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For Laotian Refugees in Richmond, Food Is Part of the Community’s Survival Story

Care packages will bring stories, comfort, and delicious wonton noodle soup to a community of Laotian elders hard hit by COVID-19  

Wontons and ho fun noodles from Tracy’s Home Cooking
Wontons and ho fun noodles from Tracy’s Home Cooking
Tracy’s Home Cooking

This Sunday, August 16, more than 50 elders within Richmond’s Laotian refugee community will receive a handmade care package dropped off at their homes: a bowl of noodles, a handwritten note, a reminder that, even in this isolating time of COVID-19, someone is still looking out for them.

The care package drop-off is this year’s pandemic pivot for the Rice and Water Festival, an annual Laotian community celebration organized by the Oakland-based nonprofit Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).

Megan Zapanta, APEN’s Richmond organizing director, explains that the nonprofit’s volunteers and staff devote so much of their time and energy to protests and political education — “fighting the bad things,” as she puts it — that they started to talk about how nice it would be to put on a more celebratory event. Last year’s inaugural Rice and Water Festival was born out of those talks: a celebration of Richmond’s vibrant Laotian community with traditional dance, opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue among different communities of Asian Americans, and a generous spread of food. It was a hit.

Dancers at last year’s inaugural Rice and Water Festival
Dancers at last year’s inaugural Rice and Water Festival
APEN/Denny Khamphanthong

Naturally, Zapanta says, this year’s socially distanced version of the event will have to be quite different — more of a care package drop-off initiative than what you’d normally associate with a “festival.” Rather than pivoting to some kind of live-streamed virtual event, in the way of so many other in-person events, Rice and Water’s organizers decided to go a different route. According to Zapanta, Richmond’s Laotian refugee community has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis — at least one elder in the community has died from COVID-19, several others were exposed or infected, and many are out of work. For the older generation, it has been especially difficult: They might not have much income. They might be isolated by themselves, or, as Zapanta notes, they might be part of a multigenerational household where the younger people are still just “going about their days,” putting their elders’ health at risk.

And so the festival’s organizers hit on the idea of having younger APEN members put together care packages for these Laotian elders, each one including things like handwritten postcards, bottles of hand sanitizer, and, of course, food — something “to comfort them, to make them feel like somebody is still looking after them,” explains Sary Tatpaporn, another APEN member and a part of Richmond’s Laotian community himself.

Zapanta says there was also a desire to support the area’s Laotian food businesses, as places like the Lao Jaleune grocery store and the restaurant That Luang have managed to stay open during the pandemic, but have struggled to adapt just like everyone else. For the care packages, however, APEN decided to call upon Tracy Saephan-Nguyen, a Richmond resident who started a new Instagram-based Laotian food business, Tracy’s Home Cooking, out of her home about a month into shelter in place.

Egg rolls from Tracy’s Home Cooking
Egg rolls from Tracy’s Home Cooking
Tracy’s Home Cooking

An ethnic Mien whose parents came to the Bay Area from Laos as refugees, Saephan-Nguyen tells Eater SF that she was one of those home cooks whose friends were always telling her she should open a restaurant — and, cooped up at home with her husband and six kids during the pandemic, she finally decided to give it a shot. For the care packages, she’ll be making two of her most popular dishes: a noodle soup with wide ho fun noodles and homemade wontons, plus a side of fried egg rolls she claims are “the best, hands down.” Saephan-Nguyen describes her food as a mix of Lao, Mien, and Vietnamese influences (she says she makes a mean bowl of bun bo Hue), and in a few short months, she’s already developed a large following among the area’s Laotian households. “Maybe one day I’ll open a restaurant,” she says. “I just want people to try my cooking.”

The care packages will include a copy of a zine, Richmond Is Home, that Tatpaporn put together with another APEN member, Brandy Khansouvong — a collection of personal stories that deal with what Tatpaporn says is the broader issue Richmond’s Laotian refugees are facing right now. “For the Laos refugees — Khmu, Mien, lowland Lao — we decided to pick Richmond as a long-term place to live,” Tatpaporn says. “As a group collectively, we picked Richmond as a community for us.”

But now, rising housing costs have forced many of Richmond’s Laotian residents to move elsewhere — to Pinole or Hercules or Sacramento. And so, Tatpaporn explains, the local Laotian community now faces a second displacement, after they were already displaced once from their home country.

Richmond LAND, a local nonprofit, has started a number of tangible projects to help prevent that second displacement — Tatpaporn is working on an effort to build a series of small, low-cost housing units in people’s backyards. But he says things like the Rice and Water care package drop-offs also help: a bowl of noodles and a collection of community stories to give people hope that Richmond is still a place they can call home.

Correction: August 17, 2020, 1:01 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the low-cost housing initiative that’s mentioned to APEN rather than Richmond LAND.

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