Rutgers Alumnus, London-Based Chef Reflects on Foundational Experiences at the Asian American Cultural Center

Laurence Louie, an alumnus of Rutgers University (Class of 2009), is a chef currently residing in London with plans to soon open his own restaurant in just outside of Boston in Quincy, MA. During his time as a Scarlet Knight, Louie was a fierce advocate for the Asian American community and highly involved in the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC). Now, in a time of heightened racial violence and national unrest, he reflects on his foundational experiences at the AACC and how they influenced his current and future endeavors in championing change:  

Louie posing with noodle bowl, 2021.

I’m sitting in my London flat, on my day off from the restaurant, reflecting on the current state of anti-Asian violence in the US. I’ve always been apprehensive as an Asian guy in a White supremacist society, but while this violence is far from new, this moment in our history feels different. My thoughts bring me back to the AACC at Rutgers University. 

It was the first semester of the 2007-08 academic year that I had read enough articles, watched enough documentaries, and listened to enough conscious hip hop to be selfproclaimed “woke.” My cousin, at the time, was studying at Stanford University where he was arrested for civil disobedience on campus fighting against sweatshopproduced campus merch and I couldn’t help but think to myself: what the hell was I doing with my life? What was I contributing to this world? Still having few answers to these big questions, there seemed to be only one concrete action I could take in that moment.  

I stepped into the AACC when it was still just a bit more than a box on the margins of Livingston Campus. I knocked on the door of Ji Lee’s office and she kindly invited me to sit down for a conversation. I broke out into a rant about how we need more politically driven activity from the Asian American community and how in a school boasting a population of 25% Asian students, I can’t be the only kid with this energy. Ji sat there calmly listening with a slight smile on her face. She told me to come to a meeting the following week where she had assembled a crew of student leaders in an effort to fight for Asian American Studies. I was rendered speechless, my eyes locked on Ji —

Louie at Brower Commons for Asian American Studies rally, 2008.

I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. We found students sharing that same activist drive. We fought for Asian American Studies. We organized rallies. We started the first Asian American newspaper on campus. We had open mic nights. We hosted a huge Asian American student conference. We did it all out of that space, the AACC. It was a space where we all came together, activist groups, cultural groups, fraternities and sororities, dance crews, gaming groups, everyone. For the remainder of my college experience, this was the deepest sense of community I had ever felt. 

Laurence AACC

Louie, at the Asian American Cultural Center, 2008.

From there, I graduated and started working at a grassroots community organization called the Chinese Progressive Association where I ran the youth program. We fought for tenant rights, worker rights, voter empowerment, transit justice, and whatever Boston Chinatown needed. I became the president of the Asian American Resource Workshop. I coordinated the Boston Asian American Student Intercollegiate Conference. I became a trainer for the Activist Training Institute. I spent every waking hour trying to become a social justice super warrior.  

It was great, but it was also incredibly exhausting. Working day to day in an uphill battle against injustices from all corners is not easy and it certainly takes a toll on you. But how do you just put it down and walk away? Til this day, I don’t have an answer to that, but I also don’t think it’s as simple as working as either being an activist or not. In my third-decade of life wisdom, I’ve realized it’s not just about what you do, but how you do it. What are your values? How do you fulfill those values in your everyday life? What are the impacts of those values on your family, social, or professional life? These are some of the most important questions I’ve ever posed to myself. 

Louie in an Immigrants’ Rights March, Boston Chinatown. 

After my work in the Chinatown community, I spent a year in China where I was able to reflect on those exact questions and it led me to food. For me, food was always the gathering point for the most important moments in life and, naturally, my love for consuming food turned into a love for cooking food. I started on this path as a chef not knowing where it would lead me, but the longer I’ve been on it, the more I find myself gravitating towards those values I held in my activist work. Good wages, healthy kitchen culture, strong community relationships, and sustainable agriculture are all things I’m unwilling to compromise in as I start my own restaurant. I find that those values aren’t determined by my job, but quite the opposite. What you do is defined by what you hold dearest to you and you find ways to build it into every fabric of what you do.  

So how does a thirty some year old chef end up writing a piece about the AACC? In the midst of a global pandemic, racial justice is at the forefront of national conversation with Black Lives Matter. White supremacy is exposed for what it is: police brutality, raids on the capital, mass shootings, broad daylight attacks on Asian elders, and so much more. With all that, we see communities mobilizing in ways and in numbers that we have yet to see in this generation’s lifetime and moving things in our institutions and our culture in real ways. So as the public responds to lockdowns and a new highly restrictive lifestyle with anti-Asian hate and violence, I find myself asking myself the same questions as I had in China again and I’m finding ways to continue fighting through whatever platforms I have access to.

These are heavy questions that many of us are facing as it becomes more and more difficult to simply be apathetic. No one will have all the answers, but if you’re like me, and you find yourself wandering around Livingston campus looking for something meaningful, the AACC seems as good as any place to start.  

Louie_Prep

Louie, head chef of Oklava in London.

The AACC building on Livingston Campus.

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Carlee S. (editor) is a Rutgers University–New Brunswick graduate student pursuing a MA in communication and media. She has been a marketing intern in addition to being a resident assistant with residence life since 2018. She is anticipating graduation in May 2021. Her interests include really good coffee and photography.