Hmong America businesses, already struggling due to pandemic, now picking up pieces after looting

By: - June 23, 2020 6:00 am

Rob Yang, 44, and his wife Glory Seying, 42, of Maplewood, pose for a portrait on June 19, 2020 at their St. Paul store Phenom, which was looted after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. Photo by Caroline Yang/Minnesota Reformer. (No relation to Rob Yang.)

In the early hours of May 28, Rob Yang woke to a slew of missed calls from his security company. He rushed to his St. Paul boutique Phenom to find a broken window and stolen merchandise. After waiting for over two hours for the police to arrive and boarding up the window, he made his way across the river and found the same at his Minneapolis store. 

He thought the “smash and grab” damage would be the extent of it, until his wife texted him about riots in St. Paul sweeping in the direction of his store. As he drove down University Avenue, Yang saw cars stopped in the middle of the street and people dashing in and out of businesses, taking what they could get their hands on. 

He arrived at his St. Paul store to find a line of cars in the alley, there to steal from him, he feared. He came around the front in time to see someone break a window with a golf club. Roughly 30 people rushed in as he stood back at a safe distance with a mask on, watching his inventory evaporate. 

Yang said he remembers a Black Minnesotan warning a young man that police were on the way, to which the young man replied, “I don’t give a fuck, they’re going to kill me anyway.”

“I’m seeing and hearing the desperation of the Black community,” Yang said.  

Yang said he lost more than $400,000 in inventory and probably another $50,000 to $100,000 in damage to his stores. Insurance won’t cover the losses, he said. 

The damage inside the Phenom store on University Avenue in St. Paul, MN on June 19, 2020. The store was looted after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer on May 25, 2020. Photo by Caroline Yang/Minnesota Reformer.

Yang is not alone. Many Hmong business owners across the Twin Cities were gearing up to finally reopen as the government loosened pandemic-related restrictions. And then George Floyd was killed by then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. In the events that followed, many Hmong-owned businesses in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul were looted. 

As it tries to rebuild, the Hmong community confronts extra barriers to overcome, including many of the same kinds of economic and other disparities faced by Black Minnesotans. For instance, 26% of the Hmong population lives in poverty, compared to 9.5% of all Minnesotans, 28.2% of Black Minnesotans and 19% of Latinos

“Southeast Asian Americans are the poorest of the poor among Asians, and Minnesota has some of the worst disparities for people of color, especially immigrants,” says Yao Yang, the executive director of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce. 

Many Hmong Minnesotans earn their living at small businesses, from Frogtown retailers and restaurants to small family farms. They were hit hard by the pandemic. 

Janssen Hang, the executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association, or HAFA, said the group and the farmers who till its 155 acre plot in Vermillion Township struggled during the pandemic. 

As restaurants and markets closed, HAFA helped many of its members sell their produce online, but that too has been a struggle for older generations and those with language or computer literacy barriers.

They’ve also faced a wave of racism lately over COVID-19, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan —  roughly 1,000 miles from the ancestral home of the Hmong people of Minnesota. 

“During the pandemic, so many Asian businesses were targeted. It didn’t matter if they were Filipino, Hmong, Thai or Laotian — if they were Asian, they were called Chinese” and blamed for the virus, said Yao Yang of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce.

The looting along University Avenue in the Midway feels like a final dagger, Yang said. “It really just put a stake in so many businesses’ hearts. I’m completely out of words for what has happened.”

They’ve lived through chaos before

For many, the violent events hearken back to painful memories of what led Hmong immigrants to leave their home countries in the first place.

“There’s a level of mental health issues and trauma from being a refugee and having to evacuate your country,” says Dr. Mai Moua, chief operating officer of the Hmong American Partnership. Many assumed, based on past experiences, that the rioting meant they’d have to leave their homes again, she said.

The result is a complex view of Minnesota race relations. 

“We still have memories of when we came here and Black and white people discriminated against us, so a lot of people are like, ‘Well, they discriminate themselves. What makes them better?’” Rob Yang said. “At the same time, throughout history, Black people have been discriminated against the most out of everybody.”

Yao Yang recalled hearing a rumor that Black Lives Matters protesters were upset with Asian Minnesotans because of the involvement of ex-Officer Tou Thao — a Hmong-American — in the Floyd killing. He’s been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. 

Hmong media has also played a role in the confusion, Moua said. “A lot of Hmong media is portraying this (Black Lives Matter) movement as very anti-Asian,” she said. “In my opinion, it really smears the movement and doesn’t help to portray what’s really going on.”

Many Asian businesses boarded up out of a fear of being targeted yet again. “They were attacked during the pandemic and the uprisings. They feel like they’re not welcome and that their own community attacked them,” Moua said. That sentiment has been further fueled by confusion about who is actually at fault for much of the looting and arson.  

A newfound solidarity could be at hand

If there’s anything good that’s come out of the dual crises, it’s the Hmong community’s newfound unity with each other and other people of color, they say.  

“When Fong Lee, a Hmong teen, was killed by MPD, it was the Black community that supported and guided us. We need to recognize the contributions of the Black community,” Moua said.

Hang of the Hmong farmers’ group said they’re stepping up, trying to provide fresh food in areas that are now food deserts because of lost grocery stores and markets. “All of our staff stand side by side with members of the community seeking justice,” he said.   

HAFA has organized donation boxes in Vermillion that farmers can contribute to, which are then distributed in partnership with other community organizations arranging food drives. With grant money and other funding, HAFA has been able to buy produce from its farmers to supply restaurants that are preparing and delivering meals to families in the metro area who need it. 

“The fact that there is so much unity not just in Minnesota but across the world standing for justice has built so much momentum,” Hang said. “As a social justice organization, at HAFA we’re disappointed and angry, but at the same time we’re looking forward to changes coming. There is an opportunity to close a gap on issues of equity, which has haunted our community for so long.”

As for Rob Yang, he has begun working with his insurance company to recuperate what he can, but in these early stages the future is uncertain. 

Yang said he’s heard from other business owners who say insurance companies are reluctant to pay. He said he knows he might have to hire lawyers and gear up for a long slog, even though he needs capital now. 

“We need a cash infusion to get the store running again,” he said. “It’s been really difficult.”

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Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist dedicated to covering lesser-told stories across Middle America.