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Asian American groups, allies team up to raise awareness through T-shirts 

San Luis Obispo's historic Chinatown district is almost a misnomer now. A concrete strip of road between Chorro and Morro streets on Palm Street, it houses the Ah Louis Store, the Palm Theater, Mee Heng Low Noodle House, parking lots, and garages.

"Chinatown in SLO is so small. We want to create a safe space and a sense of togetherness," said Kaela Lee of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) SLO. "We're hoping to create more awareness and de-stigmatize notions about the AAPI community."

click to enlarge CREATIVE HUB Designed by San Francisco resident Natalie Rockhold, the limited edition T-shirt worth $25 bears motifs of Mee Heng Low, Rock Front Ranch, and the Year of the Rabbit. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KASEY MAIN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Kasey Main
  • CREATIVE HUB Designed by San Francisco resident Natalie Rockhold, the limited edition T-shirt worth $25 bears motifs of Mee Heng Low, Rock Front Ranch, and the Year of the Rabbit.

Lee belongs to the 4.1 percent of AAPI residents in SLO County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest population estimate as of July 2022. It's a small demographic, but she's no stranger to microaggressions. A Bay Area native, Lee moved to SLO in 2017 to attend Cal Poly. She had brushes with ignorance during her first year living on the Central Coast.

"I was riding an Uber with a friend who's also AAPI. The Uber driver was making casual conversation and said, 'You speak such good English.' I'm from San Francisco!" Lee said with a laugh. "The Uber driver's comment wasn't malicious intent, he just wasn't educated about the community."

Lee's experience isn't isolated. Interactions with other AAPI community members and their allies sparked a discussion about proactively supporting the group. That's where a partnership with the SLO Food Co-Op, Mee Heng Low, and Rock Front Ranch came in. The four groups collaborated to create limited edition T-shirts, and 100 percent of the sale profits will go to AAPI SLO.

"We're going to use [the proceeds] to not only fund our annual AAPI SLO festival but also small events to make our presence known," Lee said. "The majority of the funds are going to be given back to the community. We want to educate others and humanize the AAPI community."

Kasey Main, an AAPI ally and communications coordinator at the Co-Op, spearheaded the T-shirt project. He told New Times he felt compelled to do something locally especially in the face of state and nationwide incidents of hate crimes toward Asian Americans.

"We would get a lot of micro-aggressive calls [at the Co-Op] where people would ask if a supplement or food was in stock," Main said. "They'd ask where an ingredient was from. If I said there was a Chinese ingredient, they'd have something really negative to say about it."

Main added that he's sometimes observed a general sentiment of fear and unfounded anger toward even using the words "Asian" or "Chinese."

"Some people in SLO are really averse to it, and we really need to combat that and get out of that discomfort," he said.

Main's way to combat it: reaching out to Alisha Taff of Rock Front Ranch and Mee Heng Low's Russell Kwong to design and sell special T-shirts. Main and Lee also worked with a San Francisco-based designer who once lived in SLO, Natalie Rockhold.

The result is a colorful gallery of images, including the iconic Mee Heng Low sign, Chinese lanterns, and jujubes from Rock Front Ranch surrounding the word "rabbit" written in Hanzi script to honor the Chinese zodiac calendar. The shirts can be preordered online at slofood.coop/preorder.

"While having conversations with both Russell and Alisha, I was getting a theme," Main said. "Downtown SLO is increasingly corporate, and I was hearing that they feel the pressure that corporate entities are imposing on SLO's Chinatown."

Main said he started the discussion for an awareness project out of his own personal interest. His supervisor at the Co-Op was on board when he pitched the idea.

"Alisha is a farmer who is working really hard. Same with Russell at the noodle house. The least I can do is coordinate donations on their behalf," Main said. "Support them and donate what you can, when you can, not just when there's violence. Fight AAPI hate every day."

Fast fact

• Pismo Beach's Splash Café is joining the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis disease (ALS). They will donate 10 percent of in-store sales the weekend of Feb. 25, which is National Clam Chowder Day. Donations will be sent to the SLO-based Martha Olson-Fernandez Foundation that researches cures and provides patient care for ALS. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

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