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How surging anti-Asian violence is taking its toll on Asian-owned businesses

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Finnie Phung and her husband run Green Fish Seafood Market in Oakland, California.

Finnie Phung and her husband, who run Green FIsh Seafood Market in Oakland, California, have a few dozen tanks with live seafood for sale. Photo by TIffany Luong for Save Our Chinatowns, courtesy of Finnie Phung

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It’s been a tough year for many small businesses, forced to alter their business models and implement onerous safety precautions for employees and customers. While most firms reported declines in revenues and employment between 2019 and 2020, Asian-owned firms were among the worst hit. According to the The Small Business Credit Survey 2020, 79% of Asian-owned firms characterized their financial situation as “fair” or “poor.”

Finnie Phung runs Green Fish Seafood Market in Oakland, California, a 10-year-old business in the city’s Chinatown, which sells live seafood, Chinese produce and fresh cut meats. She said her sales dropped at the start of the pandemic, a result of losing major clients like banquet halls and restaurants. Business still isn’t the same, partly because Phung is seeing less of her main customer base: Asian seniors. Phung said older customers, concerned for their safety due to the recent surge in Asian American hate crimes, are opting for grocery deliveries from online competitors.

“It’s very stressful to hear that, and we want them to feel as safe as possible,” Phung said.

Reported hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020 rose almost 150% in 16 of America’s biggest cities, according to an analysis of police data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

Phung supplied her employees with keychain alarms and implemented earlier closing hours, but she said many still don’t feel safe walking home alone. She spoke to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the added economic and emotional toll of anti-Asian violence and discrimination on her business. The following is an excerpt of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: I imagine a fresh seafood market is tricky because people want to come in and look at the seafood. And that’s not a thing people are gonna want to do during a pandemic, right?

Finnie Phung: Yes, usually our daily customer, they will try and get the fresh catch out the tank, clean it right there and then and bring it home for dinner. And of course, when COVID came, people started buying a whole week worth of groceries instead.

Ryssdal: And how is business now? I mean, things are getting better, people are getting their shots, I imagine that the senior citizens who shop at your store have had their shots. How’s business?

Phung: Well, we actually see less seniors. The younger generation is helping their folks to probably order online, you know, not comfortable with their parents or grandparents going out here. It’s mainly because a lot of attacks going on recently. So, things are not back to normal, I would say.

Ryssdal: Yeah. So it’s younger people not wanting their older relatives to come out because of all this racial violence. What about your employees? I mean, are they coming to work? Do they feel safe? And what about you?

In addition to live seafood, Green Fish Seafood Market also sells Chinese produce and fresh cut meats. (Photo by Tiffany Luong for Save Our Chinatowns, courtesy Finnie Phung)

Phung: Yeah, I mean, I feel like I’ll walk out my store, I sort of pay attention left and right, in front of me and behind me a bit. My employees, they pretty much all walk to work. And are they comfortable? Of course not. Well, I got them all a key chain alarm. And I kind of informed them to you know, let’s wait for each other and walk home together. Before they walked home on their own time, but now, you know, they pretty much walk in groups.

Ryssdal: Aside from the pandemic, has this violence affected your business? I mean, that’s a terrible way to put a terrible problem. But, you know, you’re trying to run a business and people are afraid to come out.

Phung: Yeah, I mean, of course, this is not great to hear from customer, you know, they’re trying to rush in, rush to pay. And you know, the only conversation they carry with a cashier is about “Oh, all this attack going on.” You know, it’s very stressful to hear that. And we want them to feel as safe as possible. This year we closed an hour early. Yeah, people feel uncomfortable coming out. But you know, there’s a lot of GoFundMe pages right now hiring security for Chinatown, a lot of volunteers come out with, you know, bright orange neon vests and walk as a group. So yeah, people are giving an eye for us.

Ryssdal: It’s been 10 years, right, since you’ve had this business going?

Phung: Yes.

Ryssdal: Was it hard for you to keep the doors open through this pandemic? I mean, did you come close to shutting it down? Or were you always able to stay in business?

Phung: We closed for two weeks during the very peak of the COVID. Because physically, mentally, we were very stressed. We’re fortunate enough to keep the doors open because people really need food in general.

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