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Protocol | Fintech

Fighting anti-Asian hate, saving Asian Americans money

"Mulan" actor Jimmy Wong is working with Cheese, a startup digital bank for the Asian American community that's raising money for anti-hate organizations.

Comedian Jimmy Wong is advising Cheese, a startup digital bank for the Asian American community.

Comedian Jimmy Wong is advising Cheese, a startup digital bank for the Asian American community.

Photo: Jimmy Wong

Actor Jimmy Wong and entrepreneur Ken Lian have had different responses to anti-Asian prejudice.

Wong, who starred in "Mulan," is famous for his YouTube videos on the Asian American experience, including one that poked fun at a UCLA student's racist anti-Chinese rant.

Shaken by the wave of anti-Asian violence that hit the U.S. during the pandemic, Lian, whose first daughter was born as the crisis was escalating, bought an air rifle.

"I put it at my bedside," he told Protocol. "It is very sad to say that that thing serves as the last line of defense for my baby girl and my family."

Now, Wong, who grew up in Washington, and Lian, a Chinese immigrant, have joined forces. Lian, CEO and co-founder of Cheese, just launched a digital bank geared to Asian American communities. Cheese is donating part of its profits to nonprofits battling anti-Asian prejudice, and Wong is its chief community ambassador. (Wong is being paid, but he's donating his compensation to the same organizations Cheese is supporting.)

"We want to be the first challenger bank for the Asian communities and immigrants," Lian said. "When we see violence against Asian communities and the small businesses that are immigrant-owned or Asian-owned, we see that we need to step up and provide more support to the community."

Cheese is part of a wave of digital banks that seek to serve specific ethnic and racial communities. The company offers banking services geared to Asian Americans, including immigrants. It also offers a debit card available to those with no credit history, which it is marketing mainly to the owners of shops and restaurants in Asian communities, who are often immigrants and face challenges getting served by mainstream banks.

Cheese also hopes to have a bigger impact beyond financial services at a time when Asian Americans are reeling from a spike in violent attacks. It set up a Giveback Fund which has pledged $100,000 to Asian American nonprofits.

There are traditional banks geared to Asian American communities. One of them, East West Bank, has also spoken out against the violence and has contributed to associated nonprofits.

One of the organizations Cheese is supporting is the Asian Pacific Fund, which seeks to offer assistance to vulnerable Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by providing grants, training and other resources to other Asian community nonprofits.

"It's always great to see someone who has an entrepreneurial sort of spirit and idea that is tied to sort of a social justice element or cause that he's passionate about based on his own personal experience," Audrey Yamamoto, the group's executive director, told Protocol.

That passion is fueled by Lian's worries about the threats Asian Americans face, he said. "We are now 12 months into the pandemic and I still don't feel confident to remove that gun from my bedside," he said in an interview this month. "I still feel like we're not safe." He said that a week before the killing of eight people in Atlanta, including six Asian women.

Protocol spoke to Wong, the Cheese ambassador, a few days after the Atlanta killings. He discussed his decision to work for Cheese and the startup's bid to play a meaningful role in confronting and ending the wave of violence against Asian Americans.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How were you introduced to Cheese and Ken Lian?

A former colleague of mine reached out to me and asked if I'd be interested in working with Cheese and gave me sort of a brief breakdown of what was going on. I met Ken and other members of the team. I got to know a little bit more about the company and his story, and I thought it was a really great fit. I saw a really genuine guy. I was like, "Great, I would love to help. Whatever you all need, let's talk."

I'm the chief community ambassador. That's my official title. I was put on as a representative and a sort of brand influencer. But I told Ken, "Anything you want to pay me I'm just gonna give straight back to your fund," so I'm working completely pro bono.

How did he present the company?

When Ken talked to me about the card originally, he shared his story about being an immigrant to the United States and his struggles in terms of engaging with the traditional banking system.

That was a story I identified with. Both my parents were immigrants as well. My parents are from China. My dad escaped China during the Cultural Revolution, and he immigrated to the United States. Then later he met my mom and she came over as well. My dad brought his whole family over, and now they're all citizens happily working here.

They work with banks a lot now these days. My dad has done a lot of land development in the past and so he's worked with local banks.

There was a need for this. The traditional banking system in a lot of ways doesn't actually give the right services to every single level of income earner in the United States. That was something that really spoke to me, both as someone who at one point was a very broke college student, and someone who has gotten screwed by bad bank fees in the past.

We're having this conversation two days after the tragedy in Atlanta, which underscored ongoing violence against the Asian community. How did that factor into your decision to be part of Cheese?

When I was first approached about Cheese it was when things were not nearly as public or as serious as it got this last week. I've been an advocate for Asian rights — anti-Asian racism has been a huge part of my career. The very first video I did that got me a lot of popularity was a viral music response to a racist a decade ago. So seeing everything sort of ramp up in this last year was something that I was trying to pay attention to and call out. I even wrote another song earlier in 2020 called "The Chinese Virus" in response to that rhetoric.

A lot of people want to contribute. They want to help. It may be in the form of a single donation to a charity that needs it right now. Absolutely fantastic. But when it comes to fixing a problem that is as deep and has been going on for decades in the United States, it's something that needs a little bit more dedication. And seeing as that's been a keystone in my career from the beginning, I'm very happy to find a person like Ken and I'm glad that he found me because it gives me that chance to make a more meaningful impact that isn't just, "Well, here's my tweet and I'll see you later."

How did you react to Ken's story about buying an air rifle because he was afraid for his daughter?

Everyone has a different response to what's happening. The first thing that I often encourage people to do is protect yourself. Take care of you and yours. Ken has a family and his child is young. He's new to this country. He is in a lot of ways someone that could very easily be a target. You hear someone with an accent and it doesn't matter if you even know what kind of Asian they are. That could be enough to set someone off and that I think is a very valid and real fear that so many people have.

When Ken shares with me the fact that he is scared, I think that's remarkable, honestly. I have worked in a number of different settings now and I will say this much: You don't really ever hear men admitting to fear in that sort of way. … I think having Ken be really vulnerable with me, someone he barely knows, was really nice to see and comforting because we share that same fear.

How do you see Cheese evolving as a business?

I want Cheese to succeed. I want people to realize that financial literacy is a huge part of our education that completely gets skipped over in schools. And not being able to know what you're doing with your money or how to use it wisely is a giant problem for so many people, especially now that we're coming out of a pandemic and the quarantine that has destroyed so many businesses and put people in such peril.

Can you go back to what you said about how you got screwed on bank fees when you were in college?

I was convinced by a friend to sign up for a bank [account] and a credit card that had a ton of benefits. You could get miles. You're gonna get these sweet deals exclusive to the bank. And I went into the bank and was sort of taken along for the ride and very excitedly signed on and was told what a great decision I was making. And at a certain point, my bank account ran low because I was a college student, and I didn't have resources to replenish it, and I wasn't really using the card as much as I thought it would. And I woke up months later to see that I just started accumulating all sorts of different fees. And just thinking that, "Hey, if this happened to me and I consider myself an educated person — I sat there and read every single contract, and had done my due diligence to make sure that I wasn't getting into something that I didn't understand — it still happened to me. And I can't imagine how many other people that happens to on a daily basis."

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