By BRITTANY KO and ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER
Susan Park plans to order at least $100 per day from Fugetsu-Do, starting this week. “It’s a pay-it-back, 45 years later,” she said.
From 1975-79, the revolutionary Korean American restaurateur Susan Park’s family made a harmless profit from the quiet generosity of Fugetsu-Do, the 117-year-old Japanese confectionery store on Little Tokyo’s First Street.
“My mom used to buy wholesale cases of fortune cookies from Fugetsu-Do and divide up the contents into produce bags and sell them to her co-workers. The owners of Fugetsu-Do would sometimes charge my mom $5 per case. But more often than not they would charge her 25-50 cents per case and then throw in a bunch of cases for free. My mom made $15-$20 profit from each case. I was very impressed by my mother,” Park said.
Park is the owner of Revolutionario North-African Tacos on Jefferson Boulevard and long-time community organizer. Having lived in Los Angeles for nearly five decades, she has seen the city, and Asian Americans, experience many shifts. The memories of her family’s economic prowess and desire to help others fuel the work she does today.
She believes the most powerful way Asian Americans can help each other amidst COVID-19 is through the redistribution of wealth, knowledge and material resources. To carry out these goals, Park created two fundraisers: Fundraiser for Unhoused Korean Seniors and Pan-Asian COVID-19 Mutual Aid.
Park sees this moment as an opportunity to transform the systems that fail to serve poor black, indigenous, and people of color across L.A. She works specifically in dense Asian enclaves such as Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Filipinotown, and Thai Town — and extending to the San Gabriel Valley, Garden Grove, Torrance, Panorama City, Carson City and beyond.
Park, a seasoned business consultant and self-proclaimed data-driven news junkie, has identified the absence of culturally competent Asian-specific food resources for low-income and unhoused Asian Americans in Los Angeles.
She first read about unhoused Korean seniors in Koreatown in an L.A. Times article a few years back. In September 2019, Park began preparations to convert her restaurant into a food bank. At Trump’s initial naming of the “Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan virus” in December, Park closed her restaurant for two weeks. In January 2020 she began a general food bank for Skid Row, where she personally delivered food to people.
Although news of COVID-19 plaguing China went unnoticed by many Americans in February, Park knew she had to help the Koreatown seniors she’d read about. “I remembered, I just know I have to help them. I know it’s going to be worse with COVID-19,” Park said. Since mid-February, Park has been providing weekly free food and resources to 200 to 1,000 unhoused and low-income seniors in Koreatown.
After learning of her fundraiser, nonprofit housing and city social workers reached out to Park, who connected them with the unhoused seniors. The seniors have been placed into a rapid rehousing system, which does not operate as quickly as its name might imply. This process allowed the seniors to state their preference to remain in Koreatown, and will move them toward finding permanent housing.
Park stresses the efficacy of working directly with housing nonprofits rather than homeless advocacy groups. “When your main mission is to house people, you end up getting people housed,” she said. She wants the public to understand that “nonprofits and city entities do work on these things. It is a myth of the homeless-nonprofit-industrial-complex that nobody’s doing anything.”
Since starting her fundraisers, Park has distributed a vast amount of food and food aid in a short span of time. Her elementary school classmates might remember her as the kid who brought an entire case of fortune cookies for class parties. “That’s right — an ENTIRE case. Not a normal quantity of cookies like 12 or 24,” says Park. “Then my teachers would compound the embarrassment by thanking my parents for being so generous in front of the entire class: ‘Susan brought cookies from her home country of China,’ followed by ‘Sorry, that’s Japan. Her home country of Japan.’”
Thanks to her mother’s generosity, Park understands the power of putting in a little more to make a bigger return. As a restaurant owner, she has access to wholesale buying power. She is not afraid to purchase in large quantities — for example, large enough to provide 3,000 supplemental meals per week. Rather than operating based on scarcity, Park says, it is crucial to directly and immediately spend the money she has raised at subsistence-level Asian American restaurants before these businesses go under.
Park keeps the Asian American supply chain running by purchasing from wholesalers, small businesses and distributing to unhoused and low-income Asian Americans. These players in turn support one another.
The funds raised through Park’s Pan-Asian COVID-19 Mutual Aid will go directly towards her restaurant initiative. How it works: Park, or one of her volunteers, speaks with community organizations — like Viet-Care and Thai Community Development Center (TCDC) — to identify restaurants beloved by the community. “I always ask people from the community which restaurants we should support,” Park says.
She then spends $200 at the restaurant to buy 10 meals, which means a hefty tip is left. “The rest we leave as a gift,” says Park. “It’s a ‘thank you’ to the owners for operating these subsistence struggling Asian American restaurants that serve the working people. This is the real cost, this is the real value of the food, of what you should be paying.”
Last weekend, Park provided Little Tokyo Service Center with $1,500 worth of food for the 400 low-income seniors who reside in Little Tokyo Towers. She also handed community members cash to invest back into the local economy — to purchase meals at small-business restaurants. “I gave $200 to Mitsuru Cafe because it’s a cultural heirloom for the Japanese American community in Little Tokyo,” said Park.
Little Tokyo’s Cafe Dulce owner James Choi was given $300 by Park. Choi says this money will be directly used towards Go Little Tokyo’s Community Feeding Community (CFC) initiative. CFC helps two groups: 100% of the funds are spent in local restaurants, and the food is distributed to people who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19.
“If the community succeeds, we’ll succeed,” said Choi. He also said that since the COVID-19 Safer-at-Home orders, small-business restaurants in Little Tokyo have been struggling not only to make sales but also to make rent and payroll, their highest costs. “If you close and reopen, the product can go to waste,” said Choi.
Choi went on to explain that when you spend your dollars in national corporations, that money leaves your community: “Keeping in mind that these next two weeks it’s critical for people to stay home, [people should]choose to order from a community restaurant, cafe, or establishment, versus ordering from some large chain.”
If you spend locally, 68% of that money stays within the community. Choi understands that for consumers this is a financial commitment, but at a relatively small cost, to support a worthy cause: helping small-business workers and restaurant owners survive, and maintaining the integrity of the community. “Sometimes you have to spend a little bit more” to keep the community alive, Choi said. “Vote with your dollars.”
Chinatown was the earliest enclave damaged by the COVID-19 crisis. For this reason, Park wanted to give the neighborhood immediate attention. “You have to give people at the very bottom resources,” she said. “The reason we’re starting with Chinatown is because Chinatown … has been hit the hardest by COVID-19 fears.”
In Chinatown alone, there are 58 Chinese and Southeast Asian-owned restaurants. Forced to battle gentrification, these restaurants have hustled to survive — regardless of the state of the economy. “Even at the best of times, it wasn’t that good,” Park said of mom-and-pop shops’ ridiculously low prices, quoting her friend William Kwan, a Cantonese Chinese American UCLA alumnus who is helping her fundraise.
“And now some of these restaurants are choking,” she added. When Park visited Saigon Deli in Chinatown, an order for ten people came out to around $40. “So we left a $150 tip.” Park and volunteers then distributed the food to unhoused and low-income seniors around L.A.
As of April 10, Park has been able to set a budget of $6,000 for Chinatown restaurants alone — $3,000 from a creative company and $3,000 from Park’s fundraising efforts. She will have spent up to $30,000 at various restaurants in Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Thai Town, Little Saigon and at Asian wholesalers by the end of this week.
Park plans to raise funds to gradually expand her restaurant initiative across L.A. County’s Asian American enclaves. Sue works with passion and conviction for her ideas of food and social justice and equity. Looking long-term, she hopes her economic plan will expand to securing contracts and orders with the city for these subsistence level restaurants. Park also hopes to work with the L.A. Unified School District to implement her model, in order to feed low-income heritage-language-speaking families and children — and specifically, to offer Asian cuisine.
“A lot of these children who have heritage-only-speaking parents have a strong preference for their own foods,” Park said.
Park’s initiative calls attention to disparities in the restaurant industry. When consumers expect immigrant-owned restaurants to provide a sandwich at little more than the cost of ingredients, such as a $4.50 Vietnamese sandwich from Saigon Deli, “where do we go with that?” asks Park. “We are cheapening human labor. We are creating this hierarchy of … which kind of human labor is worthy of being paid a livable, decent wage?”
Park clearly sees the roots of these problems. She wants people to know that what’s happening now is “nothing new.” “Just as the tax money did not trickle down in Reagan’s trickle-down economics,” neither does aid. “Help does not trickle down.”
She foresaw that a virus spreading through China would undoubtedly spread to the U.S., and felt she had to shut up and drive. “We live in one village now,” she said, referring to global interdependence. If the virus devastated China and Seoul, it would inevitably wreak havoc in L.A.
“So, who do you start protecting first?” Park asked. “The most vulnerable…the people who are on the streets who don’t have access to hygiene and masks.” She set about distributing cleaning supplies — disinfectant, bleach, and vermin control — to folks living on streets.
“The idea that a homeless person is dirty is not a problem of the person, it is a problem of the environment and the kind of resources the person has access to,” she said. “If enough people with money started doing what I did in February, we could’ve covered all the homeless people in L.A. — it’s not that many, okay?”
Having lived through multiple waves of anti-Asian sentiment since 1975, including the aftermath of the 1992 riots, Park is a veteran in identifying the symptoms of American society. She knew at the first naming of the “Chinese virus” that it was yet again a moment of shock crisis being mishandled. “It’s American narrative to blame, to give agency to other races and inanimate objects,” she said.
Park recalls America’s obsession with crisis post-9/11. Since then, she says, “American capitalism…has been in an accelerated state. It’s been in this crisis mode constantly, so instead of preventing crisis, America waits for crisis to happen.” It comes as no surprise we are facing a pandemic that could have been contained, had those in power provided proper relief, she says.
Since opening Revolutionario Tacos on May 31, 2015, Park has prevented a few dozen people from becoming unhoused — by providing three to five supplemental meals a week or free information, such as how to handle a parking ticket. She knew that a little bit can make a big difference. Multiplied over a span of four weeks, the type of aid she provided allowed people to save an additional bit of income, and meet their rent.
“People with money need to understand…it really doesn’t cost that much to keep an extremely low-income person housed,” Park said. “It’s a lot cheaper to help somebody before they become unhoused.”
Park spoke to the power of sharing stories. Having nurtured a “network with ears” to hear her new initiatives, and connected with a wide array of people, she has always been able to assemble funders and resources.
Park is well aware that she is not the first person to think these thoughts. “People want to help,” she says. With certainty, she expresses the potential in our shared abundance of money and goods. “When people who support me see the people are improving, they give me more. When something resonates with somebody,” they’re more likely to aid the cause. “The same impulse that makes us wanna consume makes us wanna give. I know that about people, so I know there’s always more.”
In March, Park posted to Facebook that the unhoused Korean seniors she serves needed a washer and dryer. Kristina Wong, a third-generation Chinese American comedian, responded to Park’s call for help. Not long ago, Wong’s grandparents operated a laundromat for which Wong had organized a fundraiser to purchase items like soap. With a desire to help the unhoused Korean seniors, Wong reached out to her network for a second laundry-related cause. In two days, she raised $1,500 for a new washer and dryer, which have been placed in a main shelter.
Pan-Asian COVID-19 Mutual Aid is Park’s vision of a mutual aid economic model for Asian Americans who have suffered disproportionately due to ferocious racism revealed by this crisis. “The best we can hope for in the next year,” she says, “is to create our own hyper-local institutions and forms of capital and material resource exchange. In other words, a mutual aid.”
Park envisions, “United, we can make it. We will help each other.” She recognizes the ways better-established Asian Americans with more generational wealth have been stepping up to the plate to help low-income Asian Americans who have suffered from multigenerational poverty. “I’m really touched by how much Asian Americans are giving and helping.”
Distracted by our consumer-driven lives, our primary focus is not to help others but rather to save ourselves. In reality, Park says, helping the most vulnerable — those who are exposed without shelter, nourishment, or medical care — is the first step towards collective health. If the most vulnerable are sick then we all are, too.
America’s belief that it is the exception, that it is invincible, thrust us into a state of crisis. Park reminds us of the all-too-invisible systemic inequalities we overlook as we strive toward our individual American dreams. The present upheaval in our collective daily life — witnessing our loved ones die in complete isolation and the crumbling illusions of national wealth and economic stability — may trick us to believe that coronavirus itself is the problem.
“Coronavirus doesn’t have that kind of agency,” Park says. “It’s a weak virus, you know. You can wash it away with warm water and soap for 20 seconds.”
To donate to Park’s fundraisers, visit:
“Fundraiser to Help Unhoused Korean Seniors” on Facebook, at https://tinyurl.com/uqrgb2e
Pan-Asian COVID-19 Mutual Aid at gf.me/u/xq5jyr.
Park also runs a grassroots pan-Asian organization called Asian-Americans for Housing and Environmental Justice (AAHEJ). For more information, visit the organization on Facebook at https://tinyurl.com/qtn54at. AAHEJ has the ability to offer legal information about commercial and tenants rights as well as police harassment and potential hate crimes related to Asian Americans. They do not give legal advice.
Email [email protected] to contact. Your email must include the following or you will not get a response.
1) Location (address preferred) or intersection and description of location.
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See also: https://youtu.be/cegTtxyigpo, a video about the Community Feeding Community program in Little Tokyo.
Photos by BRITTANY KO