When the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold in the United States, we had little-to-no idea where we would be as a nation just one year later, much less how it would manifest in our feelings and behaviors. The fear that has pervaded throughout our society since then has led to several discouraging reactions, most notably the rising violence against Asian Americans, who have been blamed for the pandemic despite having no more involvement in its spread than any other US citizen.

According to research released by reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate, there were 6,603 hate incident reports from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021. The types of discrimination reported include verbal harassment (65.2%), shunning (18.1%), physical assault (12.6%), civil rights violations (10.3%) and online harassment (7.3%). Many of these incidents took place in public streets and parks (37.8%) and businesses (32.2%). The number of hate incidents has continued to climb in the past few months since this report came out.

As misinformation and ignorance about COVID-19 and the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community spreads from those with microphones, cameras and social media feeds to those who are susceptible, the violence continues against these members of our society, who overwhelmingly worry about their safety. Eight-of-ten Asian Americans say violence against them is rising in the US, according to a recent survey from Pew Research Center.

Not only are these people deserving of respect and dignity, but it’s important to remember just how significant the Asian influence is on our culture and where we would be without that positive influence. This is especially true in the baking world, where some of our most influential bakers have come from the AAPI community. Take, for instance, Belinda Leong and Joanne Chang. Both women are former winners of the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Baker award and continue to use their spotlights for good.

But the Asian American influence goes beyond just the big names. Many communities throughout the country have at least one Asian American bakery which provides great tastes and even greater economic and cultural impact. One of those is Keefer Court Bakery & Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A city in turmoil

Minneapolis has been uniquely involved in the national conversation on race following the tragic killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. While these events have sparked protests across the country, and backlash from some to those protests, Keefer Court owner Michelle Kwan believes that many in the city have embraced its diversity in the wake of those events and in the midst of the pandemic.

“I feel like with the current situation in Minneapolis has brought our community together and reminded us that we need to support each other more than ever,” she says. “We have Black Lives Matter groups supporting the Stop Asian Hate community and vice versa.”

Sunny and Paulina Kwan started Keefer Court, the first Chinese bakery in Minnesota, in 1983, serving traditional Cantonese food, pastries and fortune cookies. After 35 years of hard work, the Kwan’s passed the torch to their daughter Michelle, to carry on their legacy. The bakery continues to serve the Twin Cities with its line of Chinese and Hong Kong style menu items such as BBQ Pork Buns.

Michelle Kwan of Keefer Court Bakery & Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Michelle Kwan is proud of her identity as an Asian American and the influence her bakery has on American culture. She speaks about how Asian American-owned bakeries have shown Americans that there is a vast diverseness in Asian culture and that being “Asian” isn't one-dimensional.

“For example, a Chinese bakery is different from a Vietnamese bakery which is different from a Taiwanese bakery,” she says. “And we cannot forget that someone with an Asian background can own a French bakery that has a focus on French pastries. We are not limited to ethnic backgrounds, we are multifaceted.”

As a second generation Asian American, Kwan comes from a rich diverse background with a lot of cross-cultural experiences. Growing up, she had to balance two identities. On the outside many people saw her as "Asian" and had a certain perception of who she was and what she should be like. While working in a Chinese bakery helped her to stay connected to Chinese culture, it also made her feel a sense of responsibility to educate others on her background.

“It was in high school that I realized that my experience and background is unique and instead of being ashamed of the foods I ate at home I could share them with my peers and show them how diverse Asian food can be,” she says. “From then on I made an effort to talk about our bakery and explain what Chinese baked goods are. Food has always been a focal point for me as is with many Asian cultures. Food is my love language and when I get the chance to talk about food and sharing it with others it brings me joy. When people come into our bakery for the first time and have never been to a Chinese bakery before I love telling them about our items.”

Kwan is also proud of the Minneapolis community for the support it has shown the bakery during the pandemic and in spite of the hate happening around them. That support has helped Keefer Court to survive the hardships of the last year and hopefully thrive in the years to come.

A national spotlight for the community

For the better part of a decade, Belinda Leong has taken the baking world by storm with b. patisserie. Her pastries, especially her Kouign-amann, have been praised by customers and national publications. Her prowess has led to multiple James Beard Outstanding Baker nominations (2015, 2016, and 2017), and in 2018, she won the award alongside her partner Michel Suas.

A San Francisco native and daughter of Chinese sausage manufacturing plant owners, Leong has revolved her life around food. B. patisserie being a prominent name in the baking industry, Leong has a significant influence on American culture. While it was unexpected for her, she has embraced that role.

“I have never really thought of myself as a person that would have this type of influence,” Leong says. “I am really honored and it makes me so happy that I can do what I love and also have an impact through my food. I really enjoy creating Asian inspired desserts during the Lunar New Year because I get a chance to mix my American/French styles and techniques so that it can attract a wider audience.”

San Francisco is widely considered to be one of the most diverse and accepting cities in the United States. It has embraced a variety of cultures, which allows business owners such as Leong to celebrate their heritage and have it be integral to their success.

Both in San Francisco and across the country, the proliferation of Asian flavors in food trends has allowed Asian Americans to have a strong culinary influence.

“The use of traditional Asian flavors merged with classic American/European techniques and desserts has opened the door to the American culture to flavors such as matcha, chai, lychee and sesame,” Leong says. “These flavors are beginning to become so mainstream that you find them in many desserts or drinks such as matcha lattes or matcha mousse cakes.”

Belinda Leong has achieved numerous honors at b. patisserie. Image courtesy of Ian Chin

Another big name you’ll often see referenced by culinary publications is Joanne Chang, and for good reason. The Boston-based chef and owner of rapidly expanding Flour Bakery + Café has earned countless distinctions for her work, including the James Beard Outstanding Baker award in 2016.

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who met while studying at the University of Houston, Chang is an honors graduate of Harvard who left a lucrative career in the business world to forge her own path. Her bet has paid off – today, Flour Bakery has ten locations, hundreds of employees and a reputation as one of the top retail baking empires in the Northeast. Customers can’t get enough of the bakery’s Sticky Sticky Buns and other mouthwatering pastries.

Chang truly embraces her identity and sees it as an opportunity to bring happiness to others through food.

“I love being an Asian American in food,” she says. “I celebrate my heritage mainly through my love of food and spreading joy and love through food. So, to be able to do this as my career is a true gift and honor.”

Her role in the culinary world allows her to break down misconceptions about Asian Americans. It’s an important lesson for us all to remember, that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

“To look at someone and assume you know them simply by their race/physical appearance is so limiting. Not just for that person but for the one making the assumptions,” Chang says. “We all benefit when we push past unconscious bias and take the time and attention to get to know people as individuals.”

Education and prevention

As Third Culture Bakery co-owner and pastry chef Sam Butarbutar puts it, he’s faced a trifecta of bigotry and discrimination in his lifetime: he’s an immigrant, he’s gay and he’s brown-skinned. Coming from Indonesia, he’s overcome plenty of adversity in his time in the United States. He and his partner/Third Culture co-owner Wenter Shyu, who was born in Taiwan, rely on each other during difficult times, especially during the pandemic.

Butarbutar has dealt with discrimination from a young age, but that hasn’t made it any easier.

“You start to recognize at an early age what privilege means and looks like, and you see inequality everywhere,” he says. “However, I'm an optimist at heart. I've learned about the struggles the Asian American as well as the LGBTQ+ communities have made to get us to where we are right now which gives me a lot of hope. We’ve come a long way even though we still have more ways to go.”

Butarbutar and Shyu are part of a new generation of Asian American business owners who are proud and unapologetic about their identity and their role in shaping American culture.

“We are part of the American story as much as anyone else,” Butarbutar says. “The food that is coming out now is bold, vibrant and flavorful. Ingredients like pandan leaves, ube, koji or miso were once exoticized, but they are now given their proper context and history and are becoming the standard culinary lexicon of American food. In a way, Asian American chefs are reclaiming the narrative of our food and our diaspora. And as eaters, we continue the storyline and we start to understand a community's story in a deeper way.”

Third Culture Bakery co-owners Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu rely on each other during challenging times, especially the pandemic.

The owners of Third Culture Bakery started their bakery journey together in 2016, offering pastries reflective of their childhoods in Indonesia and Taiwan. The most famous among those is its Mochi Muffins, which were born out of a desire to create something new that remains culturally relevant and told a story of nostalgia. The Mochi Muffin is slightly crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, and it has deep flavors of caramel, brown butter and coconut. The Mochi Muffin uses California-grown mochiko rice flour, organic French-style butter, a house-made blend of pandan and coconut milk and a topping of black and white Japanese sesame seeds.

In order to help the AAPI community take a stand against hate crimes, Third Culture Bakery has introduced safety kits that it has given away for free to Asian Americans. The kits include a loud keychain alarm, pepper spray, a lanyard, a wristband and translated directions/explanations in multiple languages. The bakery has received donations to help fund the safety kits.

“We wanted to create a way where our Asian elders can have the means to play offense instead of passively playing defense all the time,” Butarbutar says. “So, we ran the idea of creating a safety kit, which consists of a lanyard with a very loud alarm and a small travel size pepper spray, with our older Asian friends, and they immediately approved it. They told us that they wished they had this when their relatives were attacked, and that they themselves would have a piece of mind walking around with the safety kit.”

The bakery has received requests for thousands of these kits, and through the generosity of people all over the country has been able to fulfill these orders.

While prevention of hate crimes is unfortunately necessary at this time, education is also a key step is breaking down the walls between groups in America. Many of the business owners we spoke to say that it starts with individuals taking it upon themselves to learn more about the AAPI community in order to become better allies.

“It's hard in America to not view yourself as the center of the world,” says Joanne Chang. “I'm sure every country/person feels similarly but something about America encourages this perspective even more than typical. It's not necessarily a bad thing if it is balanced with an understanding that is just a perspective. And that the reality is that there really is a world out there made of many many different voices, cultures, practices, beliefs. I think non-Asians who want to become better allies can learn more about the different countries that comprise Asia and East Asia and, well, pretty much all of the world outside of us. You can't just wave a wand and have perspective. You have to seek it out and embrace it and welcome the change it makes in your thinking.”

“Read more books! Watch more videos! Listen to more podcasts!” says Sam Butarbutar. “There are so many resources out there that dive deep into the tragedies and historical discrimination against Asian Americans. You cannot love something that you don't know! So, it takes a conscious effort to be willing to listen and to educate oneself on the story of struggle and survival of the AAPI and LGBTQ+ communities.”

“I think that non-Asians can learn about the history of Asians being in America as well as how diverse the Asian community is to better understand that we are a diverse group and not singular,” says Michelle Kwan. “That our stories and struggles are real. To believe us when we say there is untrue bias in our experience. We want to be heard and validated and supported. Speak up when you see or hear someone being verbally or physically being attacked. Support us by coming to our businesses and showing your support.”