Asian-Americans have often been called the "model minority," an unfortunate designation that downplays the racism suffered by people who have recently immigrated from Asian countries, as well as those born in the United States whose families arrived here a generation or more ago. But with racism coming to the forefront during the coronavirus pandemic, as rumors fuel the idea that Asians are somehow responsible for the spread of COVID-19, the owners of Tea Street are fighting the model-minority stereotype — by speaking out.
And at the same time that they defy the silent stereotype, siblings Victoria and Patrick Lam are sharing their culture and creativity with customers at their shop at 4090 East Mississippi Avenue.
Victoria and Patrick opened Tea Street in 2018 and have gradually built up a following of loyal customers, some who come in daily for boba teas, smoothies, milk teas and other drinks that have their roots in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. "We're a bubble tea shop, but we're not a chain or a franchise," Patrick notes. "We make everything from scratch, and we don't use any powders or syrups."
"A big part of what we do is tied to our culture and our food," Victoria adds.
Victoria and Patrick were born in Colorado to parents who fled Vietnam to escape war and persecution. But their heritage is Chinese; their grandparents left China during the Cultural Revolution and settled in Vietnam. Because of that, Tea Street's branding and menu draw from both countries. The logo is designed to look like a Chinese street-market sign topped with tea leaves, boba pearls and a cup with a straw that, on closer inspection, is a silhouette of the iconic Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan. "It's a celebration of our culture," Victoria says. "We're Asian and American, but we don't sit firmly on either side."
Part of the reason for opening a tea shop was because of the business's importance when he was growing up, Patrick explains: "When I was young, I didn't have many Asian friends, but in high school and college, boba shops were opening, and they became the place to go — they were multicultural safe spaces."
While the majority of Tea Street's customers have been kind and respectful during the pandemic, the Lams have had to remind a few people that Asians weren't responsible for the outbreak. "There's a misconception that COVID-19 is tied to Asian restaurants, and we've had to dispel a lot of myths," Patrick notes. "But people also ask if everything is okay and if we're being treated right."
The siblings have been proactive in both ensuring the safety of their guests and staff and in making it clear that they won't stand for racism. A message on the Tea Street website reads: "While small businesses everywhere are taking a hit, the Asian community is also facing a particular hit with hate that is a result of the mass spread of misinformation about the coronavirus. During difficult times like this, it’s important to look out for your own health and safety, and it’s also important to be kind. We care about our community and want you to be a part of it in a positive way." The statement includes links to a list of other Asian-owned businesses that are still open, and a website where you can report hate crimes and abuse.
Patrick says he rarely encountered racism before the pandemic, but that things changed quickly in February and March. "It was such a fake social contract," he says, "and it fell apart because of fear and ignorance. It's super-frustrating."
Beyond the Tea Street website, the Lams are using social media to spread their message. Scrolling through the Tea Street Facebook and Instagram photos of mango slushes, virgin lychee mojitos and tiger milk teas, you might find messages about participating in the Census, images tagged with #correctthenarrative, and links to social justice causes for Asian-Americans and other marginalized groups. They've even started a podcast called What's the Tea?, in which they discuss current issues. "We don't want to be political, but we want to make sure people know that Asian-American advocacy is important to us as people as well as business owners," Victoria notes.
Through it all, though, the primary focus has remained creating good drinks using fresh ingredients. Their father, a former chef, sometimes helps out by peeling, cooking and puréeing whole taro root for the popular taro slush, a pale-purple smoothie bursting with the nutty, earthy flavor of its main ingredient.
Before the COVID-related travel restrictions hit, Patrick says, he traveled to Taiwan several times a year "so I would know where my tea was coming from." The drinks are refreshing and balanced rather than cloying and sweet, and seasonal ingredients like mint leaves and peaches are introduced throughout the year on a "secret" menu. Most of the shop's customers are white, Patrick points out, so he has fun introducing them to new ingredients like pandan, chrysanthemum and winter melon (which has an entire section on the menu).
"We're really grateful for our regular customers; they have kept us open through all this," Victoria adds.
To help maintain health and safety, Tea Street, at 4090 East Mississippi Avenue, is currently open for takeout and delivery only; you can pre-order by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (720-863-8636). Hours are noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. If you're ordering outside of business hours, you can leave a message with your name, order, phone number and pick-up time.
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