About the author - Riley Lim is a college student, Class 2024, at University of San Diego. He was a recipient of ACA Scholarship for this research project. Riley was interested in the history of the businesses owned by Chinese immigrants. This is his story based on his research and interviews of business owners in the Convoy District.
About the Program - This story is part of a research series aimed to document the history of Asian immigrants in business. This program is in collaboration with Dr. Yi Sun, Professor of History Department, University of San Diego. Dr. Sun advises the student interns in topic selection, interview preparation, and final research paper and presentation. ACA is deeply grateful to Dr. Sun for her dedication to this program and her care for the API community.
Riley also received guidance from Dr. David Miller, who directs the internship program in the History Department, USD.
Chinatowns across the United States have become powerful representations of how Chinese diasporic communities grow, shape, and adapt to the land in which they develop. Not only do these communities face challenges in assimilating to the newfound area, but also in maintaining ties to their native land. Food culture and the stories of established businesses in these areas provide historical sources that capture these challenges and the many ways in which different people within these communities react to them. The Chinese businesses in the Convoy District of San Diego are the focus of this project, as this location provides a rich source of Asian narratives that sheds light on profound experiences of intersecting identities and backgrounds. Once a US Army camp in 1917 and a defense housing project in 1941, this flat-landed district gradually grew throughout the past several decades into a diverse cultural hub that now specializes in groundbreaking Asian cuisine (Johnson, 2021). Along Convoy Street, the hearty smells of Korean BBQ, Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, and sugary boba deserts and cocktails flood the heightened senses of hungry adults. However, this street’s significance lies not only found in the satisfied stomachs of San Diego locals; it represents how collisions of varying cultures and identities within businesses create nuanced human experiences that define the backbone of San Diego’s rich identity.
Research examining Chinese restaurants and businesses shows how these establishments have been able to learn from their foreign environment and birth new cultures. Chinese American food found its unique origins in San Francisco in the early 1900s with the popular dish “chop suey,” a stir-fried hodgepodge of meat, cabbage, celery, and bean sprouts. While this dish was popular with mainstream non-Chinese customers, its debut in 1928 at a small restaurant in Beijing closed shortly after “because Chinese customers showed no interest in Americanized food” (Banh and Liu, 2020). This is a perfect example of how these new communities, formed by assimilation and adaptation, create innovative dishes that are unique and unfamiliar to the food in their native land. However, the creation of “chop suey” also implies that in some instances, these “foreign” Chinese restaurants had to reinvent or stray away from their native culture in order to appeal to the majority demographic. In the 1970s, the development of Chilean-Chinese restaurants in Chile established fusion classics for the country such as “chapsui, carne mongoliana, and wantàn frito.” Chinese clients would complain that there was too much garlic and ginger and that the dishes favored the tastes of Chilean consumers rather than Chinese consumers to “sell more and make profit” (Banh and Liu, 2020). The push and pull of defining “authenticity” in a foreign environment leads to a broad set of different experiences that include abandoning, redefining, or preserving a culture.
In this paper, I will be examining several case studies of how Chinese businesses in San Diego’s Convoy have adapted to the rapidly evolving area. Convoy is considered one of the largest modern “pan-Asian” cultural districts in the United States consisting of 500,000 Asian Pacific Islander (API) individuals (Garrick, 2020). It is a product of Asian communities re-establishing themselves in a new environment and undergoing a variety of different adjustments to the local San Diego area. One of the first Asian businesses that was established in Convoy was the Woo Chee Chong grocery store in 1979, owned by the Hom family who had opened their initial store branch in 1899 in Chinatown (Johnson, 2021). Woo Chee Chong allowed immigrant Asian communities to find food ingredients that catered more to their tastes, and this catalyzed the growth of the Convoy District as Asian communities who were restricted in the Gaslamp District Chinatown before the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1944 began establishing their presence throughout San Diego. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 expanded the US’s quota for immigrants from the Eastern hemisphere to 170,000 per year, with preference given to skilled workers and family relatives (Hatton, 2015). This runs parallel with the sparked growth of the Asian community in Convoy during the late 1970s; however, there is still a gap in research and a lack of specific stories that recount the experiences of Chinese communities that continue to be a part of this growth. Historian Murray K. Lee develops a comprehensive historical archive of the Chinese community in San Diego in his book In Search of a Gold Mountain. However, the archive mainly consists of the development and fall of the Gaslamp Chinatown area in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of its final sections is a detailed account of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) on 428 Third Street, which transformed into a social services center in the 1970s and provided translation and interpretation services, English as Second Language courses, and housing assistance for Chinese immigrants. It also describes the creation of the Chinese Historical Museum in 1993, which highlights the Gaslamp area as the center of Chinese stories in San Diego (Lee, 2011). However, there is no mention of the development of Convoy, which has now grown into San Diego’s modern Asian cultural center of the 21st century. The historical archives on the San Diego Chinese community leave many questions unanswered: what challenges do certain Chinese restaurants and businesses face in this area? How do they adapt, preserve, and evolve culture in the context of Convoy already being established as an Asian hub? What communities and stories are developing?
This project can be seen as an initiative to answer these questions and capture the distinctive ways in which Chinese restaurants and businesses are shaping and being shaped in return, by the Convoy community. The provided information comes from in-person interviews with different representatives of each business. While not all interviewees are able to provide a comprehensive and exact history of the businesses, they still provide an incredible snapshot of how their establishment's past and present are participating in the continuing development of Convoy’s shifting culture. Despite Convoy’s Asian cultural identity, it still maintains an underlying attachment to American culture, and a variety of different racial and cultural demographics continue to actively engage with the community. Differences in generational experiences, intersecting identities, and flavors are constantly sculpting the identity of Convoy, and the businesses discussed below provide lenses through which we can examine them.
Sizzling Pot King: Nostalgic Refuge
While not directly located on Convoy Street, Sizzling Pot King still remains a powerful example of how Chinese restaurants in the Convoy district not only connect Chinese customers to their culture through food but also through ambiance. Sizzling Pot King is a small family chain business that serves regional Hunan Chinese cuisine and specializes in cooking spicy dry pot or incense spot–a piquant dish that consists of a sauteed mix of chili peppers and garlic oil, Sichuan peppercorns, peanuts, and a variety of different meats. They are well known in their several locations across California, such as Sunnyvale and San Francisco, but their location in San Diego near the lively, college-bustling Convoy Street places them in a unique cultural position. Despite being centered in a crowded and compact restaurant lot on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, the restaurant’s aromatic, spicy foods and intriguing interior decor stand out to a balanced group of diverse young-adult customers and older-generation Chinese individuals. Sizzling Pot King plays a unique role as a unifying place where some seek nostalgic reverie and others experience exhilarating new flavors.
Lixi Liang, a Shanghai native who came to the United States for higher education, has been working at the restaurant as a manager for over three years. Though she is the third manager of the establishment and does not know the restaurant’s full history since its grand opening in 2014, Liang still provides detailed insight into how the restaurant’s culture and past blend with the San Diego Convoy community. Sizzling Pot King is the first dry pot restaurant to open in the Convoy area and has become a trailblazer in integrating this regional dish with local tastes.
“The restaurant before Sizzling Pot King was an old sushi place, and I heard at first that some people were confused by dry hot because they were expecting hot pot,” Liang says. “But now dry pot is more popular in Convoy because there are now 4 or 5 restaurants serving this dish.”
Unlike hot pot, which consists of customers dipping raw meats and vegetables into a boiling broth to cook for themselves, spicy dry pot has these contents already prepared in a blended and fried sauté. Some non-Chinese customers are shocked by this difference as they feel that they are missing out on an interactive experience when eating dry pot. The dish’s spice level is also more pungent and concentrated because there is no broth to dilute the flavor of the intense mala numbing spice, which unsettles some customers. However, Liang remarks that because Convoy continues to grow as a culturally Asian food center, Sizzling Pot King has found a home with people searching for traditional Chinese flavors that are “more authentic” to the mainland. Customers are now starting to understand what to expect.
“Immigrants from Hunan, Shanghai, American-born Chinese people, and even white people in San Diego overall love the intense spice in dry pot,” Liang says. “We have a lot of options that people enjoy, like beef, lamb, seafood, and intestines.”
The restaurant also specializes in niche food items that are difficult to find at other Chinese establishments. Delicacies such as griddle-cooked beef tongue, pig’s feet, and Hunan-style duck are found at the forefront of the menu. Distinct regional deserts such as Szechuan Bing Fen, an iced jelly made out of a shoofly plant dressed in brown sugar syrup and topped with wolfberries, are provided as unique options to ease the intense spice. Sizzling Pot King’s introduction of this unique dish is remarkable, as it provided a more nuanced and evolved profile of Chinese cuisine in Convoy and established a space for certain Chinese immigrants to enjoy the same intense spice they miss from home. However, the spicy dry pot dish is not the only component of this restaurant that engages customers in a lively experience. Spread generously across the walls are vivid posters, images, and Chinese characters that evoke historical periods of China’s past. From pictures of propaganda during the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao Ze Dong to images of cultural household artifacts, eating at the Sizzling Pot King can quickly begin to feel like visiting a museum for some and can feel like re-living the past for others.
A notable image of Lei Feng, an alleged model soldier of the People’s Liberation Army who passed away at 21 years old in 1962, is positioned on the very top of the left-hand wall. Through several Mao campaigns, he was deemed as a model citizen in the PRC who dedicated his life to Proletariat culture, communism, and Mao himself. His image was frequently used in Maoist propaganda and was found in many children's story books that PRC youths would read to become “exemplary revolutionaries.” One campaign was called “Learn from Lei Feng” and children have recounted how this movement and image “dominated life” and would inspire them to strive “to do good deeds like Lei Feng” (Powell and Wong, 1997). With this simple image embodying an entire decade of Mao Ze Dong’s Communist regime, it is undoubtable that this restaurant decor paired with regional foods would evoke a unique and strong sentiment of nostalgia.
“Lei Feng was this popular guy in the older generation, but I don’t know much about him,” Liang says. “These pictures were up before I started working here, but many times I still see Chinese people 20 or 30 years older who stand up during dinner and take pictures of him and the wall.”
Sizzling Pot King’s ambiance has created a haven of nostalgia whose significance goes unnoticed even by younger Chinese employees who work there. This phenomenon demonstrates how the difference in generational experiences has revealed a niche group of customers who eat at the restaurant to not only devour home classics but also to recollect historic moments that exist only in memory. Below the image of Lei Feng is a cutout picture of a red steel thermos decorated with ornate flowers and a gilded Chinese character, Xi. The word represents “double happiness” and is commonly seen at weddings to ensure a healthy and fortunate marriage. Across the room on the right-hand wall, the Chinese characters “chi huo zui guang rong” which translates to “eating gloriously,” are written. Below the phrase, there is a large image of working-class men and women grouped together staring heroically in the distance. Liang says that this part of the decor also relates to the “older generation” and invokes the fervor of Mao Ze Dong’s communist propaganda. This collection of images transports customers to a previous Chinese cultural period and especially resonates with those who have lived through it. Sizzling Pot King transcends the notion of a basic restaurant as it links food to authentic and nostalgic experiences.
However, with these specific food items and historic references to the older Chinese generation, the restaurant has needed to find alternative methods of appealing to customers who are unfamiliar with these experiences. Because employees are aware of cultural and language barriers with non-Chinese customers, one way in which they attempt to accommodate these customers is to quickly provide suggestions that would not be as intimidating to “western palates.” For instance, when Liang notices a group of people who don’t speak Chinese, she instantly directs them to more mildly-spiced dry pots and dishes that consist of beef and pork instead of duck head or pig feet. If waiters fail to do so, they risk leaving a negative impression on the non-Asian customers.
“When non-Chinese people are here, we have to change our language to English,” Liang says. “A lot of non-Asian people also do not like bones so I recommend them beef slices…I can tell they do not like the food when they leave everything on the plate.”
Liang thinks that improving customer service is one of the restaurant’s more pertinent priorities, as many people do not expect good service in the Clairement, Convoy area. This improvement would allow them to be better competitors against other Chinese restaurants. The awareness of cultural barriers and added service is necessary for them to improve customer satisfaction and expand their customer base. It also allows Sizzling Pot King to maintain integrity with their authentic regional specialties while also appealing to customers outside of the “older generation Chinese” demographic. Sizzling Pot King is a salient example of how Chinese businesses find their niche in this microcosm of diverse tastes and backgrounds. The restaurant plays the unique role of introducing an intense new flavor to Convoy while also being a sensory union of food, culture, and history for Chinese immigrant customers. It demonstrates that food is something that not only nourishes stomachs but also nourishes the minds of those finding a home away from home.
Dumpling Inn Shanghai Saloon: Redefining Authenticity
Positioned in the center of a crowded restaurant square, one block away from the bustling Convoy and Dagger street intersection, the Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon has blossomed into an embodiment of the area’s rich and diverse Asian food culture. It has become one of the most popular Chinese restaurants in San Diego due to its eclectic menu of traditional dishes and re-imaginations of Chinese American food classics. The restaurant used to operate in another congested strip mall on Convoy Street, but its former owner, Mark Sun, decided to relocate the business to its current location after a grocery store vacated the spot, granting the establishment access to a larger, more accommodating space (Schmidt, 2016). A year and a half later, in 2016, Sun passed down the Dumpling Inn to two owners who have transformed the restaurant into a personal product of their own experiences as Asian Americans, establishing a new and evolving community for the Chinese diaspora in San Diego. What makes this restaurant a remarkable case study for this historical archive is how it reflects the construction of Asian American identity amongst entrepreneurs in the Convoy area.
Sandy Vuong Tobin, the owner and operator of the Dumpling Inn, has been managing the business since 2016 with her father, Phat Kim Vuong, a Chinese immigrant who fled from Vietnam after the war in 1980. The Dumpling Inn Shanghai Saloon is the product of both of their complex histories and has become their home. However, Tobin was not always keen on running a restaurant business. When Vuong first immigrated to the United States, he started as a dishwasher at the Panda Horton Inn Plaza, the original restaurant branch of the fast-food chain Panda Express, and worked his way up to becoming the head chef of the restaurant, developing many recipes for Panda Express and also managing his own restaurant, Minh Key’s. While this appears to be a story of success, Vuong’s strenuous efforts managing multiple restaurants and consequent absence from home frightened Tobin and discouraged her from ever wanting to own a restaurant herself.
“As a child you see your parents working these long hours, being hands-on and very involved in their business,” Tobin says. “It was hard for us to spend a lot of time together, so growing up, I did not want to own a restaurant.”
However, after Tobin graduated college with a degree in marketing, her Dad discussed with her the offer from Sun to run an entire family business, where they could make up for the lost time together. The Dumpling Inn Shanghai Saloon suddenly became Tobin’s unexpected gift that led her to rediscover moments of her Asian American childhood and establish a restaurant as the embodiment of her experiences.
Growing up with two sisters, Priscila Vuong and Christine Dang, and with Phat Kim Vuong as their personal chef, Tobin always walked home to the reviving fragrance of five-star anise and her sisters devouring the steaming dishes that Vuong would prepare. Mapo tofu, braised duck, and Chinese pork sausage fried rice were all Vuong house classics and can now be found as popular items on the Dumpling Inn’s menu. Priscila Vuong and Christine Dang are now serving tables, seating customers, and managing the restaurant with their sister. The Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon has become an emblem of their past.
“We are all very protective of the Dumpling Inn,” Tobin says. “I spend more time working in the restaurant than I do at home in Orange County.”
The restaurant’s significance lies not only in the personal and nostalgic sentiments of the family but also in its representation of the ways in which Asian American communities are evolving throughout different generations. The Dumpling Inn has become a center of multiculturalism and a place where different languages and Chinese dialects smoothly blend amongst the sounds of clanking plates and kitchenware. As waiters effortlessly float steel steamers and plates of pork dumplings above sitting customers, a symphony of Cantonese, Mandarin, and English can be heard spoken from the open kitchen on the right-hand wall to the end of the saloon American pub bar. The culturally blended ambiance resonates with Tobin’s experience as a Chinese American woman, growing up in-between several cultures all at once.
“My parents grew up not speaking a lick of English and only spoke Cantonese and Vietnamese at home,” Tobin says. “They learned English through me.”
Tobin further recognizes this intersection of experiences by examining the restaurant's eclectic menu. She holds much pride in providing food options for customers who are accustomed to Chinese American cuisine and also those who find comfort in more traditional dishes, as she grew up eating from both. Under the Entrée section of the menu, one can find Chinese American classics, such as “Orange chicken,” “Broccoli Beef,” and “Kung Pao Seafood.” However, after further perusing the items, one can also find dishes less well-known, such as “Sliced Stewed Pork Tongue,” “Jellyfish,” and “Pork and Pickled Cabbage Noodle Soup”. The well-rounded mix of different dishes appealing to various tastes is what makes the Dumpling Inn Shanghai Saloon unique and a representation of how “Chinese food” evolves as a versatile food genre. Even the process of cooking “Americanized” Chinese dishes is distinctive and meticulous. Tobin adds how incredibly appreciative she is of her team of chefs who have dedicated their efforts to making popular fast-food items as healthy as possible by using less syrup and concentrates. While the restaurant includes dishes similar to ones served at well-known chains such as Panda Express, Tobin makes the distinction that every plate at the Dumpling Inn is made with natural ingredients, freshly prepared from the kitchen to the table.
“For the Orange Chicken, for example, we use real oranges,” Tobin says. “For the sauce, we render whole oranges and boil the rind and pulp to get a super concentrated orange flavor.”
However, despite these commitments, the restaurant faces pejorative backlash that continuously questions the “authenticity” of their food. Tobin frequently witnesses Yelp reviews that remark how their food is “not as traditional as other Chinese restaurants such as Din Tai Feng.” International students from different regions of China have critiqued the restaurant’s American influence. Customers who are strictly accustomed to fast-food chain items are unsettled by the restaurant’s “fresh modifications” of Orange Chicken, as they also claim that it is “not authentic." These comments are frustrating for Tobin to see, as the insular notion of what “real Chinese food” is disregards the diverse variety of experiences and cuisines that develop from these evolving Chinese communities such as Convoy.
“I always say who is it for anyone to judge,” Tobin says. “The food is considered traditional to my family and my culture.”
Tobin’s resistance to these specific critiques demonstrates the solidification and ownership of how her experience as a second-generation, multicultural immigrant directly influences her restaurant. Growing up with her favorite meals being both “boiled chicken with white rice and Maggi sauce,” and “five-star anise spiced, braised duck” cooked by her father, she shows how the restaurant’s blend of both Americanized/non-traditional and traditional Chinese foods actually derives from her authentic experience. This realization has given Tobin the liberty to envision the Dumpling Inn in innovative ways that redefine the strict perceptions people hold of Chinese food and restaurants. Creating a pub bar, for example, was an intentional choice for Tobin to incorporate San Diego’s culture of microbreweries with Chinese cuisine and expand their target customers to a larger demographic.
“The bar is more Americanized, but in San Diego, everyone loves beer,” Tobin says. “People used to bring their own beer, but when we had the opportunity to grow, we put in the big bar with the intent of being more San Diegan.”
While eating a batch of steamed soup dumplings, one may also sit at the bar, watch sports, and order from the restaurant’s assortment of craft beer. College students and young adults also enjoy their collection of unique cocktails such as the “Dragon’s Eye” lychee martini and their El Tesoro Blanco “Emperor’s Margarita.” While the addition of the bar seems to be a lighthearted component of the restaurant’s methods to assimilate to America or appeal to non-Chinese customers, Tobin explains that she was born and raised in San Diego, which has played a significant role in shaping her identity and the Dumpling Inn. While she is Chinese, she is not like her father who grew up in Vietnam and is a first-generation immigrant. Her emphasis on creating a multi-cultural establishment is no less authentic than other Chinese restaurants and stems directly from her comfort and experiences growing up Chinese American.
“I love that because growing up multi-cultural, there was such a mixing pot. I wanted to embody what San Diego is,” Tobin says.
Tobin also highlights the unique community that the Dumpling Inn has been able to establish in Convoy. She cherishes being a part of a new generation of ambitious Asian entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of developing the local area’s culture and seeing how her loyal customers interact with the Dumpling Inn. Despite the online critics who question the restaurant’s notion of authenticity, Tobin’s favorite part about managing the restaurant is forming deep-rooted relationships with families and other co-workers that are unique to the Dumpling Inn.
“I love connecting with multigenerational families who come quite often to the restaurant,” Tobin says. “It is just so great to see them grow and interact with people on our team who have been with us since we took the restaurant over. The Dumpling Inn is like one big family.”
Tobin has known one customer who has been eating at the restaurant with his family since he was two years old and is now eight. Grandparents enjoy the Dumpling Inn, which has become a place for their families to rejoice and spend more time together. The fact that the restaurant has become such an accommodating space for multi-generational families directly links with Tobin’s experience being a part of an immigrant family within which there are incredibly diverse experiences. Tobin has invented a space in Convoy that captures the essence of being a part of the Chinese diaspora: a group that is constantly evolving, growing, and sharing. The critics who challenge the “authenticity” of the restaurant miss the importance of Tobin’s intersecting identities of being Chinese and San Diegan which have influenced her in re-establishing a new culture that pertains to the unique experiences of other Asian San Diegans.
“It is also so great to see other second-generation Asian business owners in the area who are doing the same thing I am,” Tobin says. “Back in the day, older people found a path in Convoy through small shops, and now most of my friends have taken over the old business models and made something new.”
As an example, Tobin discusses how she knows the owners of Common Theory, an Asian fusion restaurant and brewhouse in Convoy. The owners' parents were old restaurant owners who served Korean food, and now they own another restaurant in the area called “Woomiak,” a Korean business that serves traditional stews and soups. For Tobin, this beautiful cycle of reinventing and learning from past generations is the identity of Convoy. Her favorite thing to see in the local area is retired Asian parents helping their son or daughter carry in fresh herbs and ingredients into their new businesses. The Dumpling Inn Shanghai Saloon is a perfect example of how Convoy defies notions of what Chinese cuisine is and reimagines what it can become. Tobin’s experience is as authentic as they come.
As Tobin states, “cultural heritage is in the backbone of the menus and of the restaurant.”
Asian Business Association San Diego: Next Steps
Although the Asian Business Association San Diego (ABASD) serves the entire Asian community and not just the Chinese restaurant/food industry, their growing participation in supporting Convoy businesses has laid out revolutionary objectives for the community. The organization was founded in 1990 and they represent over 30,000 API-owned businesses in San Diego County (ABASD, 2020). In 2019, they became a part of America’s Small Business Development Center Network (SBDC) which allowed them to provide “educational workshops, technical assistance, business mentorship, and access to capital to minority-owned small and disadvantaged businesses, entrepreneurs and start-ups” (ABASD, 2020). The SBDC network also makes ABASD federally funded, allowing them to offer free business consulting to San Diego businesses. One of the most impactful services that this counseling provides is aiding API small businesses to apply for local county relief grants and government funding. They notify businesses when they qualify for financial aid and provide details on the specific documents needed to apply. This is significant for the Convoy Asian community because many business owners face language barriers that make it difficult to understand complex financial documents and regulations. This new capacity to support these establishments and increased interaction with the community has allowed them to uncover further challenges that Asian businesses face. At the same time, it also provides a clear vision of the steps that the community needs to take to support Asian businesses.
Yet despite the number of valuable services that ABASD offers the API businesses, one of the primary challenges that the organization faces is building trust within the community. When explaining the skepticism with which their outreach has been met: Wesley Quach, the organization’s programs manager, cites the frequency with which Asian businesses have historically been targeted by scams and fraud schemes:
“A lot of people get scammed or a lot of people think things are not real,” Quach says. “A lot of times when we do in-person outreach, they just go ‘who are you?’ ‘Where are you from?’”
In order to gain credibility within the San Diego Asian business community, ABASD has adopted a three-pronged approach that aims to create personal relationships with local restaurants: language, persistence, and WeChat. As a project manager and business advisor at ABASD since 2021, Yvonne Gao has seen firsthand the impact that speaking the native language of business owners can have on fostering stronger relationships.
“Most of the clients I deal with are pretty much Chinese…so I try to speak Chinese with them so that I can help them with whatever they need,” Gao says. “Most of them immigrated a long time ago, but their English is still not super fluent. Speaking Mandarin makes them feel more attached.”
Gao strategically uses her native language as a tool to not only help explain complex financial documents such as W-9 tax forms and W-2 employee agreements but also to add a sense of camaraderie to her connections with her clients. In one instance, she talked to a seventy-year-old client who wanted to apply for a non-profit organization grant for her tennis club and spoke Mandarin with a Beijing accent. Though Gao is from Hubei province, her nuanced understanding of different mandarin accents immediately sparked a conversation about her time living in Beijing for over ten years. This put her client at ease as their engagement extended beyond intimidating discussions of financial documents and procedures. Throughout the conversation, they would share their experiences living in the city, and Gao would refer to her client as “Ah Yi” which means “aunty” in Mandarin. This form of cordial communication made a warm impression on the client and encouraged her to maintain a connection with the ABASD to this day. This is an insightful example of how the understanding of cultural nuances is vital for assisting Asian businesses and establishing sustainable relationships with the Convoy community.
The second approach that ABASD uses to build credibility is through persistent on-the-ground outreach and relationship-building. According to Gao, a major reason why the organization has struggled to gain the community’s trust is because of a general lack of awareness of the programs and grants that ABASD offers. Quach adds that the key to spreading the word about ABASD among small businesses is through continuous engagement:
“All we can do is keep putting our name out there individually, supporting small businesses whenever we can,” Quach says. “We are here on Convoy street going to lunch every week to a different restaurant just introducing ourselves, saying who we are, and repeating that interaction to build up that trust.”
By physically showing up to their clients’ businesses, ABASD employees create a more personal dynamic between the organization and the communities they serve. One of the connections they have built is with the Dumpling Inn Shanghai Saloon. In the interview conducted with Tobin, she mentions how “Wesley just walked through the doors and struck up a conversation.” This simple in-person gesture felt reassuring and encouraged her to stay in close touch with the ABASD for support. In 2018, the ABASD initiated a shutdown Convoy event where they transformed the district into a street fair. Tobin felt nervous about this project as she believed it might be difficult for customers to find the Dumpling Inn. However, staying in close communication with Wesley during the event, Tobin was pleasantly shocked to find a three-hour wait line in front of her restaurant. This solidified her trust in the ABASD and led to more collaborations between the establishments later on. Today, the ABASD sends emails to their clients about COVID-19 relief grants and funding.
At the same time, the organization has also made an effort to create an inclusive and diverse work environment by working to hire people from their clients’ respective cultures–whether they are Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, etc. Quach references one of their recent hires as an example: Van Le, an office manager who speaks Vietnamese. Her ability to speak fluent Vietnamese with the organization’s Vietnamese clients has prompted them to search for more hires with diverse language skills in order to better serve their clients’ needs. Quach expects their next hire to be Korean-speaking.
Finally, ABASD has found success in using WeChat, a popular Asian messaging and social media platform, to perform mass-outreach campaigns. Gao provides an example of her interaction with Peng, a business owner who had originally reached out to her to apply for a city grant. She and Peng collaborated on spreading the word about ABASD’s microbusiness grant program through over 40 WeChat groups that Peng ran. The WeChat advertisement ended up attracting many new clients.
“A lot of people saw it–I was constantly getting a lot of different phone calls saying ‘hey, are you Yvonne? I saw this post through WeChat–can you tell me a little more about it and how to apply?’” Yvonne says.
Using WeChat as an advertising tool has allowed ABASD to reach a more expansive Asian audience in San Diego–especially with the older generations who tend not to have Facebook or Instagram accounts, where most advertisements usually appear. Gao notes that when reaching out specifically to the Chinese community, “you need to know their language–you need to know about what they really care about. For example, Chinese people are using WeChat. You have to utilize what they are most familiar with so you can target them and get the information out there.” This type of outreach has proven to be the most effective in communicating with older generations who aren’t especially tech-savvy or fluent in English and has ultimately helped Gao sign more clients and help build more businesses. As a result, WeChat has become a pivotal tool in helping ABASD communicate with harder-to-reach business communities and spread information about the organization’s programs.
Gao hopes to continue using WeChat as a major platform for spreading awareness about the services that ABASD offers. She sees the networking app as the key to promoting ABASD to small and disadvantaged businesses that are often left behind by traditional means of advertising and to building the organization’s reputation within the Asian San Diego community. Although Gao is concerned about the difficulties in spreading the word about ABASD to the businesses that require their services, one of her main goals is to start building a community where she can connect all the businesses together so that they can support each other with the knowledge that the ABASD is there to provide them with free business or personal help. Using the organization’s resources and her clients’ business connections, combined with the ABASD’s continued efforts to bridge language barriers and promote personal engagement with the community, Gao hopes to one day overcome the challenges in building trust within the community and establish ABASD as a developmental figure within the San Diego API business circle.
The restaurants and businesses interviewed above developed fascinating narratives that show how Chinese businesses are sculpting the cultural landscape of Convoy and appealing to niche communities within the Chinese diasporic community. Sizzling Pot King introduced intense Hunan flavors into Convoy’s diverse community, all while resonating with older Chinese immigrants from the mainland through decor and historical references. The Dumpling Inn Shanghai Saloon remodeled a new perspective on Chinese food to represent second-generation Asian American experiences and expand the bounds of “authenticity.” These stories shed light on how there is no singular Chinese American experience. The food variety of Chinese cuisine in Convoy demonstrates the amorphous nature of culture. However, despite the uplifting narratives of these successful businesses, their journeys are far from complete. The economic catastrophes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have devastated businesses in Convoy. Tobin from Dumpling Inn discusses how the restaurant’s most difficult challenge is currently finding staff. Due to the pandemic, there have been barely any applicants walking in to apply. Health Inspectors have told her that 90% of the restaurants they inspect are searching for more employees and the remaining 10% are struggling to survive while being understaffed. Sizzling Pot King greatly suffered during the pandemic as well, as elder Chinese individuals have been frightened to eat out and take-out dry pot is unappealing due to the lack of heat. Although recent San Diego mask restrictions have become more lenient, the businesses are still troubled by the pandemic–the full consequences of which have yet to be seen. Therefore, this record of their experiences only scratches the surface of the potential changes and stories that have yet to occur. The ABASD gives additional insight into their extensive efforts in trying to establish a cohesive Convoy Asian business community. Their new counseling services and use of WeChat to connect with more Asian businesses open more opportunities for research on the development of the Convoy community. As ABASD continues to grow connections with the local businesses, new questions arise: how do restaurants begin to interact with one another? How do their cultures change? The restaurants discussed in this research have shown the evolution of Chinese cuisine alongside the development of the Convoy community. How does this phenomenon occur with other API cultural restaurants? The discussion surrounding culturally shifting Chinatowns can be expanded to encompass patterns established by other diasporic communities. This document can be seen as the beginning building blocks of a future composite of narratives that will paint a picture of San Diego’s vibrant Asian community.
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