Capitol Insider podcast: Fanny Fang, whose family runs Asian Market, takes stand after Riley County Commissioner Marvin Rodriguez suggests threat of COVID-19 is low because there are no Chinese people in community

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TOPEKA — Fanny Fang’s immediate reaction to a Riley County commissioner’s racist remarks involved a profane two-word outburst and reflection on whether she made a mistake by returning to Kansas a couple of years ago.

Then the Manhattan woman, whose family owns and operates the Asian Market, realized how much she appreciates the community’s support.

After Commissioner Marvin Rodriguez suggested the threat of COVID-19 was low in the community because there were no Chinese people — he later offered a tepid apology while noting his affinity for Chinese food — Fang refused to perpetuate the “model minority myth,” as she called it, “where we keep to ourselves and don’t say anything.“

Instead, Fang has been outspoken about the harassment of Asian Americans. She and others have called for Rodriguez to resign.

Fang returned to Manhattan a couple of years ago after studying at New York University. This is where her parents chose to make a home in 1997 when they immigrated from a rural area of China. Before opening the grocery store, the family owned a restaurant in town.

"There was one day I picked up the phone and someone asked me if my family cooked cats and dogs,“ Fang said during a discussion on the Capitol Insider podcast. ”This was when I was 10. And now at the age of 24, I've got a local politician saying these things about Chinese people and COVID-19. So even 14 years later, it's still happening in this community. And it always will.

“The difference now is I'm not 10 — I'm 24, and I now have the ability to say something. I'm not scared anymore. I have a very strong support system. I'm in this. I know it's going to be a fight, but if I'm going to go into a fight with anybody, I'm so glad to do it with Manhattan, Kansas."

Fang said her anxiety skyrocketed when she heard COVID-19 broke out in China, fearing the inevitable racist reaction in the United States. She has been asked in her store, sometimes by children, if she has the virus. Friends told her they were aware of customers who no longer were willing to go to her store. She was shaken by the terrifying video of an attack on an Asian American woman in New York City, who suffered chemical burns when a man poured liquid on her as she took out the trash.

That anxiety was heightened by Rodriguez’s remarks during a commission meeting last month, as reported by the Manhattan Mercury.

“I know that other people are having a great problem,” he said. “And someone reminded me that in Italy, they have a lot of garment-people there, fashionists, and they have a tremendous amount of Chinese there, and that’s where a lot of it started. So we don’t necessarily have any (Chinese people), but I think the board would like to make sure that we’re on top of it.”

Fang’s immediate response: “Excuse my language for this, but it felt like a big f*** you.”

“I just can't say it any other way,” she said. “It made me question why I even came back to this community.”

When Fang confronted Rodriguez at a subsequent meeting, he said he “apologized for the remarks and how they may have hurt people.”

"That’s not how I think,“ he said. ”I have everybody on my mind ... and I’ve got a lot of Chinese food here, and I’ve got some Chinese friends and stuff.”

Rodriguez didn’t return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

As a county commissioner, Rodriguez also serves on the county’s board of health. Shana Bender, an organizer for the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice, questioned the effect his “plainly racist” remarks would have on the rest of the department.

"How are they going to respond in a global crisis?“ Bender said. "What does that mean for our minorities who come for emergency services? Will there be a bias in place? Will this put people at further harm because of their internal bias?"

Dennis Butler, director of the Riley County Police Department, welcomed feedback from Asian Americans who feel unsafe or wish to report bias or a hate crime.

“Violence, threats of violence, bias and hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans is as unacceptable as it is against any persons who are targeted because of what they look like or where they come from,” Butler said. “Any bias-based crimes reported to the Riley County Police Department will be vigorously investigated.”

Kansas Rep. Rui Xu, a Democrat from Westwood, said words have an effect on Asian Americans living in the United States.

"I keep making the point that nobody's confused about where this virus is from,“ Xu said. ”Nobody's confused that China probably hid this for at least a couple of weeks, or at least hid the numbers. Nobody is on the other side of that issue. But for Asian Americans, this is actually dangerous for us here. I know what you're trying to do. I get it. But it's actually harming people here, so you've got to stop."

Health officials in Kansas have documented 56 deaths and 1,337 infections from the coronavirus, which first was detected in the state in early March. So far, 20 Riley County residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

Gov. Laura Kelly has issued a series of high-profile executive orders, including a statewide mandate to stay at home except for essential needs, as part of her administration’s response to the pandemic.

"I abhor any acts of aggression, particularly when they are motivated by race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever, so I would ask Kansans to please not do that,“ Kelly said. ”This is no one person's fault, no one ethnic group's fault. This is a pandemic that we all have responsibility to make sure it goes away, and we need to do our part."

Sometimes, Fang wonders if it would be safer to close the market and recede into the shadows.

For her, that isn’t an option. She plans to continue to push for Rodriguez to resign and, in the alternate, vote him out of office later this year.

"My hope is that the 13-, 14-, 15-year-old Asian American at Manhattan High sees that someone in this community who looks like them is speaking up,“ Fang said, ”and I hope that if they stay here or if they go somewhere else, they will remember this and say, ’I can do this.’ That's what I hope."