Under the cool, breezy shade of a West Bottoms building on Mulberry Street, a crowd of more than a hundred Kansas City residents gathered on Sunday afternoon by a stage with signs that read, “Stop Asian Hate” and “Hate is a virus, not Asians.”
People in the crowd held up flags large and small to show pride in their Asian identity with signs that read, “Proud to be Asian” and “Not your model minority.”
The vigil outside Vietnamese coffee shop Cafe Cà Phê (pronounced “cafe” kah-feh) was in response to the March 16 shooting in Atlanta, where a gunman targeted Asian-owned businesses and killed eight people, including six Asian women. Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a rise in documented attacks against Asians as some politicians have pushed rhetoric calling COVID-19 the “China virus.”
“I hope that there is more awareness of what’s happening to the Asian American community,” said Chi Nguyen, a Vietnamese woman who helped organize Sunday’s event. “And that … if you’re Asian, you feel a little bit like you have a community. You have people that do care about you and you shouldn’t be afraid.”
Asian business owners buoyed by community support
Sunday’s vigil opened with a traditional Japanese drumming performance from Three Tails Taiko and ended with the ancient Vietnamese tradition of burning incense sticks to honor the Asian lives lost to racist violence in the past year.
In between, Asian Americans and allies from Kansas and Missouri spoke candidly about personal experiences with anti-Asian racism and the importance of standing in solidarity. A large board on the stage showcased signs from local businesses, including those that are Asian-owned.
For business owners like Jackie Nguyen, whose Cafe Cà Phê opened last fall as the first Vietnamese coffee shop in Kansas City, the shooting in Atlanta and the news of attacks against Asian people has made her nervous for herself and her business.
Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese American. Recently, whenever she’s parking, driving, walking, she looks behind her out of caution. Her mom recently told her not to walk her dog at night anymore.
“It feels weird to be like, ‘Should I be cautious?’” Nguyen said. “Should I be extra aware? Having my guard up?”
Amid the sadness and anxiety she felt, Nguyen has been outspoken on social media about the racism experienced by Asian people in the U.S. She was asked to help organize the Stop Asian Hate vigil following the Atlanta shooting to draw attention to the violence against Asian people and amplify Asian voices in the community.
“I want the Asian American community/Asian community that is attending to feel seen,” Nguyen said. “I want them to have a space.”
Cafe Cà Phê has received an outpouring of support from the Kansas City community in recent weeks, she said. For instance, when the cafe opened the day after the Georgia shootings, a friend of the cafe sat inside the business to offer protection.
“We didn’t ask him to show up,” the cafe’s March 17 Instagram post read. “He just did. He wanted to make sure we weren’t alone.”
Community members have also brought food and presents to the cafe. The cafe has also received thousands in donations, which the team distributed to other local businesses.
Nguyen moved to Kansas City last June after performing in the national tour of the musical “Miss Saigon.” She said the support from the Kansas City community has been amazing.
“It feels like they really do care about us,” she said. “It feels like they have tried really hard to pay attention.”
Asian Americans in Kansas City call for increased awareness to stop Asian hate
The coalition Stop AAPI Hate, which formed last March to record and document attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., reported 3,292 incidents in 2020. This includes instances of verbal harassment, which made up the majority of the reported incidents, and physical attacks, the third largest category of documented attacks.
In the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, for instance, a 27-year-old man was assaulted in February by two men who called him anti-Asian slurs. In the San Francisco area, attacks targeting older Asian folks in recent months have resulted in one death and several injuries.
Research from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found high spikes in reported hate crimes against Asian people in cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Boston.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations has not yet released its hate crime data for 2020. In 2019, the FBI’s annual hate crime report found just a slight increase in reported offenses, though they were more violent than in previous years. The 2019 report found that about 4% of offenses resulted from anti-Asian bias.
In Kansas City, Missouri, Asians and Pacific Islanders make up about 3% of the population, according to the Census Bureau.
Democratic Missouri state Rep. Emily Weber, who was recently elected to represent Kansas City in the statehouse, spoke at Sunday’s vigil. She’s the first Asian American woman elected to the Missouri legislature.
Weber recently filed a complaint against Republican state Rep. Brian Seitz of Branson for using the term “China virus” on the floor of the Missouri statehouse. Weber said the representative later apologized and said he did not realize that that rhetoric was harmful to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“I guess the silver lining with what happened in Atlanta is we can now start educating others on what has been going on and what has been happening,” Weber said. “We really need to push in and make others understand that we have to listen to the communities affected by it 100%.”
Asian businesses in Kansas City have also been exploring ways to support each other. In the wake of the shootings in Atlanta, the staff at Waldo Thai Place in south Kansas City have started brainstorming an event that would bring together other Asian chefs in the Kansas City area.
“It’s going to be an event where we plan on showcasing and highlighting each Asian chef and their foods,” said James Chan, general manager at Waldo Thai Place.
Asian business owners taking precautions following attacks
Since the Georgia shootings, Tiffany Dreasler said she’s been freaking out. As the owner of Thai Massage and Reflexology in midtown Kansas City, Dreasler closed the business on weekends and switched to appointment-only bookings in recent weeks. As part of these new precautions, she now primarily accepts female clients and requires that male clients arrive with a companion, like a spouse or a friend.
She’s started locking the doors even when the business is open.
Dreasler and Thai Massage is one of the businesses that received a donation distribution from Cafe Cà Phê. Dreasler said it made her feel like people were taking care of her and her business.
Still, the economic impacts of the pandemic on businesses, interwoven with the rise in violent attacks against Asians in the past year, have been rough on Dreasler, a Vietnamese woman who has lived in Kansas City for almost two years.
In addition to the anxieties of being a female Asian business owner, Dreasler has also worried about her and her son’s safety. She’s mostly stayed home during the pandemic, and limited the time she spends outside.
“We refuse to go out unless I need to go and buy food,” Dreasler said. “I feel very unsafe right now.”