Kat Lieu started the Subtle Asian Baking Facebook group with a few of her close friends while stuck indoors in Seattle at the beginning of the pandemic. At the time, she was working as a physical therapist, and, like many other Americans, used baking as a way to relax during a stressful time; she wanted to connect with other like-minded home bakers safely, online.
The Facebook group, where bakers would share Asian baking recipes, grew rapidly, reaching over 60,000 members by the end of 2020. Burnt out from working in health care, Lieu quit her job and dedicated herself to Subtle Asian Baking and started a popular Instagram page and TikTok account.
But when rates of anti-Asian hate crimes started rising in 2020 and 2021, particularly after the shootings of Asian women in Atlanta spas in March 2021, Liu became afraid to go about Seattle on her own, worried that she’d be the next victim of anti-Asian racism. Her female Asian friends in New York were also scared to go out, especially in Chinatown, where many of the hate crimes were occurring. So she decided to use her now-powerful platform to make a change.
Lieu rallied her online community to do bake sales across the globe, raising $10,000 for New York City Chinatown organization Welcome to Chinatown, which used the money to provide 1,000 hot meals for food-insecure people in the area, and $5,000 for Double Crispy Bakery, a struggling Asian-owned business in New York. This year, she's donating money to the Very Asian Foundation and Heart of Dinner (an organization that feeds food-insecure elderly Asian people in New York City) with another online fundraiser that’s running until the end of May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. She says the community now has 300,000 followers and members across platforms; she hopes to raise at least $10,000 with this year’s fundraiser.
“Since I’ve started Subtle Asian Baking, I work from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep,” Lieu says. “We do everything we can.” Lieu says she decided to do another fundraiser this year when she received scores of racist comments on TikTok videos and Instagram reels and as Asian women, like Michele Go and Christina Yuna Lee, continued to be murdered.
Lieu was also inspired by former King 5 news anchor Michelle Li, who received national press coverage and a spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show when a caller left a voicemail telling her she was “being very Asian” and to “keep her Korean to herself,” after Li talked about eating dumplings in a television segment on a St. Louis, Missouri, station about traditional New Year’s Day Foods. After posting a video about that experience on social media, Li, and #veryasian became a phenomenon. When DeGeneres gave Li $15,000 while on the show, Li used the money to start the Very Asian Foundation.
The foundation currently supports Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities by donating funds to existing organizations like Stop AAPI Hate and the Asian American Journalists Association, though it wants to create its own grants and scholarships soon. It also sells “very Asian” branded merchandise, which have become extremely popular. Li says she hopes to soon use the foundation to help AAPI businesses and organizations in Seattle, the city that she still calls home, even though she moved to St. Louis during the pandemic.
Lieu connected with Li on Instagram as the #veryasian movement gained traction, and the two hit it off. Li says she immediately resonated with Subtle Asian Baking because she’s always using Asian ingredients in her cooking, like adding rice cakes to macaroni and cheese, and she loved the supportive nature of the group.
“I’m always adding this subtle Asianness to my life,” Li says. As a transracial adoptee, she also appreciates Lieu’s belief that all Asian Americans “can be subtly Asian and very Asian at the same time.”
Though Subtle Asian Baking is a global network, many of its members live in the Seattle area. Leann Dang, for example, met Lieu in April of last year and baked macarons made in the shape of cute anime characters and animals for the Welcome to Chinatown fundraiser. Dang started baking in May 2020 and quickly built a following on Instagram (which gave her the opportunity to do pop-ups at Seattle-area businesses like Ironsteak in the Chinatown-International District).
Beyond the money raised in these fundraisers, Dang believes they are important for the visibility they bring to the Asian community. “We shouldn’t stay silent,” Dang says. “It’s really important for people to know what we believe in and what’s important to us.” She’ll be participating in this year’s fundraiser too, with details to come on her Instagram. Oh...macarons, a pop-up bakery based in Bothell, is also donating to the cause.
Lieu is baking Japanese and Basque cheesecakes to raise money for the fundraiser with pick-up in the Renton area, while finishing up the touches on her book, Modern Asian Baking, that’s set to be released in June (she’s donating all net proceeds from pre-orders to organizations helping the citizens of Ukraine this month and a portion of preorders after that), and raising her son. She plans to keep working to support AAPI causes and hopes to start partnering with Seattle-area businesses and organizations soon.
“You always want to fight this,” Lieu says. “I don’t want my son to know this kind of hate and racism.”