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A Chinatown restaurant was looted during protests after a troll spread allegedly fake racist messages from the owner, highlighting the complicated relationship between Black and Asian Americans

Irene Jiang   

A Chinatown restaurant was looted during protests after a troll spread allegedly fake racist messages from the owner, highlighting the complicated relationship between Black and Asian Americans
  • Seattle restaurant Jade Garden has been vandalized twice since March, and the owner believes that both incidents were racially motivated.
  • Jade Garden was one of 21 Chinatown restaurants damaged during recent protests over the death of George Floyd, and owner Eric Chan believes his restaurant was targeted because of online rumors that he sent a racist message on Instagram.
  • Chan says that the image of the racist message circulating on social media is fake, and that he's been the target of a racist troll bent on destroying his reputation and his business.
  • Chan's story highlight the complicated relationship between many Black and Asian Americans. "Asian Americans are in this strange social position," said Ellen Wu, the director of the Asian Studies program at Indiana University. "We're not white. We're also very clearly not black, and we benefit from being not Black."

Eric Chan keeps having to clean up broken glass.

Chan is the owner of Jade Garden, a Seattle dim sum restaurant that Business Insider first profiled in early April. When we first spoke to Chan, the restaurant had just been vandalized in what Chan believes to be a racially motivated crime. At the time, President Donald Trump had dubbed the coronavirus "the Chinese virus," and anti-Asian hate crimes had been on the rise. Sales in Seattle's Chinatown or International District, where Jade Garden is located, plunged as early as February.

When we reached back out in June, Chan told us that Jade Garden had been broken into again on May 30, during protests over the death of George Floyd. This time, Chan suspects that those responsible targeted him not because he is Asian, but because they thought he was anti-Black.

It's not exactly clear where many Asian Americans fit into this moment of sweeping social change and anti-racist protests. For those who live or work in Chinatown neighborhoods, the property damage associated with the current protests is reminiscent of past wounds. In 1992 Los Angeles, riots over the acquittal of four police officers beating Rodney King resulted in the destruction of Koreatown, just a year after a Korean store owner shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl.

"Asian Americans are in this strange social position," said Ellen Wu, an associate professor of history and the director of the Asian Studies program at Indiana University. "We're not white. We're also very clearly not Black, and we benefit from being not Black. We don't have to live in the kind of perpetual fear of violence that Black people do."

The reason Jade Garden was looted again, Chan believes, has something to do with those wounds. It begins with an internet troll who Chan believes is bent on ruining his reputation and his family's restaurant.

"Bruh gonna make Chow Dog Mein"

On May 23 at around 3:00 pm, Chan received a phone notification. He opened it to see an Instagram comment posted by an account he didn't recognize and had never interacted with commenting on an old picture of Chan holding his dog. The comment reads, "Bruh gonna make Chow Dog Mein."

Chan was shocked to see the comment appear on his personal Instagram. Business Insider reviewed evidence of the exchange in a 28-page protection order that Chan filed with the King County District Court.

Chan tried to defuse the problem with the Instagram commenter online, but he says things only got worse.

Soon after Chan reached out to his tormentor, the account started spreading a screenshot of a racist message that appears to be from Chan. The end of the message reads, "Fuck your Black lives Matter!"

The image caused immediate outrage on Facebook and Instagram. Social media users who identified as Black or allies condemned Chan and called for a boycott of his restaurant. Chan says he started receiving a barrage of abusive phone calls and texts, often from blocked numbers. But he says that the image was doctored, that someone photoshopped his picture and name onto a message he never sent.

Chan eventually found the identity of the Instagram user and filed a protection order against him. He asked Business Insider not to reveal the individual's name due to ongoing legal proceedings. Chan's protection order contains pages of taunting messages from the account that eventually devolve into pictures: a conspiracy theory meme, a picture of an Asian man crying, and a pornographic image of a woman in a sex act.

Even though the point of his harassment campaign is to make Chan seem anti-Black, pictures of the Instagram commenter on social media appear to show a young, light-skinned male. The commenter did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment via email.

When Chan spoke out about his story on local news and Facebook groups, he received messages from three different women who had been previously harassed by the same Instagram user. One offered to add her own testimony to his police report.

Still, the threatening calls and messages only kept coming. Police told him to deactivate his social media accounts, and he did.

Then, George Floyd was murdered.

"It's being broken into right now. Hurry, hurry, hurry!"

Over the weekend after Floyd's death, protests in downtown Seattle escalated into violent clashes between protesters and police. During the protests, there were reports of Seattle police pepper-spraying a young girl, covering up their badge numbers, punching people on the ground, and breaking windows of a Target store. The Seattle Police Department would not comment on the allegations but referred Business Insider to the demonstration complaint dashboard on the Office of Police Accountability website. Some protesters threw rocks and bottles. By the evening of Saturday, May 30, several police cars had been set on fire and many stores had been broken into and looted. It is unclear if looters were associated with the protests.

Around 11:30 pm on Saturday, two individuals broke into Jade Garden and made off with the cash register.

"My buddy who lives across the street from me called me at 11:30 and was yelling, "it's being broken into right now. Hurry, hurry, hurry!" I open up my phone and lo and behold, I see three people break into my restaurant. They smashed the front door and rummaged through everything." Chan said. Chan monitors his restaurant with a series of surveillance cameras connected to his phone.

He and his family grabbed their guns, piled into their car, and drove over, but the looters were long gone with the cash register by the time they arrived. Chan is convinced that his restaurant was targeted as a result of the racist image circulating on social media.

"They specifically drove up to my restaurant. And they used the excuse of the protest because that night there were literally zero police officers on call," Chan said. "Every police officer was in Seattle downtown."

But it's also possible that Jade Garden was randomly attacked. Out of the 50 businesses in Seattle that were affected by the destruction on Saturday, 21 were in the International District, according to a local TV reporter.

Chan says that soon after looting began, the police started pushing the crowd from downtown Seattle into the International District. "People kept on destroying shit. Then the police officers trying to control the crowd pushed them all the way back to Chinatown and Chinatown got destroyed."

Dev Kabanela, a lifelong International District resident, told Business Insider he felt the city abandoned the neighborhood by failing to protect it after pushing protests in its direction.

"We have been ignored by our city in local protection alongside legitimate Black Lives Matter protesters," Kabanela said. In a Facebook post of pictures showing graffiti, broken windows, and Jade Garden's shattered door, Kabanela said that "the city clearly stopped protecting when [the protests] reached our minority area."

What happened to Seattle's International District mirrors what happened in 1992 Los Angeles, when riots over the murder of Rodney King were funneled by police away from wealthy white neighborhoods into Koreatown, resulting in the destruction of Korean businesses.

A spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told Business Insider that it is standard practice for the SPD to direct protests back to their point of origin. "On Friday night, some demonstrations originated in the Chinatown International District, so officers directed the crowd back toward the CID per protocol."

Business Insider pointed out that the break-ins happened not on Friday night but on Saturday night when protests originated in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle. The spokesperson responded with a statement saying, "The Seattle Police Department (SPD) supports the right of people to express their constitutionally protected free speech rights. The SPD will facilitate these demonstrations and protests by communicating openly with the event organizers and creating a plan for safe crowd management operations."

Not white, not black

The relationship between Black and Asian American communities have often been marked by tension, and that tension sometimes plays out in news and popular culture.

At the end of Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do The Right Thing," residents of a majority-Black neighborhood riot and set upon a Korean-owned grocery store after the police choke a Black man to death.

The shopkeeper waves them away with a broom, screaming, "I not white! I not white! I'm black!" When a Black character looks at him incredulously, saying, "Why're you black? Me black! Me black!" The store owner shouts back: "You, me, same!"

While Asian and Black Americans are often lumped together into broad categories like "minorities" or BIPOC, solidarity between the two demographics is far from a given. Asian Americans have long benefited from structures of white supremacy in the United States predicated upon anti-blackness, according to Wu, the Asian Studies professor. Often, Asian Americans are complicit in upholding those very structures.

Tou Thao, one of the officers charged in aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd, is Hmong American. And in the 2015 NYPD shooting of Caribbean American Akai Gurley, some Chinese Americans rallied in support of Peter Liang, the police officer responsible for Gurley's death, eliciting backlash from other Chinese and Asian Americans who felt Liang should be held accountable. Finally, as anti-Asian sentiment spread with the pandemic, many Black Americans felt it wasn't their responsibility to support a group of people that had discriminated against them.

Since the 1960s, the model minority myth has allowed Asians to enjoy a higher, albeit second-class status in white society while reinforcing negative stereotypes about Black Americans. As a result, tensions have often flared up between Asian and Black communities. Understanding their shared history is key to advancing Black-Asian solidarity, Wu said.

"The idea of Asian American studies comes out of the Black Power movement and the antiwar movement in the sixties," Wu said. And now, Wu said, she's seeing an unprecedented willingness from Asian communities to examine their place in American society.

"This would be a good moment to ask, what does assimilation mean? What are we trying to assimilate into? And if you understand that society, as it is built and functioning right now, is an anti-Black white supremacy, should assimilation really be our goal?"

"I don't think he himself can stop what's happening to me"

Chan still receives threatening messages every day. He says if things go on like this, his family is thinking about leaving behind the restaurant his parents built and moving somewhere far away from Seattle, maybe China. He wonders if his Instagram tormentor understands the effects his actions have had on Chan's family, saying, "I don't think he himself can stop what is happening to me."

On the Sunday after Jade Garden and at least 20 other Chinatown businesses were looted or vandalized, a group of volunteers assembled to clean up the aftermath.

Volunteers helped to board up stores and restaurants. Artists painted murals on those boards. Some murals celebrated the food or products inside, while others expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, reading "Asians for Black Lives." Other residents and volunteers formed a block watch group to protect businesses from further damage.

"The community came together and helped me clean up the glass shards," Chan said. But he's facing at least $2,000 in damages from the break-in and he's still operating with a plywood door.

"I agree with what the movement is about, just not the violence and the looting," Chan says, but he remains conflicted. "Business owners that come out and complain and say their s--- was destroyed are being labeled as racist because they're saying you care about your property more than the movement. That's not fair. I'm just trying to protect my business."


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