A restaurateur, immigration lawyer, and activist—herself a refugee immigrant—on what's at stake at the polls this year.
By Kim Luu-Ng as told to Andy Wang
Zagat Stories asked people in hospitality around the country what’s at stake for them in the 2020 election. Kim Luu-Ng is the co-owner of Cassia, a Southeast Asian brasserie in Santa Monica, California. She is also an attorney and has her own practice KLN Firm PC, which exclusively handles immigration law. In 2016, Luu-Ng and her husband, Cassia chef Bryant Ng, founded LA Chefs for Human Rights.
When Bryant and I set out to open the Spice Table and then Cassia, at the center of our experience was our identity as Vietnamese and Chinese-Singaporean. That is the source and inspiration for everything we do.
We wanted to provide a perspective of food that was a little bit different than what the older generation of immigrants was providing. We wanted something in an environment that would be comfortable for every audience. We wanted it to be at a price point that reflected the quality of our ingredients and the expertise of our cooking. We wanted to be more than a stereotype. We wanted to be true to ourselves, because a lot of times food is stereotyped. “Oh, you know, I don’t want to go there because I don’t want to have phở.” My restaurant doesn’t serve phở.
It’s about presenting a very multi-layered view of our culture and who we are as people because there’s so much more to my identity than phở and spring rolls. With phở and spring rolls, you’re just touching the surface. But when you go deeper, what you find is an incredibly rich and diverse culture of food.
The Vietnamese refugee experience has led to great things for America on the food front. Just like the immigration of Chinese people, people from Mexico, people from Central America, people from Europe, people from all parts of the world. The United States has benefited greatly from immigration, and it’s allowed our country to be rich and vibrant on so many different levels, especially in food.
Both of my parents died young, which really compelled me to think about my own mortality. A war that happened 50 years ago continues to kill, and there are wounds that are still open. We haven’t truly healed. And I think that is very much evident, given the trauma that our families still live with.
And that is why it is so baffling to me that there are Vietnamese people in America who support Donald Trump and his gutting of our immigration system, our refugee policies, our asylum rules. I’ve heard Vietnamese people say, “Well, you know, they need to get in line. Well, you know, they came here illegally.”
Let me break the news to you—we all fled illegally. We landed on the shores of Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines illegally. They took us in and put us in refugee camps.
I am a refugee from Vietnam. In 1979, my father, mother, grandmother, and infant sister fled Vietnam by boat. My sister was three months old, and I was a little bit over a year old. We left from the shores of Qui Nhơn, and we were ambushed by the police. My family bribed them, and they let us go.
There were about 300 people on this boat. My dad was a member of the crew. He was given a bowl of rice to eat once a day. And my dad covertly fed us with that bowl of rice. My mom needed to eat because she needed to produce milk. But the rice was hard. It wasn’t even fully cooked. My mom couldn’t produce any milk. My sister almost died. Everyone was very sick and hungry.
I didn’t know any of this until I read some of my dad’s notes in a little book. He had written our family history in case he died at sea. It’s my most treasured object. I also know some details because my friend Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who’s now the star of Ava DuVernay’s TV show Queen Sugar, had interviewed my dad and recorded him before he died.
I feel lucky to be alive. It’s something that I constantly remind myself of because, in so many ways, I’m not supposed to be here. My father stepped on a landmine that didn’t detonate when he was in the Vietnamese army. He was caught by the enemy and strung up, and that’s really all I know about what happened. I regret not finding out more before he and my mom died of rare cancers. Did their deaths have anything to do with Agent Orange or napalm or the trauma of losing your country? I don’t know. There are many unanswered questions.
We were in the camp in Hong Kong for about a year. My dad applied for asylum in the United States and was willing to go to Europe. My dad was willing to go anywhere because the camp felt like a prison. A Catholic family in Louisville, Kentucky, sponsored us through the church. My dad, with the little money he had, bought a Sony stereo, thinking that they didn’t have such things in America.
We landed in Louisville. We lived through a tornado there, and my parents were like, forget it. They somehow located the other people from our village in Vietnam, some of whom had gone to Echo Park in Los Angeles. So my dad put us on a Greyhound bus, and we discovered America on the Greyhound on the way to Echo Park. And that’s where I was raised until I was 16 years old.
We went shopping at Pioneer Market and had Pioneer fried chicken. Food was always such a big deal in my family. My mother would butcher live animals—ducks and chickens. She butchered a live pig in the upstairs neighbor’s bathtub.
The story that I love to tell is how my mom was almost like the leader of all these Vietnamese mothers. We’d all go down to the Echo Park lake and pull out the lotus roots growing there so that we could cook with them. But then we got busted by the LAPD. They lined us up and we all had mud above our knees. They let us go.
My mother was like, “The Americans don’t know how to eat this. This is just going to waste.” Bryant to this day still seems to blame my family for the dying off of all the lotus flowers in Echo Park.
My mom had to make everything from scratch—egg rolls, baos, everything. During the Vietnamese New Year, she would make her own candy.
My parents were so resourceful. We didn’t have a dehydrator back then. They would cut up coconuts and carrots and other fruits and vegetables. And then my dad would take the screens off the windows and wash them, and we would dry everything out on the front lawn of our apartment.
I’ve been working in immigration since law school, when I assisted a group of victims of human trafficking who were brought in from Vietnam and China. Because I was able to speak Vietnamese and Mandarin, I was able to assist them. We were able to get visas for all of these victims.
I fell in love with this work. And even though I went to work for a big law firm, I continued this work. I volunteered pro bono to represent a 13-year-old Chinese girl who was trafficked into the United States.
And then I left the firm and went to work for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, to work specifically under a United Nations grant to represent victims of state-sponsored torture. I was also funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to represent victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, and serious crimes. But my work was primarily focused on humanitarian asylum and detention work. I worked inside federal detention centers.
Now, in the United States, families and children are being put in cages. These families will be forever traumatized, and some will be forever separated because we have literally lost children in the system.
What I want people to know is that human rights violations have been ongoing in this country for many years. But under the Trump administration, there has been an explicit disregard for the human rights of immigrants and refugees. Yes, it’s always been very hard to seek asylum in the United States. But at least people were given a chance.
I’ve been working with a Vietnamese-American group called PIVOT to help raise funds to remove Trump from office because this cannot continue. I recently co-hosted a PIVOT event with singer Thao Nguyen. I also wrote an op-ed on immigration that was published in a national Vietnamese-language newspaper.
The restaurant business is entirely and comprehensively dependent upon immigrant labor. It’s the immigrants who grow the food and cook the food. Anybody who does not agree with this does not live in our reality. The fact that people don’t want to go to a certain restaurant because they see a certain race cooking the food makes absolutely no sense to me. Our kitchen at Cassia has Latinx from various countries, Asians from various countries. We have Black American cooks, including one who’s amazing with the wok.
At Cassia, a lot of the staff are immigrants or the children of immigrants. I’m very proud about the diversity we have here. We speak so many different languages. I feel that Cassia is a celebration of Los Angeles and immigrants in this country. And we are committed to hiring immigrants who are refugees, who are victims of human trafficking, who are victims of domestic violence. Those things are extremely important to me.
I have hope for our country. I’ve been screaming about human rights for years and have always felt the urgency. I’m very grateful that America is waking up to these realities. We need to care about these people, because this is what defines us as a country. What we do defines us. This is why I wanted to become an American.