by Sharon H. Chang
It was back in February — what now seems a lifetime ago — when Bill Tashima first heard people were avoiding Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (ID) because of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. It was still winter, COVID-19 was not yet a pandemic, and only one known U.S. case existed in nearby Snohomish County (in a man who had visited Wuhan). But because Seattle’s Chinatown, a historically Asian immigrant community, was being perceived as directly connected to China where the outbreak began in December, businesses in the ID had been experiencing decline as early as January. Restaurants were getting hit especially hard.
Tashima, a long-time Seattle JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) board member, became concerned. “I always think of the ID as the spiritual heart of our community,” he said, noting the district’s rich history of Asian American culture and activism. He wanted to see what was happening for himself. Tashima drove from Fall City, where he lives, to a favorite ID Chinese restaurant for lunch. Ocean Star, on 7th and Weller, is usually hopping, Tashima said. But that day the parking lot was empty, Tashima was the only customer, and a friend working at the bar said business had been dead for a while. Tashima knew he had to help. He immediately began brainstorming with Seattle JACL’s former Board President, Sarah Baker.
“The ID has always had a really special place in my heart,” said Baker, “and has always been a critical part of my community and identity.” Baker, 31, is a mixed-race Japanese American who has lived her entire life in Seattle. She spent much of her childhood growing up in the ID, attending Denise Louise Education Center while her grandmother, a Japanese immigrant, worked nearby at Uwajimaya. Baker remembers in her childhood taking walks around the neighborhood. “Sometimes we’d go into Uwajimaya and my Grandma would give us a big bag of fortune cookies.” When Baker saw the coronavirus impact on ID businesses early this year, she too knew she had to do something.
The collaboration between Tashima and Baker was meaningfully intergenerational. Baker is a Seattle born-and-raised millennial. Tashima is a retired third-generation Japanese American, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, who moved to Seattle in 1981. He has been a JACL member for 55 years, which includes serving on the Seattle JACL board for two decades and being president twice. Tashima will turn 69 this year. He and Baker knew it made sense to come together amid the pandemic and take action on behalf of their beloved ID. What the two JACL board members did not know was their collaboration was about to ignite a movement and take them on an incredible journey.
On March 8, Tashima and Baker launched a public Facebook group called Support the ID – Beat the Hype to encourage people to patronize small, family-owned businesses in the International District. Members could share positive posts about favorite restaurants, and the food they ordered. Tashima and Baker had modest expectations. “When we first started,” said Baker, “we were like, let’s just see what happens.” The Facebook group attracted 1,000 members in just the first day and continued to grow exponentially. Looking back, Tashima recognizes “it was the right thing at the right time.” Especially for Asian Americans who were feeling helpless. “We needed a place to feel home, to feel part of a bigger group.”
Group members were originally encouraged to take out and dine in to support small ID restaurants. By mid-March, however, it was clear dining in was no longer advisable and the organizers shifted their recommendation to takeout only. Simultaneously, Tashima and Baker saw the Facebook group needed a name change. “We realized this is about more than [the] ID,” said Tashima. “A lot of people are suffering.” Tashima and Baker updated the group’s name to Support the ID – Community United. Seattle’s Chinatown-International District remained at the heart of the group, but support grew to include small family-owned businesses from Lynwood to Bellevue to Tukwila.
Roast duck, braised egg, and barbeque pork. Pea vines and green onion pancakes. Tantalizing member posts kept rolling in along with pictures of mouthwatering dishes. Members happily shared their stories of eating delicious food made by small local restaurants. Shrimp dumplings, steamed buns, handmade noodles. Sashimi and poke platters. Guava, mango and rainbow cake. Malasadas. Fried bananas. Spring brought posts about supporting local flower farmers through pop-up stands, flower drives, and restaurant-farmer partnerships. The Facebook group was featured or mentioned in several media stories and membership kept exploding.
Baker said Asian American group members sometimes post about discrimination they have been facing in public because of coronavirus stigma. One member wrote about being called “chink” outside a boba shop. Another member recently wrote about being subjected to a racist tirade by three men outside Home Depot. “These things are definitely happening in Washington,” Baker said. In mid-April, a white supremacist group stickered hate messages across Seattle’s Chinatown-International District and then tried to infiltrate Support the ID – Community United. Tashima and Baker were forced to make the Facebook group private.
Bias has never deterred the group, however, and membership just keeps climbing. When Support the ID – Community United reached 15,000 members, Tashima and Baker realized people wanted to do even more to support small businesses and there was an opportunity to mobilize the group’s wide audience further. They launched a GoFundMe, Support the ID and Healthcare Workers, to buy meals from small restaurants and deliver them to frontline workers. Again, Tashima and Baker had modest expectations, setting a stretch goal of $5,000. Again, the response was overwhelming. To date, the fundraising page has received over $16,000 in donations.
Since then, the organizers have been busier than ever. Tashima has been coordinating deliveries from restaurants to hospitals. Baker writes posts about meal deliveries and tracks them on spreadsheets. Over 880 meals from 17 restaurants have been delivered to 16 hospitals and clinics. Special donations have also been made to firefighters including Fire Station 10 which has a lengthy history of supporting the ID. Restaurants and healthcare workers have thanked Baker, telling her the donations have helped small businesses stay open and uplifted healthcare workers’ spirits. There are a couple of weeks of deliveries remaining. After that, all donations will go to the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) annual fundraiser Walk For Rice.
During this historic time of pandemic, Support the ID – Community United has become an extraordinary example of how people are taking community care into their own hands. And the best part is the collective is still growing. The group has over 19,300 members, many of whom are spearheading their own relief efforts and activism. Meanwhile, Tashima and Baker keep the Facebook group’s atmosphere uplifting with diligent maintenance and clear guidelines. The goal is to support small businesses. Being kind is a top priority. “We are trying to be a positive group,” said Tashima. “We want to talk about the things we can do now to help our community.”
Tashima, who has been retired for a decade, never imagined a social media project like Support the ID – Community United could become such a powerful movement. Admittedly, it is a lot of work. Tashima spends 4–5 hours at the beginning of each day on the Facebook group, plus he and Baker have daily calls about what is happening online and in their community. But the workload is so worth it. “I can definitely say this is one of the better things I’ve done in my life,“ said Tashima. “We have so many good people that want to help in any way they can. We’ve been able to empower our community and show what treasures we have.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.
Featured image: Harry Chan, owner of Tai Tung Restaurant, delivers donated meals to Fire Station 10. Tai Tung is the oldest Chinese restaurant in the ID. (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)