by Amanda Ong
On Feb. 6, along 12th Avenue and Jackson Street in Little Saigon, ChuMinh Tofu Vegan Deli hosted a Lunar New Year meal for guests lined down the block. The special menu included rice, vegan BBQ pork, spicy tofu, stir-fried veggies, eggrolls, oranges, and $1,000 distributed to guests in red envelopes. Volunteers served the free food and passed out the envelopes along with warm clothes and supplies to their many guests — not customers per se, but people in need of a warm meal and who may struggle to afford one most days.
Having grown up in Vietnam, ChuMinh founder Thanh-Nga “Tanya” Nguyễn practiced the Lunar New Year as a time for family, fortune, love, and joy and for traditions like feasts and new clothes and red envelopes. ChuMinh’s Lunar New Year Sunday Meal reflects the same values, sharing community, food, and family with those in need on the Lunar New Year.
But while the red envelopes and celebration occur at the restaurant just once a year, ChuMinh Tofu has been hosting a free Sunday Meal from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Sunday for the past three years. Many of their Sunday Meal guests are a part of Little Saigon’s community of houseless folks. Though Nguyễn and staff have never accepted money for the meals, over the years, organizers known as the “Eggrolls” have organized around her efforts. Now the Eggrolls also organize free clothes, bags, toiletries, snacks, drinks, masks, and hand sanitizer along with the Sunday Meal each week.
“I started doing it because I saw a lot of people ask for free food, and sometimes we could help them but sometimes we couldn’t because we were too busy,” Nguyễn told the Emerald. Eventually, she thought to set aside “a few hours on Sunday, and cook food only for them.” She is grateful now both for the community she has created with her Sunday Meal guests and for her customers who are patient during longer wait times on Sunday mornings.
“I think most of the [guests] outside — sometimes the whole day, nobody says ‘Hi, how are you?’” Nguyễn said. “They feel like nobody cares … And of course I know some of them, they also have the memories of childhood of the New Year. So that’s why I want to share with them. They still have something to celebrate, to remember.” So each year since the Sunday Meals began, she and the Eggrolls make sure everyone can celebrate Lunar New Year no matter their access, with red envelopes, new clothes, and a feast before them.
Nguyễn immigrated from Vietnam to Seattle with her family in 1994. At the time, she attended the University of Washington with a major in biochemistry and an intent to pursue medical school. However, she then stopped her studies to help support her family and worked for four years before joining her parents’ family business — a tofu factory on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. Her parents had been working with tofu since 1968 in Vietnam. Then in 2011, Nguyễn opened her own vegetarian tofu deli: ChuMinh Tofu.
For all of those who come through ChuMinh, Nguyễn’s kindness and compassion is as moving as it is infectious. “As soon as I entered Tanya’s presence … [it was] like a magnet,” Eggroll volunteer Wei Mon Lu told the Emerald. “And my first reaction when meeting her was like, ‘Oh, my God, I never want anything bad [to happen] to her ever.’” Lu moved to Seattle a few months ago, and originally came to ChuMinh to scope out new vegan food. Afterwards, she followed them on Instagram and noticed their Sunday Meals. She began to send them Venmo donations, and was unsure if she had time to volunteer while working full-time and as a student. “But then the last time I came here, I just blurted out, ‘Do you need help with Sunday stuff?’” Since then, Lu has been coming to ChuMinh every weekend to help prepare and support the Sunday Meals.
In the midst of many of Little Saigon’s businesses struggling in the pandemic, controversies have arisen over the growing houseless population. However, local businesses and neighbors seldom address the issue with the nurturing attitude of ChuMinh Tofu. People commonly believe that community solutions lie in criminalizing houselessness and punishing poverty, often without analyzing the root cause of the issues or with compassion for what unhoused people themselves face.
Nguyễn, who is known throughout the community on a first-name basis or even as “Auntie Tanya,” however, sees her houseless neighbors as people. “People say that Jackson and 12th is a very high crime area. And I don’t think so, because the people don’t have shelter or a place to go, so they stay there,” she said. “But they don’t do any [harm] — they have their own things to worry [about].”
Nguyễn’s simple, but radical, kindness has a gravity to it that has drawn some impressive organizing to orbit around her and ChuMinh. Greg Bennick, another Eggroll, told the Emerald that Nguyễn’s model of mutual aid fills a need. “The structures that are in place societally in the system in which we live do not effectively serve people at the margins of society,” he said. “The system does not serve people at the margins, who are unhoused, unsheltered, who don’t have money. Mutual aid work picks up where society and its structures drop off … Instead of pointing fingers at other people as a problem, [mutual aid work offers] to help uplift and support those people to better balance out society.”
Lu added that these ideas are reinforced through social cues — like being told not to give houseless folks money for worry of how they might spend it, pervasively putting the blame on individual character and failings rather than on a larger system.
For Nguyễn, feeding her neighbors is simple. “I hope that people can look at them like family. And like in the family you have five children, but one of them made a mistake and then now we need to help them more. We give them love, so they will have more hope to continue with their life.”
Sunday Meals have helped others simplify what are otherwise complicated social issues. “I still think it’s just like such a simple thing,” Lu said. “Why shouldn’t people have a meal? Why shouldn’t people be fed? It’s just like, why not? Why not have a celebration, if you have the resources to?”
Lu says that ChuMinh is both a place where you can get involved and a model of community care. Sunday Meals provide basic resources for people who need them with consistency — something that is especially important for people who are in precarious situations in life. And the meals show compassion to people who are often shown none.
Nguyễn says she and the Eggrolls gain from this work, too. “I think when we do this, we bring people close to each other, and now we understand each other more. Their happiness is my reward,” she said. “And they come so more people come. So that increases your happiness. The happy that you have [gets] a lot bigger — that’s why every day I feel like I have a party!”
Visit ChuMinh Tofu and Vegan Deli at 1043 S Jackson St. To support ChuMinh’s Sunday Meals, you can Venmo @TheEggrolls or donate warm clothes in excellent condition, tents or tarps, and sturdy bags, as well as travel-sized toiletries, individually packaged snacks and drinks, and PPE. You can drop off donations or show up to volunteer during the meal on Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Or get in touch via Instagram.
To get involved or volunteer with mutual aid networks outside of CID, you can get in touch with Beauty in Our Community and For the People in South Seattle, Homies Helping Homies and From the Heart PNW in North Seattle, Seattle Community Fridgeacross Seattle, Auburn Mutual Aid in Auburn, and Snohomish County/Everett Equity Alliance in South Everett.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Chef Tanya (front row, fourth from left) and her volunteer team of “Eggrolls” provide free meals, clothes, and community for houseless neighbors at ChuMinh Tofu Deli in Little Saigon. (Photo: Henry Jensen)
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