#SubtleAsianBaking: There’s Nothing Subtle About This Asian Baking Group
When the hashtag #subtleasiantraits took off in Australia and spread around the world a few years ago, Kat Lieu, like many people in the Asian diaspora, took note of the jokes, memes and stories that made use of it. . She had no idea that just four years later she would have started a social media group and written a cookbook based on her riff on the #SubtleAsianBaking hashtag.
In 2018, she was relatively new to King County, having moved to Renton with her husband the previous year from New York. She worked as a physical therapist for a local school district and was a mom to a preschooler. When COVID hit, her work shifted to Zoom-based appointments. Her son was in kindergarten at the time, so his school also moved to Zoom.
Like so many people, Lieu has been looking for new things to occupy her during the lockdown.
“I’ve always been into baking, and now I had a kitchen I could cook in,” she said. “But I was sick of banana bread.”
Just before the lockdown, Lieu had taken a trip to Japan and enjoyed the bakery delights there.
“But when I came back and the lockdown happened, the bakeries were closed,” she said. “I had to cook the way I wanted to eat. I was longing for flavors like mochi and black sesame seeds.”
She scoured websites and social media, but couldn’t find a group she connected to.
“There was a Subtle Asian page that had a lot of cultural stuff, but baking wasn’t one of them,” so Lieu created a private Facebook group that now has 143,000 members. There are still 66,000 followers on TikTok and 129,000 on Instagram. The three accounts have different content, with the Facebook group packed with recipes and photos from people around the world; Instagram is heavy on reels and reposts content from other accounts (with permission), and TikTok is mostly Place’s own content.
“It’s a lot of me baking colorful cheesecakes and making milk bread,” she said.
His TikTok links to his website Modern Asian Baking – also the title of his upcoming cookbook, which is due to be published by Quarto on June 28. Food styling and photography was done by Renton-based Nicole Soper.
“I was hoping, maybe in the back of my mind, that it would lead to something, but not that it would lead to this,” Lieu said. “I love building things, a blog, a game company. I just didn’t think it would be that big.”
Lieu has used the platform for a variety of fundraising activities. First, members collected donations for the Alzheimer’s Association of Toronto.
“We chose it because one of the moderators worked for the organization,” she said. The group raised $5,000.
Subtle Asian Baking and its members are also very active in in-person and virtual bake sales. From March to May last year, they raised money to benefit Welcome to Chinatown, a New York-based organization that helped various Asian bakeries during the pandemic and bought meals from restaurants in Chinatown that were donated to people in need.
“I chose them because Chinatown was close to my heart, and there was a lot of Asian hatred and hate crimes at the time,” she said. This effort raised $15,000.
Currently, the #VeryAsianFundraiser is running through May and has raised over $10,000.
“Half will go to Heart of Dinner in New York City to provide hot meals to the city’s seniors and the other half to the Very Asian Foundation to help amplify Asian voices.”
Lieu asks the bakers she partners with what they think would be a good place for donations.
“Many are selling pastries for Ukraine, for World Central Kitchen and for UNICEF now too,” she said.
Creating a safe space for Asian voices – although anyone can join the Facebook group or follow on social media – is particularly important now.
“Being an Asian woman who’s visible, who just wants to make blue cheesecake on TikTok, people just go crazy,” Lieu said. “The hate and criticism we see online translates into real life. Is it me? People tell me not to talk about myself, let the food do the talking. When I was promoting my book online , people got angry. I don’t understand why. But I’m not going to shut up about it. I want to get the inheritance back.
Some backlash even comes from his own community.
“They say I’m too loud,” she said. “But I don’t want to be bullied, and I’m going to talk about it and not just focus on happy, colorful cakes.”
Her near future is for the new book, and maybe one or two more, “something with food,” she said. “But my big dream is to create a palliative care community that promotes death on the spot. We don’t talk about death in the Asian community until it’s too late.”
It’s now her full-time gig – she quit being PT last year after suffering the same COVID burnout that affects so many. She’s definitely not in it for the money: selling her cookbook is her only financial gain from her efforts so far. Instagram has not opened its coffers to him yet.
“They’re offering up to $35,000 a month for viral people, but they haven’t opened it up to us,” she said. “We could have used it to raise funds and build the community.”
She doesn’t do a lot of ads or partnerships, but there are other ways to measure success. It reaches 13 million people every month – and that counts for something.
Learn more about #SubtleAsianBaking.
Lisa Jaffe is a freelance writer in Seattle. Check out more of his work here.