The bamboo ceiling
24 Jun 2021
This week: What it’s like to be an Asian in retail, during the time of Kung-Flu.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS
So yeah, the China virus = not a great look. (Full disclosure: this writer is Chinese).
• Asian Americans are the fastest-growing consumer segment in the U.S., and although they’re often stereotyped as high-earners, they have the widest economic disparity of any racial group. In NYC alone, one in four lives below the poverty line. “Asian American women have been particularly hit hard by long-term unemployment, likely because they were overrepresented in leisure, retail and hospitality,” reported CNBC. Half of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) entrepreneurs applied for government aid last year.
• Small business owners and retail workers not only have had to contend with COVID, but also a 150% rise in hate crimes. Even in Midtown Manhattan, “shortened hours, safe walks, rideshares and personal alarms are a new reality for Asian factory owners and fashion workers,” reported WWD. Fashion in particular owes a lot to Asian workers, which make up nearly half of the U.S. garment industry.
• It’s not just an American issue, though. In the UK, the drop in the employment rate of Chinese people was nearly three times the decline experienced by other minority groups, while hate crimes against those of East Asian descent have gone up by 300%. Asian-owned storefronts have been vandalised, and the 150 independent businesses in London’s Chinatown have taken a harder hit than almost anywhere in the capital.
Although the term “Asian” is misleadingly monolithic – and can refer to people with origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent – many entrepreneurs and creators of all kinds of Asian descent feel more united than ever in face of it all.
“I feel hopeful as I see the AAPI community banding together to raise our voices to support the victims and also to call for change,” said Dr. Joyce Park, an MD and beauty influencer.
Prominent names in industries like beauty and fashion have been calling out major brands – who rely on both Asian production and consumption – for a lack of advocacy and action.
• In the beauty business, Asian founders are stepping up. Ju Rhyu, founder of Hero Cosmetics, said there’s “a lot of responsibility” to support her community. Sandra Lanshin Chiu, owner of wellness studio Lanshin, has committed a percentage of monthly profits to organisations combating anti-Asian hate. Sandra also sees the attention as an opportunity to educate others on racial bias in beauty. “[Our] cultures contribute a lot to the beauty and wellness industries, but the recognition and awareness around profit-generating ingredients, innovations, and indigenous medicine practices are misappropriated”.
• Important conversations are being started around cultural appropriation and branding. Streetwear label Chinatown Market was recently in the eye of a social media storm about its name, which it is now in the process of changing. The saga is “a lens through which to view the massive shifts in the zeitgeist... especially regarding race,” wrote Max Berlinger in GQ. “It raises thorny questions, none of which have easy, clear-cut answers: What is the line between appropriation and appreciation? Who owns a name? Or, for that matter, a neighborhood?”
• Asian-owned shops might have become targets, but they are also beacons. “Yes, it’s a storefront and we’re selling products… but we also have a higher social mission of staying here, resisting gentrification… and also challenging folks to think about what the storefront can contribute,” said Mai Lum, the millennial fifth-generation owner of Wing On Wo & Co., the oldest store in NYC’s Chinatown, who decided to delay reopening until this month to keep her family safe.
Food, so symbolic of roots and traditions, makes the trip to an Asian grocery market especially poignant. “This kind of shopping [is] a pilgrimage,” wrote Ligaya Mishan in The New York Times.
H Mart is one such Korean grocer that has grown from a single location to a mega-chain in a few decades, with legions of devotees who find comfort and inspiration in its aisles.
“I like going there because I feel good there,” said writer Min Jin Lee. “In the context of hatred against my community, to see part of my culture being valued – it’s exceptional”.
Words by Amy Tai, creative consultant and native New Yorker now based in London.