrets, hasn’t been able to apply for PPP loans because the restaurant wasn’t operating before February 2020, an eligibility requirement of the program.

“It’s tough. Right now, I’m using all of my resources. It’s really difficult to raise money,” Wong says. “Sometimes people ask, ‘How are you doing? How do you stay open at this time?’ I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.”

These days, Wong is focused on keeping Secrets’ doors open and his 10 employees paid, healthy, and safe. He wants his restaurant to inspire his two children, who are 12 and 15 years old, and believes in his mission of serving the Durham community with healthy, traditional Vietnamese cuisine—from a bowl of pho to banh mi to his personal favorite, egg noodles.

“I just have to take it every day,” Wong says. “Every morning is a second chance.” 

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