When Mike Nguyen found the racist slurs covering his restaurant’s windows and patio tables on Sunday, he said he immediately knew the cause. One message spray painted on the front door of his San Antonio ramen shop particularly stood out: “No masks.”
Ever since Nguyen, 33, went on national TV last week to condemn Gov. Greg Abbott, R, for lifting the state’s mask mandate, the Asian American chef and owner was flooded with death threats, one-star online reviews and harassing messages, Nguyen told The Washington Post.
“I definitely know 100 percent it had something to do with the interview,” Nguyen said. “When you first see it, you’re kind of shocked, and then you realize this is real. Then, anger took over. I was so mad I ended up pacing back and forth trying to wrap my head around this.”
The incident appears to combine two disturbing national trends: A backlash to mask mandates that has often turned violent and destructive, and a surge of racist attacks and threats against Asian Americans, which some advocates tie to former president Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric over the pandemic.
Among the terms spray painted in red on Nguyen’s windows on Sunday was the phrase “Kung flu,” a racist slur that Trump helped popularize during his campaign rallies and other appearances.
Local officials swiftly denounced the vandalism, while police have opened an investigation.
“Thank you to all the neighbors who showed up to help & proved that we’re better than this one hateful act,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg tweeted Sunday. “We must work together to eradicate racism from our city.”
For the past two years, Nguyen, a California native who moved to San Antonio in 2016, has owned the Noodle Tree restaurant, which sits across from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s campus. Nguyen is undergoing treatment for lymphoma, his second bout with cancer.
The condition forced Nguyen, who is immunocompromised, to close his restaurant for six months last year. So even though Abbott ended Texas’s statewide mask mandate last week – a move opposed by public health officials – Nguyen still requires all indoor customers to wear masks when they are not eating.
Hours before he appeared Wednesday on CNN’s “The Newsroom,” Nguyen pondered whether denouncing Abbott’s decision would be worth the backlash he would likely court. But he decided he needed to speak out.
“It needed to be said,” Nguyen wrote Wednesday on the restaurant’s Instagram account.
On air with CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto, Nguyen accused the governor of placing him and millions of Texans at risk by lifting the mandate.
“His decision to drop the mask mandate is selfish and cowardly. There’s no reason to do it,” Nguyen told CNN. “A lot of us feel like he’s putting a lot of us in danger.”
Near the end of the almost six-minute segment, Nguyen said the recent rise of violent attacks and harassment against Asian Americans posed additional concerns for him and his business.
“Since I’m an Asian American, we’ve seen a lot of attacks against Asian Americans and that’s a huge concern for me,” Nguyen said. “We see all these incidents of that and this is an opportunity. It opens up that opportunity.”
On Sunday, Nguyen woke up to messages alerting him that his restaurant had been covered with graffiti. When he got to the store, he counted at least seven spray painted phrases, including one urging him to “Go back 2 China” and another one reading “Hope u die.”
“They did it on the windows where everybody who drives could see it,” Nguyen told The Post.
Nguyen called San Antonio police, who photographed the damage and filed an incident report.
Nguyen said he was so rattled by the vandalism that he wasn’t sure whether he should open for business. But after asking his staff whether they still felt comfortable showing up for work, Nguyen decided he would open an hour later than usual.
“We all decided whatever their motive was, we weren’t going to let them win,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said he believes the incident was a hate crime, given the language used in the graffiti, and he urged police to investigate it as such.
By the time his first customer arrived to pick up her food, Nguyen, bucket and sponge in hand, was just beginning to scrub the graffiti on the patio tables. “She said, ‘If you have another sponge I’d love to help,’ ” Nguyen recalled.
About a dozen other strangers who had heard the news later showed up with cleaning supplies and paint remover. By the end of the day, the storefront was clean again.
“Something like that, it’s very touching and very moving because my day started off with a lot of anger, hostility and I was hurt by this,” Nguyen told The Post. “And to see the support and the love of the community, it kind of helps you heal a little. San Antonians and Texans will not tolerate this.”