The week after eight people—six of them Asian American women—were killed by a mass shooter in Atlanta, Aron Moxley’s mind reeled. Moxley is the former lead singer of Asian American dance rock band The Slants and owner of Stabs, a pop-up at Bar Carlo where he specializes in smoked brisket banh mi, pho, and hand-rolled noodles. He called together four of his colleagues, all Asian American restaurant and food cart owners, for a meeting at Bar Carlo. The goal was to sit down for a conversation about the violence in Atlanta, to heal and figure out how to move forward. Joe Jiang, former guitarist and backup vocalist in The Slants, would film the conversation, and all the restaurant owners would use their social media platforms to spread the video and speak out against hate. Watch the video below.
The five owners—Thuy Pham of Mama Dut Foods, Richard Le of Matta, Han Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin’, Jacky Ren of Bing Mi, and Moxley—all sat in a socially distanced circle inside Bar Carlo. They shared their reactions to Atlanta, and the overarching sentiment was that though the violence was shocking, the racist motivation behind it was nothing new.
“It represents so many issues that women of color, and Asian women like me, have been experiencing our whole life,” Pham says. “So the more I learned about the victims and what had happened, the more sad and angry and frustrated I became, because we've been talking about this kind of stuff for years, but it made me angry that it has to take a mass shooting for the rest of the country to pause and listen.”
Before the cameras had even begun rolling, they decided to form an alliance of Asian American restaurant and food cart owners. They dubbed it the Rice Bowl Posse—chefs united by the grain that ties together many Asian cultures.
“We just want to keep more people accountable with what's going on,” Moxley explains. “Speak up when you hear something shitty.” That accountability extends not only to hate speech and prejudice, but to the restaurants that members of the food media choose to cover, too. “White chefs own a lot of the Asian restaurants, and they're getting more exposure than we are,” he says. “We need to support each other more. [There’s] power in numbers.”
In keeping with the group’s frequently-repeated mantra—“community, not competition”—members of the Rice Bowl Posse pledged to offer each other support with the day-in, day-out challenges of running a restaurant, like finding a space with a lower rental rate. They also plan to offer advice to those interested in breaking into the food industry.
“If you want to get started, we can give you tips, help put you in the right direction, figure out the LLC stuff,” Moxley says. “We’re trying to uplift the AAPI community with food.”
For Pham, one of the most important aspects of the Rice Bowl Posse has been the emotional support the group has provided. Pham has received hateful messages in response to her recent social media posts about racism toward Asian Americans and the attacks in Atlanta, and talking with Le and Hwang helped her feel validated and supported. “They echo the same sentiments that I feel, and so hearing back from them helps me to not question myself,” Pham says.
Another important aspect: to financially support other Asian American-owned businesses wherever possible. Members pledged to support Asian grocery stores and farms like Mora Mora Farm in Gresham, which specializes in Asian vegetables, as well as other BIPOC and LGBTQ vendors, instead of big suppliers like Sysco.
The Rice Bowl Posse members also plan to collaborate in COVID-safe ways to help spread the word about each other’s businesses throughout the city, since the members are located in various Portland’s quadrants. Maybe someday you’ll see one of Moxley’s smoked briskets inside a jianbing at Bing Mi, or Pham’s vegan phish sauce might make an appearance in a Matta breakfast bowl.
The Rice Bowl Posse plans to meet once a month, and any Asian-American restaurant owner is invited to join by getting in touch with Moxley or one of the other members via social media. And when big food festivals like Feast return, don’t be surprised if you see the Rice Bowl Posse loudly and proudly taking up an entire section.
“The stereotypes that Asians are invisible—we're not anymore, for sure,” Moxley says. “We’ve got a lot of swagger, and we’re coming for it. We’re taking what’s ours, and we’re not gonna wait for it.”