Every single Sunday for the past four years, through rain, snow or heat, volunteers have distributed warm meals to people in need in the Little Saigon neighborhood. Some serve hot tea to guests, while others give out public health essentials and warm clothing. Patrons include both housed and unhoused people, with many being Asian American elders from the local community.
The volunteers are known affectionately as the “Eggrolls,” convened by ChuMinh Tofu and Vegan Deli owner and chef Thanh-Nga “Tanya” Nguyễn. Their namesake is inspired by the signature appetizer that Nguyễn frequently hands out to customers and visitors while they wait for their orders.
Nguyễn said that she began serving hot meals in August 2019 because she wanted to help many of the unhoused people who shelter or spend their days near her restaurant.
“For eight years, I’ve been there and witnessed a lot of things going on out there in front of the restaurant,” she said. “So it made me want to connect with them, to talk to them, to get to know them and to understand them.”
Nguyễn added that it was hard to see passersby walk next to the homeless people staying in Little Saigon without even saying hi or acknowledging their existence. Holding a regular and consistent meal service is a way to build a relationship with her unhoused neighbors.
Initially, the meal service was run just by Nguyễn and some of her family members and employees. However, volunteers quickly started to join in. Now, more than 70 Eggrolls are involved in the efforts. On average, more than 20 Eggrolls show up each week to prepare ingredients, package cooked food, serve hot tea and organize all the logistics related to meal distribution. Others help run ChuMinh Tofu’s social media account, apply for grants and coordinate with other mutual aid groups.
In total, the Eggrolls serve about 200 to 250 meals every week.
They have also started a storytelling project to give guests an opportunity to share their oral histories and help change the dominant narratives about homelessness.
“We give them the opportunity to talk, and we can listen to them,” Nguyễn said. “You let go of your sadness or concern or anything that you have inside. So we are there to listen to them.”
In February, Real Change gave a short workshop to some of the Eggrolls about storytelling and homelessness. Back in January, Nguyễn was honored by the Seattle Kraken as a “Hero of the Deep”; the hockey team donated $32,000 to Real Change in her name.
For Bianca Dang, Nguyễn’s dedication to helping others sparked her own commitment to volunteer as an Eggroll.
“Part of where it stems from for me personally is seeing Tanya’s passion for just doing what she can to support anybody who is in need of or could benefit from support at that moment,” Dang said. “What really drew me in was seeing the way that ethos has stimulated all of the Eggrolls and has created a very intense investment in the work of doing mutual aid, of kindness, being there and helping others and ourselves meet our basic needs — but in a way that is about investment and collectivity, that is really community-oriented.”
Dang said that when she first moved to Seattle three years ago, she felt very isolated. Joining the Eggrolls transformed her perception of the city and connected her to others who were passionate about making positive change.
Fellow Eggroll Audrey Carlsen shared those sentiments, saying that the group prioritizes joyfulness and relationality. She first got involved through her bird-watching friends who also happened to volunteer at the weekly meal service.
Before opening her restaurant on the corner of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street in 2011, Nguyễn managed her family’s South Seattle tofu factory. She said she started ChuMinh Tofu to promote vegetarianism, reduce the killing of animals and help people who didn’t know how to cook.
Nguyễn said that her food is inspired by her favorite childhood meals, as well as vegetarian Buddhist temple food made by monks and nuns. She likes to experiment to find new recipes and meat substitutes with tofu and mushrooms. Nguyễn said that originally she didn’t know about the Western version of veganism, but soon after she opened ChuMinh Tofu, one of her customers introduced her to vegan mayonnaise.
“He came and gave me a bottle of veganaise, so I read the ingredients and I saw soy milk is the main ingredient,” Nguyễn said. “I was very excited because we make our own soy milk and tofu. So since then I started [experimenting] and making our own veganaise. So from that moment, ChuMinh Tofu restaurant became a vegan place for everyone.”
While some business owners in Little Saigon say that the large number of visible homeless people in the neighborhood hurts their business, Nguyễn said it doesn’t affect her restaurant at all.
The neighborhood has been subject to a significant amount of local media discourse in recent years. At the beginning of 2022, the Seattle Police Department boosted its presence in the area in order to crack down on flea markets and drug sales that had occurred nearby.
Carlsen said that the Eggrolls have coordinated with the Washington state Department of Health to distribute hundreds of doses of naloxone to community members every month. The drug can be used to save someone mid-overdose from opioids like fentanyl.
Through talking to some guests, Nguyễn learned that Seattle isn’t providing enough shelter and services for homeless people. She also said that the city should stop sweeping unsheltered people and instead treat them with kindness.
“The tent is their house,” Nguyễn said. “So if you remove them, where do they go? So when I see that, I feel more empathy for them — more compassion for them.”
The Eggrolls recently moved their meal service from in front of ChuMinh Tofu to the parking lot of a nearby nonprofit organization two blocks to the south. Carlsen said that the group had experienced threats of violence and harassment in the old location because many of the guests are homeless. Some of the haters claim that the Eggrolls are encouraging unhoused people to come to Little Saigon. She said that the new site is bigger, more secluded and out of the way of traffic.
Nguyễn hopes that the meal service will help change the perspectives of those who are opposed to helping homeless people in the neighborhood. For her, the mutual aid is ultimately about cultivating a shared community across class divisions.
“I wish people can change their point of view about the homeless — they should open their hearts and their minds,” she said. “And maybe find the opportunity to talk to them, to know them, to listen to them and to understand them. So with this, there’s another door for them to learn, to enter.
“It is beautiful if they open their mind and their heart to know.”
Read more of the Nov. 22–28, 2023 issue.