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Since the arrival of the pandemic – and the then-President’s remarks about the “China flu” – the AAPI community in the United States has seen a dramatic increase in incidents of discrimination, racism, and violence. In addition to the individuals who have been victims of hate crimes and attacks, Asian-owned businesses and historic Chinatown enclaves have suffered in cities across the country. When Houston, Texas-based food content creator Stevie Vu saw what was happening, he decided to take action. Along with a friend and co-founder, he launched Chow Down in Chinatown Houston to highlight Asian-owned small businesses, encourage customers and supporters to return to Chinatown, and create an online space for community pride and solidarity.
Now the group has swelled to nearly 20,000 active participants and has encouraged countless visits to AAPI restaurants and establishments across the Houston region. In advance of Lunar New Year, we spoke with Stevie Vu about what inspired him to form this online community, how it has helped as Chinatown begins to rebound, and, of course, where to get some delicious vegetarian food in Houston.
Click here to make The 9 Vegetables of Fortune, a dish that Stevie’s family makes for Lunar New Year
Tell us a bit about what inspired you to start the Chow Down in Chinatown Houston Facebook group and what it has been able to do in the community?
It started with a conversation with an old friend, Terry Wong, who became co-founder of our Facebook group, regarding the misfortunes that local businesses in our city’s Chinatown area were experiencing due to misinformed rumors that began to circulate at the start of the pandemic. We wanted to find opportunities to help raise awareness on the challenges that were being faced by Asian-owned restaurants during a time when xenophobia and bigotry toward Asian Americans were increasing around the country.
One rumor that went viral and sparked the creation of the Facebook group was that a local Jusgo Supermarket in our city’s Chinatown area had closed down due to the coronavirus. It severely disrupted their business for weeks. Our community [is now able] to address these types of unsubstantiated rumors about Asian-owned restaurants and provide factual information.
Chow Down in Chinatown Houston [has provided a way] to reach out in a new-school, word-of-mouth way, to share personal stories about restaurants that are struggling, what we love about the dishes they made, why we love the restaurant itself, and to pass along any informative details that would help entice others to explore, pay them a visit, or call in a to-go order. We make our best efforts to stay up-to-date with local restaurant operations to inform our group’s members on details such as modified hours, delivery or curbside pickup options, implemented safety protocols, or personal stories and connections about a particular restaurant.
We hope that through showing that these businesses are trying just as hard – if not harder – as any other business to stay up and running during the pandemic with the safety and welfare for both customers and staff in mind, this will encourage others to share similar stories, sentiments, and support. We also try to stay current on available resources on financial assistance programs that could be shared to benefit both business owners and individuals alike.
Since launching, the focus within the group has expanded from Asian-owned restaurants located in Houston’s Chinatown, towards all Asian-owned restaurants within the Greater Houston area. This has led to our community expanding even further and growing in members because people wanted to discover the hidden gems that were being highlighted.
As someone who was already involved with food, can you share a bit about how you have been able to use food and dining as a bridge or entry point for education about violence in the community and the loss of traditional small businesses?
I have a belief that no matter the differences in opinions that may exist among individuals or groups, food – to an extent – can be a tie that binds from which discussion can be engaged with open curiosity and enthusiasm. In initial efforts to build a positive narrative from sharing personal stories that revolved around food, we were able to connect a commonality among individuals as first-, second-generation family members who had grown up with similar experiences yet different cultural backgrounds. We were able to use food and cuisine as the icebreaker to talk about the families who provided those meals as restaurant owners, operators, and staff – to humanize them as opposed to becoming generalized or associated with the coronavirus, and recognize them as fellow community members and human beings.
What is the state of Houston’s Chinatown today? Have you seen a change in conditions from a year ago?
Foot traffic in Houston’s Chinatown area is beginning to grow, along with the opening of new restaurants, cafes, and teahouses. Delivery orders via third party apps have also remained a steady presence for restaurant businesses. While there are some days throughout the week where customer activity has yet to return to a level of pre-pandemic normalcy, it’s definitely an improvement from a year ago. We’ve also seen numerous mentions from Chowdown group members who have complimented employees and customers in the area for being mindful of others and continue to practice social distancing, sanitize hands and carts, and wear masks.
What do you want people in cities across the U.S. to know about supporting Chinatowns and other historic immigrant enclaves and protecting the people who live and work in them?
Supporting Chinatowns and other historic immigrant enclaves is how we as individuals can contribute towards a continued legacy of cultures. It’s a way to show how we as a society can and should encourage diversity. And it’s an opportunity to let the people that live and work in those communities know that there is love and support that extends beyond their inner circles.
Where would you send a vegetarian to eat in Chinatown and what would you recommend they order?
Pine Forest Vegetarian Restaurant is a vegetarian buffet that offers many options. The Red Bean Soup is popular for dessert.
San San Tofu offers a mix of vegetarian alternatives to popular Chinese/Vietnamese home dishes and dim sum. Try the vegetarian Bun Mam Chay (Vietnamese fish noodle soup), vegetarian Bun Bo Hue (spicy beef & pork noodle soup), or Dou Hua (tofu pudding) for dessert.
iBun Bakery offers vegan dishes, pastries, and cakes along with Quick Combo grab-and-go meals that come with an entrée, drink, and soup.
How will Houstonians be celebrating Lunar New Year and what are you excited about moving forward?
Houstonians will have plenty of Lunar New Year activites to choose from this year between community festivals, events at local temples, and many restaurants where customers can enjoy the vibrant energy like lion dance performances that will bring in good luck and drive away evil spirits in the New Year. Check out celebrations hosted by Asia Society Texas Center, Viet Hot Center, and Chinese Community Center, and the Tet Festival Asian Night Market at Railway Heights.