Bringing meals to those in need while overcoming the dual challenges of COVID and prejudice.
By Moonlyn Tsai and Yin Chang as told to Nikki Vargas
Moonlynn Tsai is co-owner and operator of Kopitiam restaurant in New York City. Yin Chang—an actress known for her roles in Gossip Girl and The Bling Ring—is founder of 88 Cups of Tea, a digital platform and podcast for storytellers. Together, they are the founders of Heart of Dinner, a grassroots initiative with a mission to feed and support New York’s elderly Asian community.
YIN CHANG: In the end of 2019, we started hearing news out of Asia about coronavirus. Moonlynn has family members in Taiwan—her mom still lives in Taipei—who would call and check in on us. Shortly after, coronavirus began to creep into 2020. Lunar New Year is very important for Asian Americans—I know for Moonlynn and I personally, that is when we really feel tied to our heritage—and in New York, Lunar New Year is huge. We live right here on the cusp of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and leading up to Lunar New Year it usually gets very busy. Restaurants get crowded, families come in from out of state. But this time it was suddenly very quiet. The news started to really hit then on how coronavirus was starting to enter New York City.
MOONLYNN TSAI: Chinatown itself was already shuttering, not even temporarily—many restaurants and shops were closing down. Talking to friends from other Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants, their sales had dropped by 20 percent. Hearing that was really scary. Every day when we were walking through Chinatown, more and more restaurants were shuttering. This was in mid-January to early February, and my restaurant, Kopitiam, was still doing okay. We’re a Malaysian-Chinese restaurant, but I think many people see Malaysian and think, “oh, it’s not Chinese. I guess we’re okay.”
YIN: In January, I started to notice people were giving me nasty stares. If I walked onto the subway, everyone would part like the Red Sea although I was just standing there without any symptoms of being sick. People would rather walk to the opposite side of the subway car and stand next to someone who looked white, rather than stay next to me. Back then, no one knew how to catch COVID. All they were hearing was that it was possibly coming out of Asia, and I present as East Asian.
One day, I was walking in Soho and this Caucasian man was standing with his dog on one side of the block. As I approached his direction, I saw this man begin to look anxious, eager for his dog to finish going to the bathroom. Finally, the man picked up his dog—in the middle of the dog going to the bathroom—and scurried across the street to avoid me. Situations like these would happen almost every day. There would always be some person swerving or giving me nasty stares. After social distancing was put into place, I remember Moonlynn and I were walking towards her restaurant when a guy walked past us, leaned in, and said, “Motherfuckers, go back to where you’re from.”
MOONLYNN: At that time, Yin and I saw so many of our favorite Chinatown restaurants closing down and wondered what we could do to help. At first, we thought about holding donation-based food tours—along with chefs, food writers, and restaurant people—to bring people back into Chinatown and show them it’s safe. The goal was for donations from the food tours to be dispersed back to the local restaurants.
YIN: The whole point of these tours was to counter misinformation about Chinatown and to really guide and educate people. We wanted to show them there is nothing to be afraid of—that if they see food being prepared by Asian people, it doesn’t mean they are going to catch coronavirus because of it.
MOONLYNN: We had this whole spreadsheet, over 30 friends ready to go, a calendar set up, and even launched for two days. Then coronavirus was declared a pandemic and social distancing measures were put in place. Yin and I stayed up wondering what we could do next to help our community. We had heard about high schools closing and kids missing out on their meals—something that many families depend upon. The two of us ran to Trader Joes and bought dry goods to make meal kits that we could put outside Kopitiam for anyone—no questions asked—to come by and pick up.
YIN: The meal kits were placed next to a box of books, received from 88 Cups of Tea and written by diverse authors, so people could nourish both their bellies and souls. It’s important to note that at this time, the government had not yet stepped in with relief and food assistance. That is why we jumped in. Once the government began providing free meals to everyone, we pivoted quickly.
Hearing about Chinatown restaurants shuttering nearly two to three months before other restaurants closed down, coupled with the news of elderly Asian American people being violently attacked, we knew we wanted to help our seniors. We heard news of how people were calling elderly Asians “chinks,” spraying them with Lysol, and beating them up in Chinatowns from the East Coast all the way to the West Coast. In one video I watched, it showed men stealing bottles from an elderly Asian man who looked almost 90 years old. In the video, the man is shown crying. I was crying myself and livid to see an older man—especially from a traditional upbringing—cry like that, desperate that his livelihood of plastic bottles were stolen from him.
MOONLYNN: And they didn’t steal it just to steal it. They stole it to fling the bottles everywhere and taunt the elderly man. One experience that really sticks out to me is I was walking to Target on the Lower East Side, and there was this Caucasian gentleman opening the door for everyone that was coming into the store. About 10 feet away was an elderly Asian lady—perhaps mid-80s—who was approaching the door. The man looked at her, then slammed the door in her face.
YIN: Right now, with racism and coronavirus, we are seen as a walking disease. People think we are the reason why people are losing their jobs, that we are the reason their family members are dying, even though we are going through the same exact things and, and on top of that, are experiencing racism. It’s so personal for us to imagine our own grandparents in those situations. We’re American-born—Moonlynn was born and raised in San Diego, I was born and raised in New York—but we were raised by immigrants. My dad is Taiwanese, my mom is Malaysian. Respect and filial piety are deeply rooted in our culture. We knew we had to do something.
MOONLYNN: Once the pandemic started, not only were many Asian restaurants shutting down, but a lot of Asian supermarkets were closing too, which in turn meant Asian distributors were going out of business. Access to culturally appropriate meals and vegetables was very hard at that time. For these seniors who are at home and unable to go out, getting these ingredients can be very difficult. In Asia, food is our love language and a way of communicating. Having all that stripped away make our elders feel even more isolated during such hard times.
When we first started Heart of Dinner, we planned to cook 200 meals a week. We thought that was a big number! Yin was calling social service organizations to see how many meals they needed—it ended up being thousands of meals. We decided to start with cooking 200 meals for two weeks. After the two first Wednesdays of making meals, pulling money out of our own savings, we reached out to Helen Nguyen, chef-owner of Saigon Social, who donated close to 400 meals to Heart of Dinner. As we brought on more restaurant partners to help the cause, we were very specific that these meals had to be culturally appropriate, soft, contain no oil or fried food, bulk up on the nutrition, be easy to open, and be meals that remind you of your own grandparents. I also reached out to Kopitiam’s distributor to order produce like rice and other fresh ingredients so we could offer both hot meals and bulk pantry items. We’re now averaging about 1,200 hot meals and care packages a week.
YIN: In the beginning, we weren’t sure how to reach the elderly who are absolutely homebound and have no help whatsoever. That’s why we reached out to social service organizations. Just two months ago, we started to take on seniors not cared for by social services, and now we are almost at 50 individual seniors that have no other outside help. These are families who have come to us, asking for their grandparents to please be added on Heart of Dinner’s routes. On top of this, we serve hundreds and hundreds of seniors through the social service organizations. I’m really proud of that.
MOONLYNN: There has been so much awareness about how Chinatown has been hurt. Right as outdoor dining was opening, it felt like an intentional surge of support from people coming to eat in Chinatown. The power of the collective community has been so overwhelmingly positive during this time, it’s been amazing to see. Even though outdoor dining doesn’t make up for what we were doing half a year ago, it has been healing in a weird way to see restaurants getting business from people who, prior to the pandemic, wouldn’t have come.
YIN: It’s about calling out what has happened to our Asian-American community, understanding that, and then creating a gateway of empathy. To see how it ties into the larger picture of what is happening in America, of how this system has been built to put minorities down, especially the Black community. Many thanks to the Black community for all the activism work they’ve done that has also empowered the Asian community. Yes, the racism and xenophobia that came along with COVID-19 is horrendous, but it has also shown how many people can band together and be strong.