Searches for the word “dog” on Instagram’s stories feature are showing an emoji for a takeout box associated with Chinese American food, angering people who are concerned the app is reinforcing racist stereotypes.
An Instagram employee noticed the issue over the weekend, according to a post on an internal Facebook message board, while users of the popular photo-sharing app have complained about the problem since 2019. Instagram is owned and operated by Facebook.
“How are the emoji’s being recommended in this and can we remove this so this doesn’t perpetuate Asian racial stereotypes?” wrote the employee, who works as an Instagram product integrity program manager. “I’ve tested this with 3 of my family members and it shows up for them.”
In tests on Apple devices, BuzzFeed News was shown the Chinese American food container in searches for “dog” while attempting to place an emoji or GIF on top of a story, an ephemeral image or video that’s attached to a profile for a 24-hour period. The takeout box was one of seven possible emoji search results for the word, alongside emojis of actual dogs, paw prints, and a hot dog.
The results could not be replicated on Android devices with Instagram. Story features on Twitter, Snapchat, and the Facebook app did not have searchable emojis or did not show racist results.
A rep for Facebook told BuzzFeed News said the company is investigating the issue.
“We’ve removed the emoji from appearing in this search and are investigating what led to this so we can take steps to keep it from happening again,” said a Facebook spokesperson.
After the story was published, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said on Twitter that the takeout box emoji was associated with the term “doggy bag,” which caused it to appear when searching for “dog.”
“We have since removed that search term and we apologize that it was misconstrued, and to anyone we offended,” he said.
The issue existed since at least 2019. In October of that year, one person tweeted that they were looking for “cute little dog gifs on Instagram” but came across the takeout box.
“Why did i search up dog on @instagram and chinese food comes up???” another woman tweeted in early 2020.
Jennifer 8 Lee, a vice chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, which helps new emojis gain approval, said the mistake was Instagram’s fault. While emojis are linked to certain keywords, there is no basis in unicode, the standard for the consistent handling of text across devices, to associate “dog” with the emoji that people are worried about.
“‘Dog’ is not a keyword for ‘takeout box’ in unicode,” said Lee, who also wrote The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book about Americanized Chinese food. “It has to be happening on that platform level and someone fucked up.”
Lee said the connection between dog and the emoji for the takeout container — which is actually an American invention — echoes racist caricatures that took hold when Chinese workers came to the United States in the 1800s. As immigrants came to build American railroads, food became a differentiator in the “us versus them” narratives with Chinese workers portrayed as “strangers on our shores who eat dogs, cats, and rats.”
Lee added that while some Asian countries have places that serve dog meat, she noted that white Americans also sometimes eat atypical animals like alligators. “I would say the average Chinese person never eats dog in their entire life, in the same way the average American doesn’t eat gator in their life,” she said.
This is far from the first time a Facebook product has been hit with allegations of cultural insensitivity. In 2018, following a deadly earthquake in Indonesia, people in the country who tried to alert friends and family that they were safe or offer condolences on the platform were shown festive balloons after the platform failed to understand that the Indonesian word for “to survive” also means “to celebrate.”
Chinese Dictator Xi wants the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) to maintain “full-time combat readiness”.
Breitbart reports today:
State news agency Xinhua described the orders as part of an effort to tighten Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control of the nation’s military and to prepare it for future conflicts:
Upholding the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces and focusing on combat capabilities, the regulations stipulated the guiding principles, leadership, responsibilities and structures of the committees in detail. At the same time, it sets requirements for its members.
TRENDING: BREAKING EXCLUSIVE: Evidence China Was Colluding with the Bidens and Providing Information on How to Defeat President Trump in the 2020 Election
The regulations will enhance the role of Party organizations in the armed forces and help with the Party’s goal of strengthening the military in the new era and building world-class armed forces.
The order comes as China makes a series of moves to improve its military capabilities amid several international spats with its neighbors over its territorial claims, which have prompted tense military encounters, including firefights. With particular respect to its border dispute with India, a string of defeats displayed China’s unpreparedness for armed conflict.
Last June, the PLA suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Indian military after the Chinese troops reportedly established a Himalayan encampment on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto Sino-Indian border. The deadly clash saw Indian troops clash with the PLA using clubs, sticks wrapped in barbed wire, and other crude weapons, eventually driving Chinese troops off of a cliff and reportedly inflicting twice the casualties on the PLA as they themselves sustained.
Use of firearms at the border had been banned by China and India, though the latter rescinded the order in the wake of the clash, which eventually prompted cross-border firefights that had not been seen in decades.
It’s unknown why Xi believes now is the time to increase his troops readiness in China.
Would Xi be doing this if he was sure Joe Biden was going to win the 2020 election?
A fourth tweet was released this morning discusses the CCP’s threat to national security as it relates to our financial markets:
The Chinese Communist Party’s threat to American national security extends into our financial markets and impacts U.S. investors. Learn how money flowing into major indices supports Chinese companies involved in military production and human rights abuses: https://t.co/ahxkGBFpjL
HONG KONG — The United States imposed travel bans and other sanctions on 14 high-level Chinese officials over the continuing crackdown on the opposition in Hong Kong, as the police in the Chinese territory arrested more pro-democracy figures on Tuesday.
The U.S. State Department took aim at members of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, citing the officials’ role last month in authorizing the Hong Kong government to disqualify four opposition lawmakers from the city’s legislature. The ousting of the lawmakers prompted the rest of the city’s pro-democracy camp to resign from the legislature in protest.
“Beijing’s unrelenting assault against Hong Kong’s democratic processes has gutted its Legislative Council, rendering the body a rubber stamp devoid of meaningful opposition,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday in a statement announcing the sanctions.
“Today, the Department of State is holding accountable those responsible for these brazen acts,” the statement continued.
The sanctions targeted 14 vice chairs of the top legislative body, including Wang Chen, a prominent backer of the national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong this summer, and Cao Jianming, China’s former top prosecutor. But they avoided going after its chairman, Li Zhanshu, the country’s No. 3 leader. Going after Mr. Li would have sent too provocative a message to Beijing, said Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong-based political analyst.
“The Americans opted for a kind of watered-down version of sanctions without seriously undermining official interactions between China and America,” Mr. Lo said.
The Trump administration has already sanctioned several officials in Hong Kong, including its top leader, Carrie Lam, the security and justice secretaries and the current and former police chiefs. Chinese officials with direct roles in Hong Kong affairs have also been sanctioned, including Luo Huining, the head of the Central Liaison Office, the Chinese Communist Party’s official arm in the city.
China has condemned the U.S. sanctions as interference in its internal affairs, and some officials have laughed off the sanctions. In August, Mr. Luo said that he had no assets outside China, adding: “Perhaps I should send $100 to Mr. Trump for him to freeze.”
Mrs. Lam last month alluded to the difficulties she now faces trying to use banks, though she said it was an honor to be “unjustifiably sanctioned.”
“I’m using cash every day for all the things,” she said in an interview with the Hong Kong International Business Channel. “I have piles of cash at home. The government is paying me cash for my salary because I don’t have a bank account.”
The latest sanctions are unlikely to slow the authorities’ crackdown on dissent, which has escalated in recent weeks with the imprisonment of Joshua Wong and two other activists, and the detention of Jimmy Lai, a prominent pro-democracy media tycoon.
On Tuesday, the police arrested at least eight opposition figures over a July 1 protest that took place hours after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong. The League of Social Democrats, a leftist political group, said that four of its members, Leung Kwok-hung, Tsang Kin-shing, Figo Chan and Tang Sai-lai, had been arrested.
The police also arrested Eddie Chu and Wu Chi-wai, both former pro-democracy lawmakers, on suspicion of organizing and participating in the same protest, according to the politicians’ official social mediaaccounts.
On Monday, the police arrested eight people over a brief, peaceful protest at the Chinese University of Hong Kong during a graduation ceremony last month. Three of those arrested were accused of inciting secession under the national security law. Protesters had chanted slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” which the government has said could be seditious under the new law.
Human rights groups say the arrests show how severely the new security law has curbed peaceful political expression in the formerly freewheeling society.
“The people involved in this small protest were merely expressing their views peacefully,” Lam Cho Ming, the Hong Kong program director for Amnesty International, said in a statement, referring to the arrests over the university protest. “But this is now treated as a crime as the Hong Kong and central Chinese authorities seek to crush all forms of dissent.”
Facebook announced the removal of two separate networks that used fake identities to promote government propaganda.
The first network was located in China. While it targeted the US, its primary focus was the Philippines and countries in Southeast Asia. This is the second time Facebook removed Pages associated with this campaign, the company said, and this time the people running it used a VPN to try to hide their identities.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals in the Fujian province of China,” Facebook said in a statement announcing the takedown.
The propaganda operation consisted of Pages and Instagram accounts, but its primary focus was running fake identities on Facebook which were used to amplify content. People running profiles “posed as locals,” the release said.
The network targeted the US, but that wasn’t its primary focus. Accounts posted about Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg and as well as President Donald Trump, both in support and opposition.
The fake accounts were also used to “like and comment on other people’s posts, particularly about naval activity in the South China Sea, including US Navy ships.”
Naval activity was also the focus of the network targeting people in Southeast Asia, along with posts supporting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Overall, the network affected about 194,000 people and spent $60 on ads using Chinese yuan. Six Instagram accounts, nine groups, and 115 Facebook accounts were removed.
The second network removed by Facebook originated in and targeted the Philippines. It consisted of 31 pages, 57 Facebook accounts, and 20 Instagram accounts.
Facebook investigated the propaganda network after being alerted to it by Rappler, an independent news organization in the country that Duterte has targeted. The propaganda network supported the Philippine president and posted about a variety of political topics, accelerating its activity between 2019 and 2020.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police,” the Facebook announcement said.
Those entities spent $1,100 on advertising on the platform.
Editor’s note: Cecilia Chiang died on October 28, 2020, at the age of 100. This story, originally published in July 2018, sees Chiang discussing her life, career, and influence on Chinese food in America with close friend Belinda Leong, who notes “hers is a career any chef today would envy.” Looking back at her great successes at the time, Chiang said, “When I started, not that young. I was 30. In a foreign land. Didn’t know the background or the history of the USA. And that’s not very easy. This [is] something I’m very thankful for.” Read Chiang’s obituary here.
It’s not an understatement to call Cecilia Chiang one of San Francisco’s most beloved culinary figures. Her first restaurant in town, the Mandarin, opened in 1961 — a time when the white Americans she needed to support her business were far more familiar with egg foo young and chop suey than they were with the traditional dishes she served, like beggar’s chicken and smoked tea duck. Like many restaurateurs, it took Cecilia some time to find her groove in San Francisco, but she did — and by 1968, she moved the Mandarin to a bigger space in Ghirardelli Square, where she presided for over 20 years. Then came the Mandarin Beverly Hills. And then came two more restaurants. Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower attended her cooking classes. Her cookbook is a must-have for anyone interested in Chinese cooking.
Hers is a career any chef today would envy.
I sat down with Cecilia earlier this year to talk, to hear her tell me her story (again), and to show the world the wonderful woman I’ve come to know as a close friend and mentor.
Cecilia and I officially met at a party at restaurant critic Michael Bauer’s house. I was working at Restaurant Gary Danko at the time, and Cecilia had been in, and said hi, but it was at the party that we really connected. We started to get to know each other, and would see each other around town at events. When I wanted to leave the restaurant to open my own bakery, I turned to her for advice. I was hearing mixed things about the location I was considering. When Cecilia opened her first restaurant in San Francisco, she heard mixed things about her location too.
Cecilia: My first restaurant was on Polk Street. At that time, 1960, Polk Street had no offices, no nothing. Everybody said, “This is a really bad [location] … This is a pensioner’s area.” I didn’t know at that time what “pensioner” meant.
Others said, “You don’t serve Cantonese food. You don’t serve chop suey; the only Chinese food people know is chop suey.” I said, “I just try to do my best.” I wanted to introduce the real Chinese food to America. That’s how I did it.
I explained that to you. I said, “Don’t listen to everybody, otherwise you’ll get very confused.” That’s how we got to know each other better. Sometimes you’d call me to ask a few questions, because after all, you weren’t experienced [running your own business]. Sometimes little things would happen, and it can hurt your feelings. I told you, “Really, not that important. You just do whatever you can.” I said, “You’ll be just fine.”
I see Cecilia a few times a week. Together we talk, cook, and go out to eat. I asked her to walk me through her typical day.
You probably know my age. I’m 98 now, but I’m still what you can call a self-disciplined person. Every morning I get up at about 9 o’clock, and I have my breakfast, and then make some important phone calls, and then I go to the park. I walk, and also I do my exercise. At my age, I cannot do a lot of very extreme things, like jogging. About three years ago, I fell. I had seven stitches on my head. I injured my shoulder and my leg. At home I use a walker. But I still manage to take myself out. I live alone, but every day I have my routine.
I don’t have a computer, so I read a newspaper, like the New York Times,every day. Not too much local news: the Chronicle, only the food section.
I go out a lot with friends. I love to eat out. When you cook Chinese, you cannot cook a little. Once you cook, you have to have somebody share with you. In Chinese food, the prep work is a lot: You have to cut it, wash it, and slice it, then you eat. That’s no fun at all, so I go out to eat. But once in a while, I get some friends, we just eat, cook together, and have a little fun, a little glass of wine or Champagne. We laugh a lot, talk silly things, have a good time.
I think it’s very important, especially when you’re getting older, to have really good friends, because your own kids marry, have children, they move to somewhere. You need good friends to keep you company.
My friends say, “Cecilia, you’re a really very disciplined person.” When I’m home alone, I don’t drink. I don’t touch any wine, anything. I just eat and get work done. If friends call me, I must return the call. If people ask me to do some work, I do it right away. I don’t drag on. I like to get things done. Every day I have a schedule I put on a piece of paper. I look at every day: “Oh, pretty good, I finished everything today,” then I can sleep better.
People ask me, “What’s the secret?” I have lived such a long life. The first thing I must say, I have to thank my ancestors. We have good genes. My father died at 98 during the Cultural Revolution. My mother died at 94. Those days in China, most people don’t know how poor they were. My father got a little bottle of this much cooking oil a week: Everything was on ration. They were so poor. My father wasn’t sick; they just starved to death, there was no food. Most people don’t know all these things. I think I’m very lucky I have good genes.
Another thing is I try to learn Chinese moderation. I really believe that: Never overeat, or never overdrink. Never overdo it.
Also, I work. I love to work. I take care of my flowers. I planted all these by myself. I fertilize them, I prune them back, I like to work with my hands. I think you do too, Belinda. Look at my hands. I like to use my hands and keep busy.
Cecilia Chiang was born in 1920 in Wuxi, a wealthy town near Shanghai, along the coast of the Chang Jiang River (also known as the Yangtze). When she was 4, her family — including her father’s extended family — moved to Beijing, at the time the capital of “old China.” As Chiang remembers it, her family moved to be a part of the new Republic of China. Even so, she still thinks of herself as a “southerner,” especially when it comes to food.
I’m from a family of 12 children by the same parents. I say that because those days, all the rich families had concubines. Legally you could have two, three wives, and they all lived under the same roof. On my husband’s side, his father had five concubines. Five. But we had no concubines, 12 kids, nine girls and three boys.
Fortunately, we all had good educations; we all went to college. But those days that was not very easy, because we didn’t have enough public schools, it was mostly all private school. Not too many families can afford to send all the kids: Usually people would say, “Oh, the girls … after they grow up, they just get married, raise kids.” But my father said, “No, I want all my girls to go to college, have a good education.”
Another thing that was very important: Those days, in the Qing Dynasty, they bound your feet, and my mother had bound feet. When my number one sister (we call the eldest sister “number one”)was 4 years old, my mother started to bind her feet, but my father said, “No. You cannot do that.”
My mother said, “Oh, if I don’t bind her feet, who’s going to marry her? Nobody will marry her.” Because that’s the status. Only farmers, the peasants, have big feet. If you’re from a high-class, wealthy family, you have to have your feet bound. My father said, “Don’t worry about it. If nobody marries them, I’ll keep them at home.” This is very unusual. So in our family, we all have natural feet.
In the old days, the girls were not supposed to work. Once you go out to work, the family loses faith: “Oh, you must be poor [to] send your girl off.” Most girls always stayed home. With my older sisters, my father hired this opera-singer tutor.
My parents were very artistic people. They loved music. They loved opera, the grand opera, and they loved all the old paintings. My father loved all these old porcelains, and he also made all these little bonsai with a little tweezer. Doing the bonsai was very unusual. Also, my father played violin, Chinese violin, and then my older sisters started to sing the opera. My older brother also played the violin. I must say since I can remember, we really had a happy childhood.
In summertime, we had a ranch, near Marco Polo Bridge, and you had to take [a] little train to go there. We had a little farm, so we grew all the vegetables, cabbage, carrots, squash, tomato, everything.
In China, we didn’t have ready-to-wear, ready-made things. Everything was custom made; you could not buy anything. We had a tailor and a shoemaker at home, because of all the kids: You had to make clothes and shoes for the 12 of us.
I think about that, about all these wonderful things we had when we were kids. It was very unusual. I mean, those days, everything you had, you just take for granted. But now, I think it’s very privileged: How many families could afford to do that?
After college, I think I probably thought I would maybe find somebody, get married. Like I told you, most of the girls, after their education, just get married, raise the kids, be a housewife. That’s the typical Chinese way: Even now, the wealthy families are still doing that. In our family, not one girl was working, only my two brothers were working.
Then there was the [Second Sino-Japanese] war. Just to make the story short, I walked during the Japanese invasion, I walked from Beijing to Chongqing. You know how many miles it was? Over 1,000 miles. I walked six months by foot. Six months.
I had just finished college, 20 years old. And I have no fear because I am young and honestly because I’m naive. I was more sheltered. The Japanese tried to capture, tried to kill all the students. So we walked at nighttime. We walked all night. In the daytime, we’d find a place to just doze off, because the Japanese airplanes used a machine gun that just killed all the students, all the innocent people. So my sister, number five, and I, we two walked from Beijing to Chongqing.
And one day, I’ve never forgotten. The Japanese airplane was flying so low, just using the machine gun. There was a leg over there, a hand… Another student said, “The enemy’s plane is here, run, run!” But then you’re so scared, you cannot run that fast.
Finally we found a little field. In northern China they grow sorghum everywhere. So we’re hiding in the sorghum field. And when the airplane left, I called for my sister. “Number five sister, where are you? Where are you?” Nothing happened. I was so scared. I thought something happened to her. Then my number five sister called me, and says, “number seven sister, are you okay? Are you okay? Where are you?” I could not talk, I was so scared.
We didn’t even get hurt, but some other students died. That’s an experience that you never forget.
In 1949, Cecilia, her husband, and her daughter took the last plane out of Shanghai before the Communists arrived (her son stayed with her sister in Taipei). They lived in Tokyo, where her husband worked at the Chinese embassy. They had a 350-seat restaurant in the heart of Tokyo called Forbidden City. Two years later, her son was able to join them, and her two children attended an American school in Japan. At that time, one of her sisters (number six, Sophie) was married to an “ABC,” an American-born Chinese person, who ran a newspaper in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He died of cancer a year after the two married, so Cecilia went to San Francisco to spend time with her sister, who found herself a young widow. She slept on the sofa in her sister’s apartment on the edge of Chinatown, near Powell and Clay streets.
My sister didn’t know how to cook, because we had two cooks at home; we never learned how to cook. Not only that, we were not allowed go to the kitchen, because the kitchen servants were all men. Every day we just walked down into Chinatown and ate. I still remember $3 for four dishes and one soup, including tea, rice, everything: Chop suey — mostly tofu and bean sprout — egg foo young, $3. One day we walked there to have lunch, then on the street, somebody called me, “Oh, Mrs. Chiang. We had a hard time finding you.” These were some friends I knew from Tokyo.
They said, “We came here, we want to open a Chinese restaurant. We saw the spot we like, but our English is so bad, we cannot negotiate with the landlord and we need your help.”
I thought my English was just as bad, but I said, “I will try my best and see what I can do for you.”
I set up a date and met the landlord. The landlord was an old Italian, with a very heavy accent. He said, “If you’re really interested this spot, you have to give me a deposit — somebody else now is interested.” I never worked. I didn’t know about business, how to negotiate.
The deposit was $10,000. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money. My friend said, “We came here as visitor, we don’t have a bank account. We have only cash.”
The landlord said, “Can you give a check?” See how naive I was. I was also young. I send a check for $10,000. Later [those friends] backed out and went back to Japan, I got stuck. What am I supposed to do?
I was just so naive. Later, I just thought how stupid I was. I was totally ignorant. I didn’t know business, I didn’t know the value of the money. Then I thought, What am I going to say to my husband? How in the world am I going to tell him?
I tried to sell it, [but] nobody wanted it. I tried everything, and I felt ashamed. Finally, I said, “I better open the restaurant,” otherwise the $10,000 is just down the drain. I found a couple from Shandong, also from northern China, because I didn’t want anything Cantonese, anything chop suey. I really wanted to bring real Chinese cuisine to the USA. That’s how I opened.
Business at her restaurant, the Mandarin, was hard; the second year in particular was “really quite slow,” Cecilia says now. But she refused to ask her husband for money to fund the restaurant, instead going to the Small Business Bureau, where it was difficult to get a loan as a woman.
I invited them to the restaurant. They had to see it as [a viable] business. At that time I had a manager, who’d asked me a very silly question: “Why, every time I ask you another question, you say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make it?’ Why do you have the confidence to think you can make it?”
I said, “You really want to know why? Because all those things on the menu, nobody, not even in New York, nobody serves it. I serve real Chinese food.”
My menu had about 300 items. I had sea urchin at Mandarin, I had shark fin. I told my manager, “You know what? I think my food is really good: Not only tasty, but good quality. Really good, all the best.” I went to Japan, Taiwan, brought back shark fin and sea urchin. I carried it back by the bag.
Also, not one Chinese restaurant had such service. All my waiters were from UC Berkeley, spoke good English, were from really nice families. Those days when you went to Chinatown: “Sweet and sour pork, No. 2.” They called numbers to serve. Those days, they just put the plate down, just threw it on the table. No tablecloths, no carpets in Chinatown. No seats, just a bench.
All my waiters tasted the food I served. They knew the ingredients, and could explain the dishes. So I said, “I have something totally different. I think I am going to make it.” But I still needed luck.
So one day, a man came in. He’s Caucasian but spoke fluent Mandarin to me. He said, “Do you remember me? I’m the owner of Maxim’s.” Maxim’s was a very famous restaurant in China. He’s a Russian. He opened a restaurant called Alexis. He had dinner and said, “After I left China, this [is] the first time I’ve had such real, good Chinese food.”
He said he didn’t think I’d make it, because people were not familiar with my menu. And my location on Polk Street was bad — no parking, no walking, nothing. He said, “I’ll see what I can do, I really want to help you.”
Two days later, he came back with Herb Caen [a prominent San Francisco columnist]. I don’t know who that was. They ordered a lot of different things. He said, “Herb, I’m telling you this is real Chinese food.”
Herb said, “What’s the difference?”
He said, “Eat it and you’ll know.”
Herb Caen came back again.
And all of a sudden, my phone just kept ringing and ringing. I said, “This is crazy.” I didn’t have anybody. I was the one at the front desk. I answered the phone. I didn’t even have a janitor. I was the janitor. I did everything.
Finally it’s full. People were lining up: Because of the Herb Caen article, they wanted to come. I said, “What is Herb Caen? Who is Herb Caen?” People told me he’s the one that can make you, can break you. So Herb Caen really helped me a lot. The dinners really turned around.
At her restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Cecilia introduced Americans to real Chinese food — and fed plenty of celebrities, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, friends of Herb Caen. Her son Philip also followed her into the restaurant industry, eventually founding the megahit P.F. Chang’s (he is no longer involved with the chain).
I wanted to know what Cecilia is most proud of. Her answers show just how impressive her career has been, but also the incredible life she has lived.
First thing, when I opened the restaurant, the hardest thing was everything was against me. First, because I’m a female … I opened before Chez Panisse — Alice was not even open. I’m not Cantonese. The Cantonese treated me so badly, like a foreigner.
And then another thing is, I didn’t speak much English, because when you’re in a college, you learn A, B, C, D, and just how to read. But conversation is not easy. In those days, when I first came, I remember [there was] no television, only radio. So whenever you learned a few words, you put it in a notebook. Put in Chinese and English, try to make a sentence. That’s how I learned English. I’m very proud of it.
I had a good reputation, supported my family. Also we had four restaurants one time. Two Mandarins, one here, one in Beverly Hills. And also we had two little Mandarette. Actually, Mandarette is kind of P.F. Chang’s. That’s how [my son] started that.
I was the only one in my family who did all this. To me it’s pretty amazing, because now it’s nothing, actually, but you just think about … I’m 98. When I started, not that young either. I was 30. In a foreign land. Didn’t know the background or the history of the USA. And that’s not very easy.
But also I’m very grateful to the United States, because it’s hard. This would never happen in China or Japan for a foreigner. This [is] something I’m very thankful for. But I didn’t plan anything like this.
I never planned anything. That’s why now when I meet young people from China or somewhere else who want to start a business, if they need my help, I always help. I’ve sponsored 26 people: my niece and nephew, an MIT professor, also bankers, architects, doctors, and they’re all doing really well.
I still help them. Because I know how hard it was when I started.
As she mentioned in her daily routine, she’s an avid restaurantgoer. She is plugged into the restaurant scene today — she says her favorite restaurants right now are Benu and Z & Y — and is still known for having a razor-sharp palate. (When I wanted to start my mochi business, I had Cecilia taste my early creations.)
Fortunately, I grew up with good food, because my parents both know food very well. There’s a lot of people that say, “Oh, we love to eat, we love this, we love that.” Doesn’t mean they know the food. Even restaurant owners, I know quite a few. I mean, they really don’t have the palate, a good palate to taste good food and know the difference. I love them, but I know quite a few.
First thing, I have a very good nose, and also I have a very good tongue, because I used to eat out. I lived most my life in Asia, right? So I know Chinese food, I know Korean food, I know Japanese food, but French, Italian: I’m really learning. I never had anything to do with this food. I don’t know it. The only time I learn is when I travel, so I travel a lot.
When I was a student, that time I walked from village to village to the city, I learned the ways are different, the soil’s different. The local people were totally different. And each province had its own dialect. So I learned a lot about the food. About the vegetables, the weather, about the people’s characters. I think that helped a lot for my future about the restaurant business.
And then later I traveled with Alice Waters, a very good friend. We’ve been together to Europe … maybe five times. We covered all these three-star Michelin restaurants. And one day we went to a restaurant in Europe that was hard to get into. But somehow James Beard said if we really wanted to go, he could call somebody and make a reservation for us.
So Alice, Marion Cunningham, and I went down there. They served a salad. And so Alice tastes it. And Alice said, “Marion, you try it. See what dressing is that.” Marion said something else. Later, Alice said, “Cecilia, have you tried this? Tell me what you think this dressing is.” I tasted it.
I said, “I’m not sure, but to me, it’s walnut oil.”
“Are you kidding, walnut oil? Who uses walnut oil for dressing?”
“Something like that. I’m not sure, but to me…” We called the waiter.
The waiter came. “Tell us, we cannot figure out this oil.” The waiter said it was walnut oil.
And Alice said to me, “You did it again.” Before that, we went to Taiwan. I took her to Taiwan and also Japan, field trips.
I’m just very lucky that I have a good nose, a good palate. This is something either you have or you don’t. Just like a lot of wealthy people are very wealthy, but they don’t have good taste. That’s something money cannot buy.
Belinda Leong is a James Beard Award-winning baker in San Francisco, where she runs B. Patisserie. Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco. Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan
WeChat, the world’s third-largest messaging app, with over 1 billion users, is scheduled to be banned from the U.S. by the Trump administration alongside another Chinese-owned video-sharing app, TikTok. The proposed ban — which has been temporarily halted in court and is currently under appeal — has left Chinese restaurant owners and Chinese communities across America rattled and anxious.
Unlike TikTok, with its widespread popularity among Americans, WeChat in the U.S. is mostly used by Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants, and its potential ban received considerably less attention compared to the monthslong bid war over TikTok. Nonetheless, the ban may cause disruptions among Chinese immigrant communities and restaurants: Over recent years, WeChat has brought together a sizable food network that’s largely unknown to non-Chinese eaters in the city. During the pandemic, it also became a lifeline for restaurants’ survival. But as U.S.-China relations grow increasingly hostile, the businesses, customers, and new Chinese cuisines that have popped up in America over the past few years could all be collateral damage in the wake of the intensifying feud.
August Gatherings, one of the few places in Manhattan serving premium Cantonese fusion cuisine, closed in March and reopened in August. As at most New York diners, the comeback was an uphill battle: Its outdoor seating is less than a quarter of its indoor capacity; the commission fee from delivery platforms, sometimes as high as 30 percent, can eat up the bulk of profits; and after the four-month hiatus, customers were growing suspicious that the place wouldn’t survive the pandemic.
On August 1, in an effort to get in touch with former customers and inform them about the restaurant’s reopening, August Gatherings created its first WeChat group without expecting much. The platform works just like Facebook Messenger: Anyone can create their own chat, and all members can add friends to the conversation until the group reaches a 500-member limit.
Over 70 percent of August Gatherings customers are of Chinese descent, according to the restaurant, and more than half of them are Chinese international students — nearly all of them are on WeChat. Tom Tang, the owner, first added dozens of old customers into the group. But as word got out, the group exploded, hitting the 500-member cap within hours.
“People were ecstatic seeing August Gathering is alive,” says Linda Chen, a customer who volunteered to be the administrator, “and they brought friends into the group.”
New members filled up the second group in less than 48 hours. By the end of the month, August Gatherings’ WeChat groups had evolved into an online community where one could directly talk to the restaurant and order food. Now there are some 7,000 loyal customers in 15 WeChat groups divided by geographic location, from upstate New York to south New Jersey.
This is different than simply being on Instagram, which restaurants often use to share photos and attract followers that they can only hope will become consumers. On WeChat, group members are primarily either returning customers or soon-to-be customers who can place orders directly with the restaurant without leaving the app. August Gatherings posts the latest menu and specials into the groups every day, along with links to purchase. Residents who live farther from the restaurant, in places like Princeton or East Brunswick, can pool orders in advance in their geographically specific groups, and the restaurant will carry out long-distance deliveries a couple of times a week. Two full-time employees and Chen, the volunteer administrator, stand by in the groups to answer questions from thousands of members.
It is like a fan-filled Facebook page, a commission-free Seamless, a long-distance Groupon, and a three-person Zendesk rolled into one. And August Gathering was able to create the elaborate but effective network, which has accounted for one-third of the restaurant’s orders each month since reopening, in a matter of days.
Turning loyal Chinese customers into a WeChat-based community is not a business model exclusive to August Gatherings. Heat Noodle, a Wuhan-style noodle stall based inside Flushing’s New World Mall, takes orders from its nearly 800 group members while many other restaurants in the mall remain shut. Junzi Kitchen, the fast-growing modern Chinese restaurant chain, has a 400-member group where employees frequently post information about discounts and tasting menus. Sup Crab, a seafood joint in Chinatown, doesn’t host group chats. Instead, the restaurant uses a personal WeChat account to add customers as friends and take orders individually. Its timeline is filled with the latest updates on the freshest seafood available each day.
In the past few years, WeChat’s use as a secret business weapon has risen to prominence, beginning in China before expanding to Chinese diasporic communities overseas. The app is free to set up, and WeChat is already woven into most Chinese customers’ digital life, with no additional downloads or learning curve necessary. As in the case of August Gatherings, if enough people are willing to refer friends, the operation can scale dramatically overnight.
”[On WeChat], customers can search your restaurant’s name and interact with you directly without going through platforms like Google,” says Yong Zhao, the CEO of Junzi Kitchen, who says communicating with customers on WeChat is effective and cost-efficient. “To obtain the same level of access from [non-Chinese] customers, you might need several different apps here.”
This model is only viable because of WeChat’s omnipresence among Chinese customers, and existing user habits treating it as an all-in-one “super-app”: WeChat has an embedded payment system; a built-in, Twitter-esque social media function; and powerful third-party “mini-programs” that allow users to carry out all kinds of tasks, from hailing a car to ordering a massage.
“Most of my friends, relatives, and customers are on WeChat,” says August Gatherings’ Tom Tang. “I don’t see there’s any other app that can replace it at the moment.”
For Chinese restaurants, the secret power of WeChat ultimately stems from its user network.
It’s estimated that there are 5 million people of Chinese descent living in the United States, making it one of the country’s fastest-growing ethnic communities and a sizable user base for WeChat. In New York, the number of foreign-born Chinese residents grew by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2015, while the city’s population overall increased by about 7 percent. This growth is accompanied by a drastic demographic shift.
Beginning in the 19th century, early generations of immigrants from China emigrated to America willingly or unwillingly and ended up working as railroad and factory workers, miners, farmers, and other forms of low-skilled laborers. Facing rampant xenophobia and racist legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, many had no choice but to work in restaurants, as they offered one of the few types of employment that allowed Chinese immigrants to re-enter America and bring in employees. Since the restaurants mainly catered to non-Chinese customers, the food served was often Americanized and reinvented.
More recent Chinese immigrants — often international students, academics, high-skilled laborers, and their families — are generally more affluent and better educated. Coming from a wealthier China, the newcomers have the option to maintain the lifestyles they had at home, which involves modern, authentic Chinese cuisine, mobile payment, and WeChat.
In the past few years, this demographic shift fueled the city’s proliferation of Chinese regional cuisine from Shaanxi (Xi’an Famous Foods), Yunan (Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle), Guizhou (Guizhou Huaxi Wang Noodle), and Chongqing (Master Yin Chongqing Authentic Hot Pot), as well as the success of multiple mini-Chinatowns and food courts all over the city. This change also contributed to the growth of WeChat-based communities for immigrants to discover and review authentic Chinese foods in New York.
“When I was a freshman, I had no idea where to buy Chinese groceries,” says Jingyao Huang, a recent graduate fromtheSchool of Visual Arts and a co-founder of WeChat group SVA Pig Farming. The nearly 700-member group, like many similar ones created by Chinese diaspora, was designed to let users exchange Chinese food secrets in the city: where to find Wuhan-style spicy duck neck, where to buy the best zongzi before Dragonboat Festival, where to eat the best Chongqing hot pot in town.
Such survival tips are crucial to immigrants but often difficult to come by. Chinese immigrants are rarely the targeted audience in English cyberspace. Yet information on the Chinese internet isn’t always helpful or timely for those dwelling in America. In the past, immigrants addressed their loneliness by building Chinatowns as support systems. The newcomers found similar networks on WeChat.
“Most of us are international students without family here. It’s less lonely when there is a community to share food, and it’s much easier to organize food hangouts now,” Huang says. “The group changed New York for me.”
The new immigrants’ epicurean obsessions also gave birth to an active network of WeChat-based food media and influencers, creating the biggest source of Chinese restaurant reviews in New York. Many customers deem them more trustworthy than the American mainstream outlets, as the influencers share their language and have similar cultural backgrounds.
“Recommendations like Sichuan-style pig intestines are nothing unusual for Chinese eaters. The American public might have a hard time understanding it, although Sichuan cuisine is widely accepted here,” says Hei Hei, the editor-in-chief of WeChat-based blog Eatnyc (纽约吃啥哟).
On WeChat, users can follow verified accounts that post articles. With nearly 80,000 subscribers, Eatnyc is among the biggest WeChat accounts publishing New York dining recommendations and branded content specifically selected for Chinese tastes. Northern Chinese barbecue, grass carp hotpot, numbing and spicy crawfish — the dishes and restaurants are familiar to many Chinese communities, but lesser known by many American audiences.
Immigrants’ pursuit of authentic Chinese cuisines is ultimately manifested in how they use WeChat for food. The app assists restaurant owners and workers in targeting customers, helps eaters to discover local Chinese food, and gives a platform to Chinese-language influencers and marketers. Delivery platforms serving Chinese immigrants also created “mini-programs” in WeChat to take orders straight from the app.
“It deeply seeps into our everyday life,” says Hei, “it’s part of our habit.”
Much like TikTok, as U.S.-China relations quickly deteriorated, WeChat came under fire due to concerns over data security issues and the Chinese government’s ties with Tencent, WeChat’s parent company. Critics also say the app censors content based on Chinese government guidelines, creates large-scale disinformation bubbles, and facilitates the spread of propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party, global right-wing groups, and other extremists.
The looming ban of WeChat, however, could also leave a huge number of immigrants and restaurants stranded without basic communication tools and support networks.
“We will lose one of the most used channels to communicate with Chinese customers, which makes the business even worse,” says Chao Wang, the owner and chef of Hunan Slurp.
“The impact can be huge,” says August Gatherings’ Tom Tang of how operating the business will change without the messaging app. “It feels like your sense of direction is suddenly stripped away when you’re simply walking down the street and minding your own business.”
Restaurants with other social media presences, like East Village-based Dian Kitchen, have fewer concerns about immediate business disruptions from the ban. Places like Junzi Kitchen and Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, which have developed a sizable non-Chinese following over recent years, might lose an important promotional channel. But overall, they are less reliant on WeChat to bring in customers.
“The restaurants catering to new immigrants will be the most affected, and it’s not just about WeChat,” says Junzi Kitchen’s Yong Zhao.
What Zhao refers to is the drastically shifting environment for new immigrants — especially those from China. The federal government has made several attempts this year to bar newly enrolled international students from entering the U.S. Changes to immigration laws also created unprecedented barriers for high-skilled workers attempting to remain in the country. The population, which brought in tastes and businesses that largely diversified New York’s Chinese restaurant scene, is struggling to adjust to an increasingly hostile American political climate.
In the midst of issues like trade disputes, a sharp decline in the numbers of international students, tourism slumps, and the tightening of immigration laws, the impending loss of WeChat could be one of the most visceral and direct impacts brought by the standoff between the U.S. and China.
Some new immigrants have begun to mentally prepare for the app ban. Chen, August Gatherings’ WeChat administrator, says she has faith in the loyal customers will find them if the app is banned. The students in the SVA group have discussed the possibility of using VPNs for WeChat, like how people in China circumvent the country’s internet firewall to access Facebook and Instagram. Hei, the influencer, thought about migrating to other social media platforms, though few have the same direct reach to Chinese immigrants.
None of these temporary solutions, however, can address the bigger issue: a precarious and unpredictable future between the two superpowers.
“We are nobodies. We are inconsequential,” says Hei. “But these policies change every single day. It’s impossible to follow.”
When he’s not planning his next meal, Tony Lin makes videos and writes about food and the world around him.
Truman Lam cleaned out the walk-in freezers of his family’s business in March, the coronavirus pandemic forcing the closure of the city’s dining rooms. At the time, nobody knew the impact that the virus would have on the city, but Lam was preparing for the worst-case scenario.
“This could last… the bare minimum is two weeks, but this could last two or three months,” Lam said at the time.
A few months longer than two or three months later, Jing Fong, the largest Chinese restaurant on the island of Manhattan, is once again open for indoor dining. There are no carts, the food is served in takeout containers, and there are enough barriers to give many of the tables the feel of a private dining room. Much of the old-school charm of the restaurant has not yet returned.
Nevertheless, dim sum die-hards filled the dining room on its first day of reopening, the clientele as diverse as it ever was: an elderly Chinese couple, who told me it was their first indoor dining experience of the pandemic; families with babies; teenage skateboarders; even two bros in workout clothes grabbing a few plates after a run. It was enough for Truman’s father, and Jing Fong owner, Ming Lam to watch from the sidelines and exclaim that with this much demand even on the first day, they could easily open the entire floor and get the restaurant back up to speed sooner than expected.
But Lam corrected his father — he had been running between the outdoor and indoor dining areas, and noticed that customers who otherwise would’ve waited for a table outside were just coming inside instead. The volume remained the same, while costs increased to run both operations at the same time.
“It’s definitely in the realm of possibility that we can’t make it,” says Lam.
Jing Fong, alongside every other restaurant in the city, was ordered to shutter its dining room on March 16 to curb the rise of COVID-19 cases. The spread of the virus in China had cratered business in New York’s Chinatown for months, the neighborhood reduced to a ghost town from the loss of tourists from the mainland, but also because of racism and xenophobia. The 794-person capacity restaurant served just 36 guests during lunch the Tuesday before the shutdown.
“This is worse than 9/11,” Lam said at the time.
Many things have changed since March, not the least of which is that the virus, which was originally a Chinese problem, is now wholly an American one, no matter how much “China virus” rhetoric the sitting president throws out there. The death toll in the United States is over 220,000 people, out of over 8.4 million that have contracted the virus. Both totals are the highest of any country in the world.
As for Manhattan’s Chinatown, the streets are once again alive and bustling with activity, thanks to the many efforts to bring customers back to the neighborhood: Mayor Bill de Blasio spent over an hour visiting food businesses here in August with cameras in tow; the architectural firm Rockwell Group designed and constructed outdoor dining rigs for a stretch of Mott Street, with support from American Express; and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which purports to be the oldest dim sum joint in the city, is on a publicity blitz for a book that highlights the restaurant, the history of the neighborhood, and the people working in it.
No normal amount of outdoor dining and takeout in the intervening months could make up for the loss of the events business that was generated by the 25,000-square-foot space. Dim sum sales during the COVID-19 era have totaled just 15 to 20 percent of normal revenue, according to Lam.
Reopening indoor dining in the largest Chinese restaurant in town comes with its own challenges.
“Even opening 25 percent here, if I were doing full service, the cost of staffing would be crazy,” says Lam. “I’m trying to save however I can because every penny counts.”
The restaurant has instituted a number of cost-cutting measures in order to survive. Both outdoor and indoor dining are now “cafeteria style,” with customers placing their orders at the door and then sitting at a socially distanced table to await the food, requiring fewer servers; the escalator is turned off to save on electricity and avoid the risk of a breakdown, which would cost thousands of dollars to repair; the food is served in takeout containers, which costs less than bringing back a dishwashing team and associated water and soap costs; and management has become more hands-on to make up for the staff shortage.
Only a quarter of the kitchen team has returned to work, and the front-of-house staff is even more of a skeleton crew: Outside, two people take orders, process credit cards, and run orders to the tables. In the dining room, a single captain brings out the food, refills the tea, and busses the tables, down from a team of 65. “We all have to play new roles in this environment,” says Claudia Leo, the restaurant’s marketing manager, who now also serves as hostess, maitre d’, and busser.
Lam assumes many of those roles as well, and one more: dim sum chef. For three to four hours a day, he works in the kitchen, molding pork buns, stuffing shumai wrappers, and making the filling for har gow, the translucent steamed shrimp dumplings. “I’m not useful enough to be able to replace a chef, but on the weekend when it’s super busy, I’m another set of hands,” says Lam, who started learning the skills three months ago when the restaurant ramped up its outdoor dining operation.
Dim sum production used to be an all-day affair at Jing Fong. The formerly 22-person team would crank out 1,200 pork buns a day, six days a week. But now the team has been reduced to just four people, producing each type of item just once a week.
The dynamic in Jing Fong’s kitchen has one major difference from the back of house at other restaurants around the city: Employees here say they qualify for unemployment benefits. Many of the staff are older and hesitant to return to work in the middle of the pandemic, but they have the luxury to wait it out, unlike workers in the kitchens of many other restaurants, some of whom are undocumented, don’t qualify for unemployment, and rely on food pantries to feed themselves until their restaurants hire them back.
“Chinese people are good at saving money! They don’t need to work just yet,” says head dim sum chef Xue Jin Ruan, who has been working at Jing Fong for 16 years. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by his colleagues in the front of house, too.
”We’ve been frugal, and unemployment has gotten us through the past seven months,” says Liang Chen, one of the managers brought back on a rotating basis to run the entire front-of-house operation.
Andy Zhang is a one man show: he runs food, refills tea, and busses tables
Safety concerns remain among the restaurant’s employees, most of whom have yet to partake in outdoor dining themselves, let alone indoor. Shu Zhen, who has worked as a dim sum cart server at Jing Fong for three years, came to show her support on the first day of indoor dining, but declined to sit down and eat, even at the beckoning of a manager. She instead opted to order takeout. “I would go back to work, but not to eat,” says Zhen. “You only have one life.”
“I’m still worried about the health concerns,” says Lam, who sticks to playing board games with friends and ordering takeout himself.
The management team at Jing Fong is playing it incredibly safe, maxing out at just 84 seats out of a potential 198 that they could legally have in the space at 25 percent capacity. Dividers are everywhere, and the restaurant added MERV-13 filters to the HVAC system. So-called “cart ladies” are nowhere in sight — the food is brought on trays and served in takeout containers — eliminating any open-air food and minimizing employee-to-guest contact.
But the elephant in the room, as it is with many restaurants around the city, is rent. While the Lam family placated the landlord with some of the restaurant’s Paycheck Protection Program money, they haven’t paid their rent in full for seven months, and there are no official discussions about waiving even a portion of it. That bill will come due at some point. Even if their business recovers with indoor dining as well as the Lam family hopes, the survival of Manhattan’s largest Chinese restaurant is uncertain.
“I don’t want to work for two years just paying that off,” says Truman Lam. “If they ask me to pay all the money, I’d rather just shut down and start over.”
Following a lengthy Grub Street investigation of the workplace culture at trend-setting restaurant Mission Chinese, chef Danny Bowien opened up publicly about the longstanding allegations of mismanagement that occurred at the restaurant while the critically acclaimed spot was operating at its height in the NYC dining scene.
On Instagram, Bowien reacted to the report with a lengthy confessional, in which he apologized while discussing rampant abuse in the industry. “I am sorry. I am truly fucking sorry,” Bowien wrote. “Not only for all that I did wrong but like in fucking general that this had to be the industry we all found ourselves in.”
In his post, Bowien alleged that he experienced sexual abuse and trauma as a child, followed by physical assault as he started his restaurant career. Bowien acknowledges that, while leading Mission Chinese, he was “cruel” and regularly used homophobic slurs, but writes that, at the time, the misconduct felt mild compared to what he had experienced in kitchens. He goes on to question the workplace ethics of restaurants as a whole, ultimately seeming to take a resigned view of the entire industry and the abuse that seems endemic to it.
Grub Street’s investigation included interviews with over two dozen former Mission Chinese staffers, who detailed allegations of extensive abuse by multiple management figures in the workplace, including many instances of physical and verbal assault. One former line cook likened the work environment to living in “a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from.”
Some of the abuse allegations, including an instance where the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Quynh Le, allegedly seared a staffer’s arm with a spoon dipped in hot oil, first came to light in a class-action lawsuit that a group of employees filed against Bowien and Mission Chinese in 2018. Le, who was not named in the suit, posted his own apologetic statement on Instagram last month in which he wrote that his actions at Mission Chinese “perpetuated and fostered an unsafe workplace.” He did not address specific instances of abuse.
Bowien, his ex-wife Youngmi Mayer, and former executive chef Angela Dimayuga have been trading blows in various public forums over the past few months regarding Mission Chinese’s workplace culture and who was responsible for allowing misconduct to allegedly flourish behind-the-scenes.
During Mission Chinese’s heyday in NYC, Bowien and Dimayuga both publicly propped up the restaurant as a bastion of healthy employee relations at the same time that the misconduct was allegedly taking place.
“It feels really distinctly like a race to cover one’s ass in terms of their involvement in this,” a former server told Grub Street of the recent finger-pointing playing out over social media.
Bowien addressed issues of alleged racism at the restaurant this past summer following the Black Lives Matter protests, and further alluded to the toxic culture at the restaurant in a podcast with Mayer in July, but this is the first time that Bowien has addressed issues at the restaurant in detail.
Bowien shut down Mission Chinese’s lauded Lower East Side location in September. Mission in Bushwick is still operational, as well as the original San Francisco location, but Bowien acknowledged in his recent Instagram post that the Brooklyn outpost was in financial trouble. “It sucks I made money off this industry,” Bowien wrote. “I guess it will be cleansing to hear I walk away with nothing but debt. Barely holding on to one place that will most likely close.”
The dark, banquet-hall–inspired dining room of Mission Chinese Food was a nonstop party. Night after night, diners packed the restaurant’s two-story space on East Broadway. They shared fiery dishes like mapo tofu and Mission’s signature Kung Pao pastrami. They drank cocktails laced with aloe vera and activated charcoal. They feasted on Josefina’s House Special Chicken, an entire boned-out bird stuffed with spiced pork sausage and soft-boiled eggs.
Things were different in the kitchen.
One night in 2016, chef de cuisine Quynh Le instructed a sous-chef to heat up a spoon by dipping it in hot oil. Le then took the broiling silverware and approached a dishwasher, who was Black. Le had been picking on the dishwasher since he started at the restaurant, calling him “Pimp Hand” and referring to Black employees as “boy.” Now he took the red-hot spoon and placed it directly on the man’s arm, searing his skin and causing him to cry out in pain. As employees watched in horror, Le looked a line cook straight in the eyes and asked, “What are you going to do about it?”
Hector Campos, who worked as a food runner at the restaurant, decided to speak up. He told Le that he couldn’t do that. Le responded by telling Campos, who was born in Mexico, that he couldn’t wait for Donald Trump to get elected so that “you can’t come back to this country.”
According to numerous former employees who spoke to Grub Street, the abusive behavior went unchecked for months. Employees were subjected to a barrage of racist insults. One night, when Luis Cuero, who is Black, came back in from smoking a cigarette, Le accused him of selling drugs and said, “I want half.” A former line cook says that Le called her a “sad excuse for an Asian person” when she wasn’t able to cook rice properly in a broken cooker. Working in the kitchen at Mission, she says, felt like living in “a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from.”
Over the past two years, in an industry-wide reckoning, a host of prominent restaurants have been exposed for their toxic work environments. But Mission Chinese Food was supposed to be different. Almost from the moment its first New York City location opened in 2012, its chef and owner Danny Bowien had publicly disavowed the macho bro culture of professional kitchens. He even recalled his own experiences with kitchen hazing, tellingGQ he was a target of extensive verbal abuse at his first New York restaurant.Angela Dimayuga, the executive chef at Mission and Bowien’s second-in-command, built her own formidable profile by advocating for reform in the industry and evangelizing the need for mental wellness among cooks. As their fame grew to stratospheric levels, the two chefs presented a vision of a restaurant utopia, one where tolerance and inclusivity were the norm. Behind the scenes, however, their workers were subjected to an environment of mistreatment and hostility that infected the entire restaurant.
It was the hypocrisy, as much as the conduct itself, that outraged employees. “What was fascinating about the restaurant was that it just existed as a means to throw parties,” says Sadie Mae Burns, who started working at Mission as a line cook when she was 19. “Right off the bat you could tell no thought was being provided in terms of how employees were being treated.”
Mission Chinese Food opened in New York City in May, 2012, in a basement space on Orchard Street. Bowien built his reputation at the first location, in San Francisco, and his arrival in Manhattan was met with almost unprecedented levels of enthusiasm, while also signaling a shift about which types of restaurants received such hype. “When it landed in New York, it really hit me, how personally connected I felt to the idea of the restaurant,” says Francis Lam. “I knew how much Chinese-American takeout food is a symbol of people who look like me, Chinese immigrants, and how we have tried to eke out a living for ourselves as a community.” Lam, who is the editor-in-chief at the book publisher Clarkson Potter and host of “The Splendid Table,” continues, “That food wasn’t anything people thought was worthy of esteem, so to have this super-buzzy restaurant be a loving homage to it, just as a Chinese American, it made me feel so seen.”
The early excitement, it appeared, was warranted: In December of that year, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote, “No other restaurant I reviewed this year left me feeling as exhilarated each time I got up from the table.”
The restaurant looked and felt like it had been thrown together in about a week. A paper dragon flew above the ramshackle dining room. The bar appeared to have been built with plywood. A keg of beer regularly sat near the front door. One bathroom was dedicated, for no apparent reason, to the show Twin Peaks. And the food coming out of the kitchen, Wells also wrote, “might taste very different from one night to the next.” The entire restaurant felt like a complete and total rejection of the restaurant world’s unofficial rules, right down to the culture in the kitchen. In 2012, Bowien told Grub Street, “I’m kinda tired of the macho-guy-chef thing. I don’t want to play ball tap in the kitchen. I don’t want to get hit in the balls every five minutes.”
In May 2013, Bowien — a culinary-school dropout who said he’d never even cooked Chinese food before opening Mission — won the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious “Rising Star Chef” award. But as it turned out, the dining room’s charmingly sloppy vibe was no act. New York City’s health department closed the restaurant in October 2013, citing a host of violations. A month later, the restaurant was closed again, never to reopen. At one point, Bowien hired an exterminator who reportedly found a “cesspool” of dead rodents in a storage closet that had been locked by the landlord. (A lawsuit against the landlord, eventually settled out of court, followed.)
Andy Keith, a cook at the Orchard Street restaurant, says the kitchen was “a shitshow.” It was not uncommon for employees to work double shifts for 18 hours straight. When Dimayuga interviewed Keith about working at Mission’s follow-up location, which would open in a larger space on the edge of Chinatown in 2014, she told him she planned to overhaul the operation. “We want a completely new kitchen culture,” he recalls her saying, “and we want to be sure this is a professional thing now.”
Her plan, she told Keith, was to instill a classic “French brigade system” with a “rigid structure in terms of how everything is done.” The culture, Dimayuga said, would be “no bullshit,” with zero tolerance for derogatory language and harassment, and Dimayuga would run the kitchen with no outside interference. In a 2017 interview, she recalled telling Bowien at the time of the restaurant’s reopening, “Danny, you’re going to act as founder and owner. You don’t need to know about any of my line cooks. This is my team. This is how I want it to start.” Bowien agreed: “She wanted free rein and I gave it to her. I trusted her to run the restaurant.”
Critics agreed that the new restaurant felt like a more professional operation. In his follow-up review, written in 2015, Wells opined that Mission Chinese Food had become, “against the odds and to almost everybody’s benefit, a nearly normal restaurant.” In New York, Adam Platt wrote that Bowien’s “real genius is for creating a grand sense of occasion, and at this larger, more sophisticated Mission outlet, you get the impression that he finally has a proper New York stage to call his own.”
At first, new employees were thrilled by the promise of professionalism and inclusivity. “Have you ever seen the Studio 54 documentary — just how badly people wanted to be there?” says Eti Emokpae, who worked as a captain at Mission in 2015 and 2016. “Everyone wanted to be there. People felt cool being there.” But, she adds, it didn’t take long for the appeal to wear off. “In the beginning, it was a little bit of a high, so you can excuse a lot of bad shit that’s going on. But that’s a bubble — and that bubble burst for me very quickly.”
After the second Times review, former employees say, Dimayuga and Bowien showed up at the restaurant far less often — sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time. “It was always a thing where it was like, ‘Oh, where’s Angela? Where’s Angela?’” Emokpae says.“It was like a running joke that she was not around, unless it was something that served her.” The situation also created, according to Emokpae and other former employees, a leadership vacuum.
Dimayuga doesn’t dispute that she was often absent. During that time, she says, her job was to focus on off-site events, and she increasingly took on more of an “ambassador” role for the restaurant. Keith says that Bowien’s hands-off management allowed Dimayuga to take the same approach. “The two of them being gone,” he says, “left this nightmare behind, and that was Quynh Le.”
Keith remembers the way Dimayuga introduced Le to the staff. “This is my guy,” she told them, “my hand-chosen dream collaborator.” The two had worked together at the Brooklyn restaurant Vinegar Hill House, and the rumor was that they’d grown up together in San Jose. Dimayuga says they didn’t know each other as children, but she presented Le as a model of professionalism. “My chef de cuisine, Quynh, is expediting most nights, and he’s really doing a good job,” she told Grub Street in January 2016. “Everything starts at the top, so management is understanding that, for the rest of the business to function well, you need to set an example for your team.”
In reality, former employees say, Le embodied the toxic traits that Bowien and Dimayuga disavowed in public. “You couldn’t be in that kitchen without seeing that Quynh Le was a monster,” Keith continues. He says this started from “day one,” and remembers one instance when Le threatened to strike him because he had “reached in front of him to grab a sizzle tray or something stupid.”
“If you do that again,” Le told him, “I’m going to fucking hit you.”
“Sorry, reaching, my bad,” Keith apologized.
“Don’t talk back,” Le snapped.
Keith says Le wouldn’t let it go. “It happened again about a minute later, and he squared up and had his fist drawn and was like, ‘I’m going to punch you in the fucking face.’ I was like, ‘You’re my boss, you can’t do that.’”
Worst of all, Keith adds, Bowien and Dimayuga personally witnessed the moment, and failed to intervene. “Danny and Angela were there,” he recalls, “and they said nothing.”
In response to a question about this incident, Bowien wrote, “I do not recall the specific incident with Andy but I do not deny that things like that happened in my presence, and I was not fully absorbing the situations as they happened.” Dimayuga says that she doesn’t remember the exact details of the night.
In addition to hurling racist insults at the staff, Le subjected employees to grueling schedules. According to Cuero, who started as a porter, the restaurant’s dishwashers were “worked like dogs.” It was not uncommon for Cuero and other porters to work until 4 a.m. before coming back to open at 8 a.m. — a turnaround that’s known in the industry as a “clopen.”
What’s more, two women who worked as line cooks say they were subjected to comments about their breasts. One male cook who worked at the restaurant early on confirmed there was a lot of inappropriately sexual humor, and Keith alleges that Le frequently told him to “wash his dick,” a reference that Keith understood to mean his girlfriend was somehow dirty.
Dimayuga, for her part, says she never heard about the spoon burning incident. “I hadn’t heard of behavior this bad before, period,” she says. But word did reach her that Le was behaving inappropriately. “I got reports from other upper management of his bad behavior,” she says. “I admittedly — what I have a lot of remorse for — I struggled objectively navigating this, because I wrongly hoped he would reform.”
In the end, Bowien and the restaurant’s co-owners pressured Dimayuga to fire Le. “I engaged with that, I actively took part, sitting down with Danny,” she says. Le was dismissed in February 2017. (A month before Dimayuga would gain national acclaim for publicly refusing to take part in an interview on IvankaTrump.com.) “I never spoke to Quynh again,” she says.
Le didn’t respond to Grub Street’s requests for comment, but in a statement posted to his Instagram, he addressed his time at the restaurant. “I take full responsibility for my hurtful behavior and contribution to the toxic culture,” he wrote. “While this is not an excuse, pressures running a very busy, high profile restaurant coupled with my lack of management experience caused me to act out of character.”
When Le was fired, Dimayuga says she took charge. “After he left, I started to run the kitchen again to rehabilitate it,” she says. “For me personally,” Dimayuga adds, “I really wanted this formal structure in place so that this would never happen again.”
Employees, however, say that Le’s dismissal did not change things all that much in the kitchen, and that Dimayuga wasn’t around for very long. Instead, a sous-chef named Angelo Kinget was put in charge of the back of house, and the atmosphere remained. “When Quynh left, I thought, Oh, they’re gonna change,” says Campos, the former food runner. “But chef Angelo took his position, and it didn’t. I was like, No, I’m not staying here.”
Kate Telfeyan — who worked in the kitchen of the Manhattan location at the time, and eventually became head chef at a new Brooklyn location — recalls one night of unusually bad behavior, a night that became “legend” among staff. Kinget was expediting, a crucial job in the kitchen that involves organizing the timing of orders and relaying that information to the cooks. “He was on expo, showed up drunk, just out of his mind, and was being a total tyrant,” says Telfeyan. It was an especially busy night, and Kinget grew increasingly frustrated with tickets piling up, losing his place. Telfeyan recalls Kinget “aggressively” tossing plates back at her while she tried to work, and banging the pass so hard that dishes would fall off.
“I was just so taken aback in the moment,” Telfeyan says. “Nobody was safe from him. I had one of the worst nights I’ve ever worked in a kitchen.”
A former sous-chef remembers it similarly, saying the plates were jumping off the surface as Kinget banged away. “It was probably the single most insane thing I’ve ever experienced in my career,” the sous-chef says. Eventually, a manager contacted Dimayuga, but she was so afraid she didn’t even want to hand the phone to Kinget. Dimayuga told Kinget to go home, but he was not fired that night.
Of the evening, Kinget says that “the cooks were moving really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really slow” and that, after a manager came down, he “kind of lost it.” Kinget denies throwing plates back at cooks or coming into work drunk, but says he understands why he shouldn’t have acted the way that he did. “I came up in kitchens where I was just used to stuff being thrown at me,” he says. “Like I said, maybe they were just too sensitive about it.”
Keith says the behavior he saw in the kitchen at Mission has permanently informed the choices he has made since leaving: “Everything I’ve done in my career, as far as how I conduct myself as a chef, is: What would we not have done at Mission Chinese Food?”
Cooks who spoke with Grub Street acknowledge that both Le and Kinget were given responsibilities — as chef de cuisine and sous-chef, respectively — beyond their prior experience, and that they were handling some responsibilities that would traditionally fall to an executive chef. But that, the employees emphasize, did not excuse the behavior, and management did nothing concrete to address the situation, even when specific concerns were raised. Bowien and Dimayuga seemingly didn’t “want to be themselves responsible for the things they’re trying to hire out or promote someone else to do,” Telfeyan says. “So they just put someone else in a position because it’s convenient, without any regard as to what that means for the rest of the organization.”
Despite Bowien’s absence — and his expectation that people at the restaurant would handle problems themselves — many still don’t see how he could possibly have remained ignorant of what was going on at Mission. “I just don’t understand,” Emokpae says. “If you’re putting someone in charge, how you can kind of be blissfully unaware of these huge things that are happening?”
Despite all the behind-the-scenes ugliness, Mission Chinese Food continued to project a seductively progressive image to the world. Several queer and BIPOC employees say they were excited to work at a restaurant where the kitchen was headed by a queer woman of color. “If anybody made me feel seen working for the restaurant and made me feel proud to work there, it was Angela and the association that came with working for her,” says one former front-of-the-house employee who asked not to be named. “If there’s anything she did provide there, it was visibility to anyone who worked there who was queer and a person of color and the opportunity to be approachable.”
Other queer staff members say that the feeling of inclusion promoted by Dimayuga was not universal. “The narrative of it being this super-queer, super-comfortable space was something she really pushed,” a former server named Bayley Blaisdell says. “It did not feel like that space actually really honored queer identity — it honored queer fashionable identity.”
Erin Lang, a former server, also disputes the restaurant’s queer identity, and says Dimayuga could be a cold presence in the restaurant. “She wasn’t very friendly to me or a lot of other people there,” Lang says. “I don’t know if it was because I was a Black server and I wasn’t as important to her, or I didn’t fit into the narrative of what they wanted as a server at Mission Chinese.”
Lang and others say that the turmoil in the kitchen extended to the dining-room staff, where employees felt mistreated by Adrianna Varedi, who worked as a server and was eventually promoted to general manager, and her assistant GM, Jane Hem. “Adrianna enjoyed bullying us and humiliating us,” alleges one former employee who worked as a food runner and server. Another front-of-house worker describes Varedi as “kind of the person who drives this trauma.” Asked about employees’ claims of bullying, Varedi says, “When new standards are being upheld, it’s going to cause a little bit of backlash … I definitely never had any intent to bully anyone or make them feel bad.”
“I used to see people crying, people literally sobbing,” Lang says. On one occasion — according to a former employee, and as detailed in a 2018 class-action lawsuit filed against the restaurant — Hem allegedly compared Lang’s hair to “grinch’s fingers.” Employees say that allegations of discrimination in the dining room — specifically anti-Black racism — were brought up a number of times to management, including in an HR meeting with Hem and Varedi. (Reached by Grub Street, Hem declined to comment.)
Lang and Blaisdell also say that Mission’s lineups — the daily preservice meetings that are common in all restaurants — were uniquely “intense” when Varedi ran them. “A lot of the bussers have language barriers,” Lang explains, “and she would make fun of them for that.” Blaisdell calls Varedi’s lineups “drill sergeant–style.” She “would cold-call people and then mock them when they didn’t know the answers to questions they were asked.”
If anything, the disconnect between Mission’s idealized image and its day-to-day reality was even more stark in the front of house. Employees expressed concerns about who was hired for higher-earning positions, saying brown employees were often passed over for promotions. “It was ironic,” Lang says, “because we were supposed to be this super-inclusive, multiracial, fun workplace, and it was everything but that.”
Dimayuga left the restaurant in October 2017 — the same year Danny Bowien was featured on the TV series Mind of a Chef — after what she describes as a “confrontation” that took place when Bowien told her that he was opening a new Mission Chinese Food in Brooklyn. Bowien asked Dimayuga to be involved, but she says she turned the offer down immediately because Bowien had previously shelved their plans to open another restaurant where Dimaguya would be given a bigger role. “Frankly,” she says, “I felt really betrayed.”
After learning of Dimayuga’s impending resignation, the restaurant’s beverage director, Sam Anderson, wrote her an email. “The staff and kitchen you were entrusted with,” he told her, “have been in a state of ever-deepening chaos as a result of leadership not showing up.”
Kinget was fired from the restaurant when Dimayuga left, but the situation among workers did not improve, especially in the front of house.
In November 2017, Mission Chinese Food hired a new, non-Black employee for the job of captain, which Lang had occupied until March, when she says she was told the position was being eliminated. “That’s when things started to get ugly,” Lang recalls. Eventually she and other employees decided to speak up. They were met with firings and fewer hours. “It was supposed to be this cool scene, hip place, where it was open-minded and cool to work,” Lang says. “And that all got put to the back burner because upper management was, I guess, too busy dealing with their celebrity status or whatever drama they had.”
By 2018, Lang and other workers felt so frustrated that they filed a lawsuit. “What else are we gonna do?” she says. “We’re gonna sue. Nobody’s listening to us.” The class-action suit, which included Blaisdell, Ilana Engelberg, and Zaynah Shaikh, describes the restaurant as “a hotbed of racial discrimination,” including slurs and racist comments used against Black and Latino employees, where workers often faced “harsh retaliation” from their bosses. Dimayuga was not named in the suit, since she had left the restaurant, and the lawsuit was eventually settled. Mission Chinese Food’s Manhattan location closed for good in September, but the Brooklyn location, recently rebranded simply as “Mission,” remains open, as does the location in San Francisco.
When reached by Grub Street, Bowien initially referred to a July episode of the podcast Feeling Asian, co-hosted by his ex-wife Youngmi Mayer, where he addressed the allegations in the lawsuit, confirming “many of them are true.” Bowien and Mayer, who was involved in opening the restaurant’s Manhattan location, also discuss specific instances of his behavior, with the chef recounting the time he “threw, like, a butane burner at a line cook” and saying, “There’s no excuse.”
On the podcast, Bowien also addressed the idea that he presented one face to the public while running a very different operation in private, acknowledging that staff members “signed up for something that we were selling, but behind closed doors wasn’t actually happening.”
But that didn’t put an end to the saga. Last month, details of the internal conflict became very public when Mayer alleged in an Instagram post that Dimayuga was aware of and hid abusive behavior by Le. Mayer also shared a series of anonymous statements from employees about Dimayuga, as well as the 2017 email sent by Anderson.
To some who lived through the ordeal, the social-media conflict between Bowien and Dimayuga seemed like an attempt to distance themselves from the restaurant culture they created. “They have just a really complicated, sort of toxic relationship,” Mayer says.
“It feels really distinctly like a race to cover one’s ass in terms of their involvement in this,” Blaisdell says of the public rehashing. “I think all of the people who are talking about it were directly complicit in the structure that allowed this to happen.”
All of the people who spoke with Grub Street say the abuse cannot be pinned to any single individual. Instead, they say, it’s an example of the kind of toxic behavior that is common throughout the industry. “A lot of this would be better if there were actual mechanisms for restaurant workers to collectively address their workplace concerns,” says one of the plaintiffs behind the 2018 lawsuit. “The only reason we had to file a lawsuit was because there was no other mechanism for us to voice our concerns, and we didn’t have any collective power. I think some of the people who are involved in this aren’t really seeing it as a bigger picture in terms of workers in general.” What happened at Mission Chinese Food should, some say, serve as a warning as the industry looks to rebuild in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though the restaurant is now closed, the lingering effects of the emotional damage remain. It was, in the end, a complete failure of leadership, with employees left to suffer the abuse as management were off promoting themselves in the public eye. “Completely shirking their duties,” Emokpae says. “The job didn’t stop for the rest of us — we didn’t have the option to just disappear.”