‘Hopeless and helpless’: Third Culture Bakery offering ‘safety kits’ for AAPI seniors amid national spate of racist attacks

In response to the recent nationwide attacks on the AAPI community, Third Culture will be offering safety kits to protect those most at risk to these attacks.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | The East Colfax Avenue bakery known for its mochi muffins is offering something else amid a wave of attacks on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities: keychain alarms and pepper spray.

“We make doughnuts and muffins but we’re now making safety kits for our elders and seniors,” said Third Culture Bakery co-founder Wenter Shyu. “That should speak a lot to what is the current support and structure of things.”

The safety kits include a lanyard, wrist band, an extremely loud alarm and a hand-held pepper spray. Directions for the kits will be available in several languages, such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. They’ll be available to community members most at risk of random attacks, Shyu said. “No questions asked.” 

“Being an Asian American and queer bakery and business owner, racism is kind of no news to us. But the recent attacks on Asian elders, I mean, that could be anyone in my family, so it really hit close to home,” Shyu said. “We were donating to a lot of AAPI organizations, and a few other Asian nonprofits, but we still felt a little hopeless and helpless, and we just still felt like we weren’t doing enough.”

New data from the Stop AAPI Hate shows that anti-Asian hate incidents increased over roughly a year of the pandemic in the U.S. The report covered 3,795 incidents from March 2020 through February 2021. There were about 2,600 incidents in the year before. 

Most incidents were verbal, according to the report, but about 11% of incidents were physical assault. Attacks like the Atlanta shooting, which targeted Asian-owned spas, and a recent viral video of a 65-year-old woman being kicked and stomped to the ground in New York City have left AAPI communities across the nation, including in Aurora, reeling.

In a forum specifically about anti-Asian hate last week, Aurora police said they’ve increased patrols around Asian-owned businesses and houses of worship in an effort to deter hate-motivated crime, and John Kellner, the 18th Judicial District Attorney, said his office has assembled a bias-motivated crime team. On average, the office prosecutes around 30 hate crimes a year, he said. In 2019, that number had dipped to 21, but was back up in 2020 with 33 cases.

Both agencies said they’re serious about addressing bias-motivated incidents and encouraged people to report hate crimes to police when they happen. 

“We wanted to give people something more tangible and tactile,” Shyu said of the kits.

Shyu and husband Sam Butarbutar started Third Culture in 2016 through wholesale to local coffee shops in Berkeley, California. Two years later the team of two grew to a staff of more than 20, servicing more than 60 locations. In February 2020, Third Culture expanded from a brick and mortar location in California to a north Aurora shop. 

The couple’s hope has been that Third Culture — the name stems from growing up in separate cultures than their parents — become a symbol of diversity, inclusiveness and acceptance. “This bakery exists because of love, and we want to spread that love one mochi muffin at a time,” they write on their website. 

The bakery has already secured and assembled 800 safety kits, which will be delivered to a community center in California on Monday, Shyu said. But there’s already a need for more. Shyu said demand has grown to 5,400 kits since announcing them.

“We have just been inundated with stories of like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I wish my uncle had this, he was attacked in New York on the sidewalk two weeks ago,’ or ‘This woman spit on my mom last week on the bus, and I wish she had one of these kits.’ It’s just heartbreaking stories like that keep poring in,” he said.

“I think it really hit a chord that it’s not just about alarming the bystanders and hoping that someone steps in. I think we really have to take control into our own hands. And for a lot of the seniors, they just don’t have those tools. I think it really gives them a tool that they could at least feel a little safer or feel more empowered in the moment.” 

This weekend the bakery’s dedicating its fourth anniversary to helping keep people safe from hate crimes. Shyu said proceeds from those sales will help fund the kits. Donations can also be made through the bakery’s website. 100% of those proceeds will go to buying supplies for the kits, he said.