This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action
Written by Kelly Ko
Throughout the past year and a half, small businesses have been struggling to manage their business through the pandemic. Many had to rely on their savings and government-issued paychecks to survive.
As the Asian American daughter of a small business owner, this issue is deeply personal to me. I watched my father’s boutique close down after 18 years of business in the Pacific East Mall in Richmond, California. I grew up around advertisements and a community that supported me, including the small businesses that motivated me to pursue my passions through different mediums.
When COVID-19 hit and anti-Asian violence and xenophobia dramatically increased, this also affected many Asian-owned businesses. I got in touch with local small businesses in West Contra Costa County and the North Bay Area to get to know their background, their business story, and how COVID-19 has affected them.
Many Asian Americans have started businesses in retail, food, and personal services. Through the conversations I held with these small businesses, I listened to how they created a community amongst their service in the space they created.
May Khou, 54 years old | Co-owner of Donut Time
May Khou came to the United States at the age of 21 in 1989, and grew up in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, as the youngest daughter of her family. During my interview with Khou, I wanted to understand her background and how she eventually joined her husband to run their family-owned donut shop.
In 1968 Khou and her family were notified that the Khmer Rouge was getting close to their city. When her family fled from Phnom Penh to a small town near Thailand’s border, her family and she stayed in refugee camps for four years. Luckily her family was notified by her uncle that worked with the U.S. government about the Khmer Rouge’s next attack. Through their sponsor in the U.S., Khou’s family escaped and fled to Seattle.
As a young girl, Khou adapted quickly to do what she had to do to survive. After watching innocent people and community members get killed, Khou tended to close off on her own emotions. “It was all so scary to witness as a young girl,” she explained. “I felt numb and helpless. What was constantly on my mind was safety for my family and me.”
While Khou was telling me her experiences I could tell she was uncomfortable and had difficulty sharing these experiences because this was her childhood trauma escaping Cambodia. Khou eventually moved from Seattle to California and entered an arranged marriage. There weren’t many opportunities for Khou and many Cambodian refugees like her because of the language barrier and lack of educational opportunities when coming to America.
“Everything was so different and hard,” she said. “Along with adjusting to my new lifestyle, I had difficulty learning English and the donut names. While going to adult school I was learning English as my second language.”
While it was hard for Khou to get to know others, she relied on her allies, her husband, and her parents-in-law for help—and over time, things improved: “As I learned the donut names I adjusted to a new routine. Although my English was still poor, I got to engage with my customers.”
Although Khou isn’t fluent in English, she developed strong relationships with each of her customers and welcomes them every morning. Throughout her time at Donut Time, she has come to realize that everyone has aspirations they want to accomplish and to do that we should be supporting one another to success.
Throughout her journey adapting and working alongside her husband for 36 years at Donut Time in El Cerrito, she built stronger connections with her community. As a child, I came to this donut shop whenever I wanted a fresh donut. Khou and her husband were always so kind and held engaging conversations with my family.
Unfortunately, when COVID-19 hit, her business had to close down for two months. After 2 months Khou and her husband decided to open up their business again because it was their source of income. While business was slow because of the pandemic, Khou’s landlord helped out their business by extending their lease. Khou and her husband were really grateful for their landlord’s help.
To Khou and her husband, Donut Time is a place for old and new customers to come and enjoy their food. They love supporting their community and having conversations with their customers, this is what drives them to continue and preserve their business for 36 years.
As a mother of three kids, Khou has been supporting her children, her youngest daughter, and her two sons. Her daughter is currently in university, while her sons both have jobs. Her ultimate goal, Khou says, is to have enough retirement money to support her family and take care of her mother back in Seattle.
Anna Zho | Owner of Candy Box
As an eager young girl, Anna Zho was always seeking a way to explore and be independent. She immigrated to the U.S. at the age of sixteen from Guangdong, China, and was the first to start a business in her family. She grew up working alongside her dad to help her family, but in 2003, she got an offer from one of her customers that was looking for someone to take over their candy shop. At the age of 30, Anna bought the candy shop and started her first-ever business.
Anna had to pick up new skills along the way, despite having previously worked at a restaurant: inventory would come locally and internationally, allowing her to provide a wide range of different varieties of candies for her customers. Entering Anna’s candy shop, she greets every customer with recommendations and personal suggestions for their interests.
Throughout this process, Anna discovered the small steps she can take to be independent and still support her family. Anna didn’t have others help her through this process, other than her husband, who would come in one day of the week.
She built her little business on her ability to collaborate with people and commit to a schedule. Although she lost money at the beginning of her two years, she was able to gain back the money through holidays when there were more customers and working full time. Anna has a 30-40 minute commute from San Francisco to Richmond every day but because she didn't want to lose any more money, she didn't hire anyone.
Still, Anna has grown to appreciate her independence, and she’s made sure to create a welcoming space for customers to try new things and give recommendations. Growing up, Anna told me that she couldn’t do much because her parents were pretty strict. But now, she says, “I get to work independently and be my own boss while balancing a new work style. By organizing and managing my time I learned how to work for myself.”
The pandemic hit Anna’s candy shop hard. Anna lost a lot of money and had a lot of inventory that she needed to sell. She made the decision to close her business for four to five months because of the increase of COVID-19 cases and worked on the weekends when her business was finally reopened.
She has plans to renew her lease with hopes of good business in the future, but Anna also expressed concern about the construction going on in the mall her candy shop is in, the Pacific East Mall. The construction is part of ongoing efforts to bring in new businesses and rebrand the mall more generally, but simultaneous rent increases have closed down existing businesses, including my father’s boutique.
Anna also said the construction has made it harder for customers to come in and maneuver around the construction. She hopes that during the time in her lease that the construction will be finished. With Anna’s drive to continue her business of 17 years, her goal is to have the opportunity to flourish by having the time to exercise, travel, and rest. She hopes to continue to use her abilities to plan efficiently for her next steps.
Sayu Hair Salon
Wei Jia Zhou, 44 years old | Founder of Sayu Hair Salon
In 1997 Wei Jia Zhou immigrated with her family from China to the U.S. to seek a better future from her small town in China. From a young age, she was surrounded by a big family and always wanted to support her family in any way she could. As a current mother and a daughter, Zhou’s goal is to provide for her two daughters and live happily with her parents.
When she came to the U.S. Zhou sought out to get an education at Laney College to learn English since this was the only way to get a job. Her options were limited as she was learning English as her second language. Taking ESL at Laney college motivated her to go into cosmetology with an interest to become a hairstylist. “I can’t imagine what could’ve happened if I were to stay in China because everything was constantly changing as I grew up,” Zhou reflected. As I immigrated here to the U.S. it was the time in my life to go into adulthood and make a life for myself.”
Zhou worked part-time at four salons after five to six years of college and cosmetology school. Sayu Hair Salon, Zhou's first salon, opened in Berkeley, California in 2014. She said, “It was a whole process to open my first ever salon. My husband and I looked at different locations and once we found a salon, we had to remodel it before the opening.”
Throughout this process, Zhou got support from her family and friends to get ready for her grand opening. Her daughter Yumi Zhou helped her set up technological features and painted the walls. “Everyone gathered together to help me,” she explained. “This meant so much to me as I saw everything come together after years of working for this very moment.”
On March 13, 2020, everything was put on pause. Everyone in California was told to quarantine for two weeks. As of today, many small businesses have had to close down their businesses because of rising rent rates. Zhou is a mother of two kids and also supports her parents financially. She wasn’t able to open her salon every day during the pandemic. She made the decision to close her business for 3 months and reopen when COVID-19 cases were going down.
During the pandemic, she was focusing on her children and assisting them with online school. Because of this Zhou chose to open only one day of the week by appointments from her customers. Thankfully her husband still had his job at a local office to support their family. Although everything was in chaos, Zhou was grateful for her family’s health and this time to be with her family. Zhou said her end goal was “To be able to focus my time on my kids and spend time with my daughter before she goes off to college next year. COVID-19 was a huge shift but I’m grateful for the time it gave.”
In the Bay Area, many are readjusting to the new normal and going back to work. Zhou talked to me about why she decided to continue to pay the rent and keep her business through the pandemic. Through her journey in the Bay Area, Zhou got to meet new people through her business. Even through the pandemic, Zhou’s strength and ability guided her to support her customers by checking in on them through the chaos around them.
“From the start of opening my salon, I’ve always loved connecting with my customers and forming relationships with them through each visit,” she said. “They provided different perspectives and trusted my vision as a barber. I’m glad I was able to create a reliable community for my customers.”
Vannara Sem, 63 years old | Owner of All-Star Donuts
Vannara Sem is a Cambodian refugee that has worked almost his entire life. He recounts only being able to eat two spoonfuls of rice a day while growing up in Cambodia, but he finally escaped in 1998, at the age of 32, after spending fourteen years helping others in Cambodia through the refugee camps. In 1998 Sem escaped at the age of 32. Although he had to work seven days a week it kept Sem busy and motivated to continue establishing his business.
Sem’s first donut shop was in Venetia Meadows, San Rafael for two years (Fancy Donuts) until he moved over to Richmond, and then to El Sobrante. In 2002, Sem finally established his business where it stands today in El Cerrito.
As I interviewed Sem he told me about his previous tenants and his current situation with his lease. “I was faced with lots of complications on where the leasing lady wanted my business to be in the plaza,” Sem explained. I had to move my business twice throughout when I moved my business to El Cerrito. Because of all these complications with the leasing lady, she told me to get a lawyer to discuss this matter of having my business next to Starbucks. This was a tough process and I was new to these compilations as a refugee.”
Sem told me about how the matters continued to get worse until he found out that one of his customers, Gland, was one of the owners of the buildings in the El Cerrito Plaza. Gland saw Sem’s dedication and his efforts to continue his business.
Gland helped Sem write a letter to the city hall of Sacramento to support Sem. Sem also mentioned that throughout this process the leasing lady sent Sem an insulting letter about his business. Because of this Sem decided to put up the letter that she sent up on the walls of his business. Although the leasing lady wanted Sem’s business to close down, Sem got 3,000 signatures in less than 2 weeks in support of his business staying.
Sem also credits his business’s persistence, especially through the complications of his lease, to support he’s received from his son and wife. Their family business grew popular and started establishing a community of loyal customers throughout their 20 years in the El Cerrito Plaza.
When the pandemic hit in the U.S., Sem and his family were already ahead of other businesses to close down because of an alert from relatives in Long Beach. They warned Sem and his family about the deadly and unknown virus that was affecting many people around them.
As news outlets continued reporting more and more cases, Sem focused on his family’s health and his own. From March 16th Sem shut down All-Star Donuts for 16 weeks and reopened back in May. Their reopening wasn’t too busy and Sem was struggling because he didn’t receive the stimulus check that others received. When I asked Sem what his goals were for himself and his business he said, “I win at the end of all of this being able to work and interact with others. This is when I’m at peace.” Sem’s main income comes from his business and uses what he earns for rent. Sem shared the importance of being content with life through what you already have.
Sem was the final small business owner I spoke with, and after speaking with all of them, I was even more appreciative of the community that they build through their relationships with their consumers. As a student, being able to see how hard they worked to reach where they are now while also being content with what they already have is inspirational.
Through the pandemic, these businesses have had to manage their financial obstacles while battling other aspects of their health and their community. And while these businesses are only representing some amazing businesses in the Bay Area, there are many more that provide a space to share Asian American heritage with others while also enjoying amazing food and activities.
As an Asian-American woman going to these small businesses made me feel recognized and at home to be in a space where I get to engage with different cultures while also interacting with others. Throughout the pandemic, we haven’t been able to have in-person social interactions with one another. Knowing that I can go to all these small businesses and hold conversations with them, is the small steps I’m taking to engage in my community while giving back in any way I can.
Thank you so much to these amazing businesses that shared their stories and allowed me to share them with the public!