Kollaboration is proud to support the 2016 AAPIVOTE Presidential Election Forum. Watch it live (or archived) above.
Kollaboration is proud to support the 2016 AAPIVOTE Presidential Election Forum. Watch it live (or archived) above.
In Los Angeles – a city where sleek Teslas zoom past homeless encampments along the I-10 every day – the income inequality gap between the wealthy and the poor is, well, gaping.
The Social Science Research Council recently released a study that compared life expectancy, educational achievement, and income across California’s 10 most populous metro areas, through a measure called the Human Development Index. 1
Out of all of the metro areas, LA has the widest gap in human development scores. It’s disheartening that the neighborhood index score of wealthy neighborhoods Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach Cities is quadruple the score of the lowest, South Central LA and Watts.2 But it’s not too surprising.
We’re living in Tinseltown: the poor stay poor and the wealthy get wealthier. Same old story, right?
But this is where chef Roy Choi comes into the picture. You may know him for his Kogi food truck mobile empire, but he doesn’t stop with these mouthwatering-basically-LA-on-a-plate-tacos.
Choi has some real heart for the people in the city he calls his home – and he’s not one to sit around doing nothing. He recently opened up in an interview with Kollaboration on his heart and vision for Locol, Choi’s ambitious and fresh take on fast food, where “wholesomeness, deliciousness, and affordability don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”3
Mid-January of this year, Choi and restaurateur Daniel Patterson opened up restaurant Locol on the corner of East 103rd and Wilmington Avenue in the South LA neighborhood of Watts. This neighborhood sits smack dab in the middle of a food desert. Food deserts are defined as low-income tracts with limited access to grocery stores and supermarkets that sell fresh produce. It’s a sad reality that more than 1 million people across California live in these food deserts, where it’s easier to buy a can of soda and chips from the liquor store down the block than fresh produce for your family’s next meal.
On Locol’s website, there’s a blurb describing the vision behind the food the restaurant serves, and this line particularly sums up the heart of the matter well: “We believe that chefs should feed America, and not suits.”3 Choi has had enough of the current food industry: both, the massive corporation-owned fast food chains where profit’s the name of the game, and the “elitist… silver spoon” restaurants which only the wealthy can afford. He lays it out, “If we’re truly the best chefs in the world, then maybe we shouldn’t just be cooking for the most fortunate.”4
Choi describes his vision in an interview with MAD in 2013, “I’d really love to see the chefs do what I was asking at an extreme level. Go to the poorest points of their neighborhoods and think about food in those areas. Think about food in the schools, in the neighborhoods, in the prisons, and think about how to bring some more affordable food there… We have these chefs representing cities all over the world, and they need to think about exactly how powerful they are and how much people would appreciate it.”4
And because of the influence chefs have these days (think Hell’s Kitchen, Iron Chef), Choi urges chefs around the world to get up and take action – to take moral responsibility for their communities, “Even through all the haters and lovers of what the speech kicked off, I hope we don’t get lost too much in our bleeding hearts or criticisms and remember to actually do something.”5
All of his people who help keep Locol going are sourced straight from the community. By the community and for the community: not only is Locol providing healthful, delicious, and affordable food options to the neighborhood of Watts, the restaurant is providing jobs and skills to the people it’s here to serve. Choi explains, “Our people, the people who work for us here, trust us, because we are constantly trying to fulfill he promises we make… They trusted us on the food… Everybody who works here is from the immediate neighborhood. And we found our people the old-fashioned way. We posted help-wanted fliers on telephone poles. Around here, word of mouth is faster than the Internet.”6
Locol has plans to expand to Oakland and the Tenderloin district of San Francisco – both home to low-income, disinvested neighborhoods. Goals for these news additions? To grow, provide as many jobs as possible, and “continue to provide skill sets so our staff can move on in a craft or career either within Locol or beyond.”6
And last but not least, we can’t talk about urban revitalization in Los Angeles without mentioning her kombucha-sippin’ alter ego – gentrification.
Merriam-Webster defines gentrification as: “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”
Or if you prefer a more reputable source, here’s a definition from Urban Dictionary: “When a bunch of white people move to the ghetto and open up a bunch of cup cake shops.”
So will Locol cause gentrification in Watts? With the historical rate of governmental disinvestment and neglect of the Watts community, most likely it won’t.
Choi gets straight to the nitty gritty on what really matters.
“Gentrification? Let’s talk about that when people actually start to invest heavily. Gentrification is not the worst thing. The worst thing is the current state of no jobs, lack of funding, educational budget cuts, racial profiling, infiltration of fast food,” says Choi. “Gentrification ain’t so bad compared to neglect.” 6
The 34th annual CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) was held in San Francisco and Oakland from March 10-20. Though attendees may have left with different impressions following the full program of screenings, panels, and events, I believe the common thread linking the attendees’ experiences was CAAMFest’s exploration of the power of legacy.
Tyrus kicked off the festival in a packed Castro Theater. The audience was visibly absorbed by the moving documentary about Tyrus Wong, a Chinese American artist who overcame numerous obstacles in pursuit of his passion. Despite circumstances that separated him from his mother at age 9 and the racism he endured as a Chinese American, Wong persevered for his art. Whether it be paintings for Hallmark cards, storyboarding for a feature film, or even building an elaborate kite to grace the sky, he applied his artistic vision relentlessly and it was only recently that he’s being celebrated for his lifetime of work.
The 105-year-old Wong, who was in attendance, received a standing ovation following the film’s conclusion. During the Q&A, an audience member shared that he inspired her to live to 105 – which was appropriately met with a round of applause – and that the younger generation should look to Wong for inspiration when pursuing passions in life, despite all odds.
Legacy-defining continued with a presentation made by Pixar animator/director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle on the making of the Academy Award-nominated short film, “Sanjay’s Super Team.” Together in one of the smaller theaters of the Alamo Drafthouse, we watched the seven-minute storytelling feast for the eyes come alive with well-timed comedy and beautifully animated action sequences, accompanied by a thrilling Mychael Danna-composed score.
During the Q&A after the screening, Patel and Grindle explained how the film was developed, how the story changed overtime, and how different influences were incorporated into the animation’s appearance. John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, had told Patel to “just tell your story,” and the story that came to him was about what it’s like to grow up as the child of Asian immigrants, a narrative that is rarely seen in mainstream media. Even Patel’s father was touched by the film, as shown in a video recorded during a private screening at Pixar. Moved by this, an audience member requested an encore and we wound up watching “Sanjay’s Super Team” a second time around.
Muslim Youth Voices, an organization dedicated to celebrating and telling stories from the Muslim community, hosted a screening of student productions made by Muslim kids from Philadelphia and Minneapolis. Under the guidance of filmmaker Musa Syeed, the young filmmakers dug into the depths of their developing creative sides and brought forth a wide array of short films. From mind control brownies controlling a high school girl, to a short documentary on a spoken word poet, these kids embraced their Muslim identities and were empowered to tell their own unique stories rather than resign to the negative stereotyping of mainstream media.
If I wasn’t convinced before of the theme of legacy at the festival, the screenings I saw on the last day at the New People Cinema certainly did the job. I saw two documentaries, a short and a feature, which were part of the Pacific Showcase from the Pacific Islanders in Communications. John Antonelli’s Roots of ‘Ulu talks about how the ‘ulu (breadfruit) is being revived as a significant food in the Hawaiian culture, while Matt Yamashita’s Sons of Halawa follows the last native Hawaiian of Halawa as he searches for a successor to carry on the teachings of his ancestors. Both were about upholding legacies in people’s consciousness to keep them from disappearing altogether, informed especially from a culture that has withstood colonialism in its past.
Finally, to round out the theme of legacy found in CAAMFest’s programming, I also saw the theme realized in the people who make the festival possible. As an intern for CAAM, I helped with checking in and out volunteers and got to witness everyone who generously gave their time to volunteer. As hard-working as the staff is, this festival wouldn’t succeed without the enthusiasm and desire from these members of the community, some of whom have volunteered for decades. While each volunteer is given a voucher ticket at the end of each shift, there were several who will let it be known that perks are not why they keep returning each year. Rather, it’s the love they have for the festival that drives them to get involved. The volunteers are ultimately extensions of the festival’s constantly growing legacy.
Whether found in a thought-provoking documentary or in the smiling face of a long-time volunteer, CAAMFest was all about solidifying legacies for the younger and future generations to look to for inspiration and drive.
Recently, the New York Times released a feature titled “The Faces of American Power, Nearly as White as the Oscar Nominees” and revealed a startling trend. The feature compiled a list of “503 of the most powerful people in American culture, government, education and business, and found that just 44 are minorities,” which is approximately 8% of all the people surveyed. The categories stemmed from CEOs of powerful American companies, to leaders in government, education, and entertainment. Organized into a neat, visual list, the message was far from subtle.
Ever heard of the Glass Ceiling? In light of the new wave of social justice movements sweeping the country (particularly the Black Lives Matter movement), more and more Americans are becoming aware of just how difficult it is for minorities to grab a foothold in American society. According to the 2014 US Census, almost 6% of the Americans are Asian/Pacific Islander and about 23% of Americans are either a racial minority or of mixed race. Over the last decade, there has been some “progress” in representation: Satyha Nadella was appointed CEO of Microsoft in 2014, Kevin Tsujihara was named CEO of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment in 2013, and in 2008 Barack Obama became the first Black President of the United States. Shonda Rhimes, one of two minority heads (both of whom are black) in “People Who Decide Which Television Shows Americans See,” is responsible for hit shows such as Greys Anatomy and Scandal—both of which have cast minority actors such as Sandra Oh and Kerry Washington. But think about it this way—there are over 318 million people in the United States today (from the 2014 census data). That means there are 73 million Americans that are racial minorities and 19 million of those that are Asian/Pacific Islander. How is it possible that with 73 million people who are considered racial minorities, only 44 of them hold positions of power? And among those 44, only 10 of those are of Asian/Pacific Islander decent. Don’t even get me started on minority women.
So what does this mean for Asian-Americans? Despite accounting for 15-20 percent of the student population at Ivy League schools, there are currently no AAPI Presidents of Ivy League Universities (Jim Yong Kim left his position at Dartmouth in 2012), and AAPI’s lead only a fraction of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies. Even with groundbreaking shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, and Master of None along with other AAPI stars in actual leading roles, AAPI actors represent less than 4% of all film and television roles. In athletics, less than 5% of AAPI athletes play in the largest sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB, and NBA. On top of this, AAPIs hold only 11 seats in Congress: 10 being in the House and 1 in the Senate. What about the other 19 million of us that are living in the US today? The message the New York Times highlights in their feature is not only a stunning lack of representation, but is also a nod to the larger conversation of systemic racism in America. Racism extends far beyond hate crimes or rude slurs. Racism is also the model minority myth, the refusal to understand our culture, and the bias that exists because of the color of our skin and the shape of our eyes. Sadly, where there is systemic racism, there will be a glass ceiling regardless of conscious intention. So what’s the solution?
It really doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take much effort to see that minorities are whole and varied people, just like everyone else. While many of us study to be doctors and lawyers, an equal amount of us strive to become artists, writers, and actors. Some of us like science, and some of us like humanities. Some of us strive to become leaders, while some of us don’t aspire to be, but most importantly, many of us are starting to realize that the game is rigged, and figuring out how to play on our own outside of the established status quo, looking for places (or creating them from scratch) where we will be valued for what we bring to the table. In fact, studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership perform better in general. Perhaps for those in power, it is time to stop asking minorities to merely “work harder” and “play along” for that non-existent carrot, and instead take a hard look at the systemic barriers that may be keeping their minority peers from unlocking their full potential. In the end, we’ll all be better for it.
See the full New York Times interactive article here
This past Sunday marked 15 years since the establishment of the blog, Angry Asian Man. From calling out acts of racism to promoting Kickstarter campaigns by up-and-coming creators, in the words of founder Phil Yu, “Angry Asian Man is a website covering news, current events, politics, pop culture, and other subjects from Asian America.”
The blog originally started back in 2001, as a way for Yu, then a recent graduate from Northwestern University, to vent and jot down his thoughts about anything that caught his attention in the Asian American community, whether good or bad. It was very self-serving, especially because at the time he didn’t think anyone else would read it.
“In 2001, if something like Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr existed, that’s probably where I would have directed those energies,” he speculates. “At least those first couple years, the way I was writing and sharing, I mean… That’s pretty much what you do on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook now. If social media had existed in those days, there might not be an Angry Asian Man, or not as we know it.”
It’s because there was no social media then that Yu was drawn to other content creators at the time, who created on their own terms. He found this creative freedom really inspiring; something that today may be taken for granted.
Though Angry Asian Man was steadily building a following, it wasn’t until a year after Yu started the blog that he realized it was becoming something bigger than he had expected. In 2002, Abercrombie and Fitch came under fire when they released a number of T-shirts with racist depictions of Asian caricatures printed on them. Yu and a network of other online writers covered it, and their links were shared prolifically, garnering the attention of the mainstream media outlets in a just a week’s time. There was enough of an uproar to discontinue the T-shirts altogether.
In the years since, Angry Asian Man has become a popular site for all the latest in Asian America; and with all the traffic pouring on a daily basis, it’s even garnered attention from mainstream media outlets as well. Not only has it become a beacon for the latest news, but readers also have reverence for Yu, for having no filter in expressing exactly how he feels on each subject he addresses.
When asked about his thoughts on all the attention, he said he still finds it weird to this day. As much as he is proud of the work he’s done to get the blog to where it is now, he feels that there should be more voices out there.
“I should not be the first and/or only person people think of when it comes to Asian American news or reporting and have a voice,” he said.
Angry Asian Man has gotten such a vast readership, that Yu has even started expanding the content within the last several years.
Angry Reader of the Week is a weekly feature that highlights people who Yu has met over the years from connecting with his readers. For him, it’s a way of shedding light on the unique individuals in the community and, as a result, has made it a more inclusive experience for his audience. The one rule he has for it: You cannot ask to be Angry Reader of the Week.
Beyond the blog, Yu has extended out to the podcast world with Sound and Fury: The Angry Asian Podcast. His interview-style episodes allow for him to have conversations with people he’s met over the years. The podcast project is ultimately a labor of love that Yu tends to, despite the demand of the blog.
“It’s a project of wanting to say what I want to say,” he commented. “This is on my time, this is creating something extra, and it’s very much dictated by what I want to do, under this Angry Asian Man banner.”
Two years ago, Yu extended the Angry Asian Man brand to YouTube when he collaborated with the staff of ISAtv to create the web series, “Angry Asian America.” With his co-host comedian Jenny Yang, and two featured guests, they would create a conversation about current events and pop culture in Asian America.
In regards to the 15th anniversary of Angry Asian Man, Yu is wowed by it, sometimes thinking he’s done the math wrong. He’s impressed that the readership has been around for as long as it has and happy to be around for so many people’s Asian American journeys.
“It’s crazy!” he said. “[Time] has gone by so fast! 15 is a staggering number to do any one thing for that long, especially running a website.”
As Yu looks to the future, he plans to keep doing what he’s been doing by connecting with interesting people, creating engaging content, and keeping the podcast and web series going strong.
Asked what he thinks the state of Angry Asian Man will be in another 15 years, he predicts it will be at a time when we’ve already celebrated the first Asian American actors and actresses to have been nominated and win Academy Awards and that the #1 hit TV show is an Asian American sitcom.
“Hopefully people will be plugging into [Angry Asian Man] from their brain computers and holograph projections and things like that,” he joked. “Hopefully there will be [fewer] things to be angry about in terms of racism and inequality in this country.”
But even Yu knows that there will always be some things worth getting angry over, and that we can all keep counting on him to call it out, for as his motto goes, “Stay angry.”
Cover Image via Angry Asian Man
Nicole Arca is a writer for the Kollab Blog and current 4th year media and communications student at UC Berkeley. Originally from West Covina (in the heart of the SGV/626), Nicole has a passion for Asian American issues and a pen that spits hot fire. Check out her list of her top 5 moments in Asian America!
From institutional recognition to representation on broadcast TV, 2015 was a pretty important year for Asian Americans. But I’m hoping that my favorite FilAm artists (featured in this list) will hit the airwaves or the silver screen in 2016!
24th FPAC (Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture) at El Pueblo – At the 24th FPAC in November, tons of FilAm artists, like Odessa Kane,Karen Joyce, Manila Rice slayed the stage or showcased dope art. Traktivist was there spinning some beats as well! Overall, FPAC was just a really good time.
Vincent Rodriguez III in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -Filipino American actors taking a leading role on national TV? What a time to be alive.
First School In the Nation to be Named After Filipino Heroes – A school in Union City was the first to be named after Filipino-Americans – a momentous moment for representation and institutional recognition of FilAms everywhere.
Master of None – Aziz Ansari touches on some pretty important subjects in a palatable way that makes this show super easy to binge watch.
Bambu’s The Comrade Sessions EP – Announced stealthily in the music video for his song “Comrades” (off his album Party Worker), this EP is required listening.
Our next year-end list comes from Kollab Blog Associate Editor, Lily Rugo. Lily is a 2nd year journalism student at Emerson College and a member of the Kollaboration Boston Team. As one of our youngest editors, she offers unique perspectives to the blog team. In addition to Kollaboration, she’s also been published in USA Today and the multiple Emerson publications.
In 2015, I felt that Asian Americans finally started to enter mainstream media, change the game, and take names. Fresh Off the Boat started this wave earlier this year, and I’m happy to see it spread out to new media, streaming video, books, TV and movies. This year more and more Asian American figures became everyday names and played roles that went beyond old stereotypes. Here are my top 5 rising Asian American names who helped Asian Americans break through in 2015.
As BuzzFeed begins to create more original videos and content, Yang and Perez have become some of the most recognizable faces for trendy videos, social causes, and more BuzzFeed content. Perez and Yang are silly, honest, and relatable and made waves in new media during 2015.
Releasing her second book and bringing The Mindy Project to streaming service Hulu, Kaling had a pretty great 2015. As a fan, I usually think Kaling goes unrecognized for the work she does in the entertainment industry, but in 2015 that changed. Releasing Why Not Me? played a big part in that and it’s nice to see Kaling’s rise and talent getting noticed.
Mention Master of None, and the first question is “Have you watched it?”. One of the most popular shows of the year, Master of None made news with its cast, story lines, and how it resonated with millennials. I heard so many stories about how after the second episode, “Parents,” my friends were emotional and called home. Ansari made headlines for creating a show that was much needed, and shouldn’t have taken so long to get.
I don’t even watch The Walking Dead, yet I knew that something huge had gone down when fans thought Yeun’s Glenn Rhee died. From AngryAsianMan to the New York Times, the show’s plot twist made headlines and spoke to how important Yeun’s character was to the show and its audience.
Fresh Off the Boat’s debut earlier year created a lot of buzz and kicked off 2015 as the year for breakout Asian American talent. Despite some controversy and tweaks in the first season, I think the show’s second season really established its presence on TV. The kids of Fresh Off the Boat— Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, and Ian Chen— all do great work on the show, but for me it’s Wu and Park who complete it. Now Park and Wu are up for Critics’ Choice Awards, working the late night circuit, and on the cover of magazines. Only on the up and up from here, I hope Fresh Off the Boat is around to stay.
2015 was a big year for Asian Americans, entering the mainstream online, on TV, in movies, and more. Hopefully this momentum won’t stop and only grows until names like these become part of the norm.
This year, the Kollab Blog is closing out the year by asking our editors (and a few friends) to call out 5 things they’d like to recognize in the landscape of Asian America. Our first list comes from our Associate Editor, Lauren Lola, a writer and novelist based out of California’s Bay Area.
2015 oversaw an increase in better representation of Asians and Asian Americans in the mainstream media. At the same time, we also had a turnout of viral videos and momentous happenings that weren’t scripted in advanced or, at the very least, expected. With the year drawing to a close, in no particular order, let’s look back on the top 5 positive moments of 2015.
If this little girl ever decides to run for president one day, she already has my vote. In the wake of her parents’ divorce, she sits her mom down for a very serious talk about how she wants her and her dad to be friends and how she simply wants everyone to get along and smile. This girl defies what it means to be a peacekeeper and the 7 million views this video has since received can only encourage the likelihood that many viewers agree.
Ever since the first teaser trailer dropped last year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has become one of the most anticipated films of the year. Naturally, the franchise would be featured at this past summer’s San Diego Comic-Con and as one would at these panels, questions of high anticipation would be asked. Two fans came up to the mic at one point and rather than prodding George Lucas’s replacement for what he can reveal, they instead addressed the very prevalent issue about diversity in movies and asked if we can anticipate Asian characters in the film at all.
If Bruce Lee were still alive today, then this kid may as well have him on a run for his money. With The Game of Death playing in the background, complete with Lee’s iconic yellow jumpsuit, the boy performs the nunchuck scene from the film, in perfectly precise precision. The video has gotten over 9 million views since first being posted in May and if you see it, you’ll see why. The boy’s got SKILLS!
At the 69th Annual Tony Awards, the revival of Roger and Hammerstein’s The King and I brought in four wins that night; one of which went to Broadway newbie Ruthie Ann Miles for her role as Lady Thiang. Evidently moved to have won, she turns to her iPhone (“Please recycle”) as she reads out in a shaky voice her witty acceptance speech and thanks the people who have helped her get to this point in her career. It’s rare to see Asian and Asian American actors on Broadway, and so to see one other than Lea Salonga win a Tony was remarkable to see.
The world was blatantly shocked when the terror attacks in Paris took place in November. Within the days following, flowers and candles appeared near the places where the shootings took place, including outside the Bataclan Theatre. In a moment captured by Le Petit Journal, a father tells his young son that there’s no need to move away because France is their home, and despite the violence brought upon them, love will always prevail. This guy definitely wins Father of the Year in my book, for what he said brought forth a light in darkness.
At Kollaboration, our objective has always been to come together as a community and battle negative stereotypes and the status quo via “empowerment through entertainment.” Over the years in getting to know the numerous artists we’ve been honored to work with, we’ve seen a number of collaborations come about through the various mediums in the entertainment industry; from dancers choreographing a piece together, to stand-up comedians putting on a show, and musicians working together to make an awesome new song. Of the collaborations that have taken place, there are always those that are merely dreams at the moment, in hopes of one day becoming real.
We recently reached out to a few entertainers in the community and asked them the following: If you could collaborate with anyone at all that you haven’t collaborated with yet, who would it be and why?
|Christine Chen, Film Producer (Wong Fu Productions)
My dream collaborator(s) would be both Bubzbeauty (Lindy Tsang) and … OPRAH! Sorry I couldn’t just pick one. And since it’s DREAM collaborator, I had to aim high like OPRAH. If you can’t tell I’m super excited about them both. Both women represent everything true, genuine and pure in trying to fulfill one’s purpose in life. I’m a firm believer striving to fulfill what you were meant to do in this life should be your highest priority in life. Whether that purpose is to make videos on YouTube to connect with thousands if not millions of people, be the best parent to your 3 children, or having a TV show like “The Oprah Show” and help share all kinds of people’s stories so others can take away and learn more about themselves through the paths of others. And even though Bubzbeauty and Oprah have reached success on so many levels, they continue to push themselves to be better and seek even more ways to help others.
|Jenny Yang, Comedian
Mindy Kaling! She’s badass and a trailblazer and I want to raise my funny to her level of dopeness.
|Dan AKA Dan, Rapper
Dream collaboration is with Malaysian artist Yuna! She’s amazing – super talented – I’ve been following her for a long time. If not her…. a music video by the amazing Spike Jonze would be incredible.
|Samantha Futerman, Actress
Jenny Yang!! It’s not everyday you come across such a funny, talented woman like that!
|Ben Chung, Dancer (Kinjaz)
I don’t know if this is a “dead or alive” question, so I’m just going to go with the biggest influencer in my life from childhood to present day…and that is the legendary Bruce Lee. This man’s philosophy of movement transcends way beyond just martial arts, but it is applicable to life holistically. He spoke on being like the nature of water. Water flows…it pushes…it receives…it is both forceful and yielding. This concept absolutely applies to the way I’ve learned to receive and move to music. When music hits my ears, however my body receives and moves to it in that moment, without thought…that is the most honest and free expression of movement. Bruce is the truth!
Amidst the hustle and bustle of families, tourists, and people on their lunch breaks mingling in the open-air Japanese Village Plaza, I sat down with Café Dulce founder James Choi to learn more about the man who, against formidable odds, built up one of the most popular cafes in Little Tokyo.
Café Dulce boasts a mouthwatering spectrum of in-house baked treats (who doesn’t love a melt-in-your-mouth fluffy green tea donut?), carefully crafted coffee beverages using beans from roasters such as Verve and Heart Roasters, and, best of all, some of the most down-to-earth, all-around-day-brightening baristas you’ll be pressed to find in Los Angeles. After hosting a series of pop-up cafes throughout the rapidly developing downtown Los Angeles, Café Dulce has recently opened up their second brick-and-mortar location this past January in Alameda Square, a stone’s throw from Little Tokyo.
Choi had no idea he would become the mastermind behind one of the most popular cafes in Los Angeles when he went to college. He’d entered the University of Southern California to pursue a career in professional golf, but ended up entering the accounting field through Ernst & Young after realizing that his mother was going through some financial trouble.
“During that time, my mom had been out of work for around 6… 7… 8 years, and she was constantly trying to start businesses. She had worked for the Mirage Hotel in Vegas, when the Mirage was the best hotel, when it was new. So she was the international marketing hostess there, and there was a huge thing that happened where the Mirage used her as a scapegoat. She spent time in jail in Korea… and she was actually in a huge lawsuit with Mirage Resort and the casinos and Steve Wynn and all that stuff,” explains Choi.
“So anyways, that had kept her from working for a long time. And she was like, I want to start a business. So I was trying to figure out what it is that she could do.” Soon after, they opened up Teuscher Swiss Chocolates at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto.
There was no rest in sight for the both of them. “So for the first year, what I would do is, I’d work Monday through Friday at Ernst and Young, and then fly up to San Jose and drive to Palo Alto on Friday night … work Saturday Sunday, and then fly back down Sunday night and go back to work on Monday… I did that straight for like six months, and did that every other week for another six months,” recalls Choi.
Soon, Choi realized that his mother was really unhappy at the store, and shortly after his grandmother passed away, his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. He needed to get his mother out of there. Teuscher was soon sold, and the money from selling the store went to supporting his mother’s hospital bills and their living expenses.
Choi’s mother was not one to wait around to let life pass her by, however. She told Choi, “I’m not going to wait around and die. I’m going to open up a bakery in Little Tokyo.”
Choi was resistant at first, and for good reasons. First of all, neither he nor his mother had any bakery experience. The chocolate boutique, in contrast, had been a much easier store to operate. All that was required was keeping track of inventory, hiring staff, ordering chocolates from Switzerland, and packaging and selling the chocolates. Café Dulce, on the other hand, has three relatively chaotic operations in a small store: an in-store bakery, a strong coffee culture, and a popular lunch program. “Of course, we weren’t like that when we first opened,” remarks Choi. “But thinking about that sort of thing, a bakery’s not easy.”
On a more personal note, Choi was also hesitant because he knew that his mother’s declining health was heavily interlinked with stress. Choi recalls trying to convince his mother, “Mom, you should just chill. I’m going to work. You don’t have to worry about anything. You just have to relax.”
Upon revealing that she had a baker partner who would be in charge of operation, Choi finally relented, “If that’s the case and that’s going to make you happy, then go for it.”
As luck would have it, however, the partner bailed after a huge disagreement with Choi’s mother, three weeks before the store was set to open. So with no further ado, Choi put in his two-week notice at Ernst & Young and prepared himself to learn how to run a bakery in three weeks.
“When other people say, is there a word of advice… this is not something I recommend for people to do. When I talk to other restaurateurs or people who’ve been in the restaurant business for a really long time, they say that we’re the exception to the rule,” he admits with a laugh. “My mom had $500 in her banking account. We didn’t even have flour to bake with.”
Credit cards were maxed out over the next 6 months and payments were floated with abandon in a desperate attempt to keep the doors open. “So, what are you gonna do? She’s already spent all the money [on building out the store]… If you’ve started something, you’ve gotta at least see it through. You know, sink or swim.” And with that, Choi put his head down and faced the hurricane.
“First year and a half, it was more of, which bill could I pay last?… You quickly realize that the electric company and the gas company, they don’t charge you late fees until they actually come to your store and ask for a check. And they don’t cut your power. So we were… two, three months behind on our electrical bill and our gas bill.” It is hard to imagine that what is now such a thriving café had once been on the brink of existence.
Up and running, Café Dulce is an invaluable pillar of the Little Tokyo community, with Choi as the café’s backbone. Where community comes in, Choi’s dreamer side emerges in full force. Any chance he has to bring the community together, Choi takes initiative.
One idea he has is to turn the Japanese Village Plaza into the “Haunted Village” during the month of October every year with fog rolling in while costumed folks wander around, creating a spooky and festive atmosphere.
“The stage – that’s not being used at all in October. So I was like, let’s turn that into a pumpkin patch, bring a bunch of bales of hay, do face painting for kids, and create an environment for kids to come in and trick-or-treat,” Choi says, eyes glowing. “This year was the closest we got. We got Tanaka Farms to be down to donate a bunch of pumpkins… I think we’re a little bit closer… every time I share this dream with people, everyone gets excited. So I think, one year, before we close down as a shop, we will do this. That’s one way we try to be invested in the community.”
Another idea churning around Choi’s mind is to create an opportunity for a group of young Asian American artists to come together during the month of December to go caroling through the Village. In the winter of 2013, Café Dulce collaborated with the band Run River North, and ended up packing the entire center of the plaza. “I took a picture and sent it to the manager and was like, ‘This is the way the plaza should look. It should be filled with people.’ If there’s a crowd, you’re gonna at least check it out. You’re gonna be like, ‘What’s going on?’ You see these young Asian artists playing really cool music, and you hang out and check it out.”
When the Japanese American National Museum hosted their Giant Robot Biennale 4 in October, Café Dulce was there to support with nifty giant robot donut toppers. Choi describes Café Dulce’s role in the community as, “being not just a business in the community to be in business, but to really spread more awareness about the community… If there’s something going on in the community that we can help out with, we try to do it.”
This mentality translates to each experience Choi wants customers to have at Café Dulce. By spreading goodwill and goodness to each person that comes in, Choi hopes that it’s paid forward in their respective areas of work and community. “We want to change the community and the world, one person at a time. If you come into our store, we hope that you leave happier or at last you feel better about your day after you leave our store.”
“One thing that we always talk about during our leaders’ meeting, is ‘Who is Dulce? What is our Why? Why do we operate?’ A big thing is sure, we sell coffee, we sell donuts, we sell pastries, we have lunch. But that’s what we’re doing. That’s not why we’re doing it,” explains Choi. “There should be a greater purpose, hopefully… I always tell our guys when we’re training someone on bar, we don’t serve drinks, we serve guests.”
In the process of opening Café Dulce, Choi lost his mother after a tough fight against ovarian cancer. “I went through my toughest times here at this store… after we opened this store, she was good for another year, and then the cancer recurred… she was in remission for a year, and then it came back after we opened the store, and she chose not to do chemo until the doctor said she had to, so that was another year and a half or two of fighting for her. And then it was more surgery and more hospice care, and that was tough, and opening the store was really difficult,” explains Choi.
Yet in spite of his rocky past, Choi remains strong, “It really shaped me into who I am today, and it continues to drive the person that I want to continue to be, or become…. I think one of the biggest things that God’s blessed me with, is the ability to just put my head down and be patient… and having an undying optimism that [things are] going to work out.” That undying optimism permeates the operation of Café Dulce, and is clearly evident through the work, soul, and heart Choi pours out into the vibrant Little Tokyo community.
Cover photo by Amparo Rios