Bea Aurelio-Saguin & Christy Innouvong-Thornton, Co-Founders of Tuk Tuk Box: Spreading the Food, History & Beauty of Southeast Asian Cultures
Location: San Diego, California & Bangkok, Thailand
Services: Specialty food retailer business, offering curated Southeast Asian subscription boxes and products
We are excited to have finally connected with Bea and Christy to learn more about their team and business. With their professional backgrounds of giving back to their communities, they are continuing to celebrate and educate others about our Southeast Asian cultures, even during this pandemic. Read more to learn about why you should be supporting Tuk Tuk Box today! - Jas
What are your roles at Tuk Tuk Box?
We, Bea Aurelio-Saguin and Christy Innouvong-Thornton, are the Co-Founders of Tuk Tuk Box. We are all friends and have worked well together over the years. Christy is also one of the founders of the non-profit organization called, "Courageous Kitchen." She is highly involved in refugee-serving organizations. Allison and I used to work at an Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Social Justice Organization- Christy and I started Tuk Tuk Box together. Allison is our Operations Manager.
What made you become interested in having a specialty food retailer business to promote Southeast Asian food?
Bea: Tuk Tuk Box is my “vehicle” of learning about my family’s deep history and diving into my questions growing up, "Who am I? Where is my family from? What did my ancestors eat and experience, and how did they live?"
Through my travels and global health experience, I still found a big gap and question I kept asking, "Why was there a lack of Southeast Asian focus in addressing health disparities? Why weren’t we at the tables being a part of these discussions?" I started volunteering at Courageous Kitchen 4 years ago and never looked back.
Christy: I started Courageous Kitchen nearly 7 years ago with a friend in Bangkok. We currently serve over 400 asylum seeking and refugee families in Thailand and now, San Diego. It started as English lessons in my apartment which eventually led to pop-ups around the city and later, cooking classes. We also led street food, market tours and classes to generate funds for the organization. Through these experiences, we are able to teach supplementary education, as the refugee families have little to no pathway in Thailand. We do this through mentorship, food education, math, English, and basic transferable skills like budgeting and kitchen management.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we could no longer work directly with tourists in Thailand or San Diego. We had to figure out a sustainable way to generate funds for the families we serve and continue to bring education and awareness of our communities. Through my work, I have had the privilege to work alongside many chefs or food entrepreneurs. I have sent out Thai cooking kits and ingredients to people in my network for years, but with the shutdown, my regular clients didn’t have access to the Southeast Asian food they longed for.
Bea suggested that we offer a subscription box model for those who were missing the classes and cuisine; and so, we set to work - building Tuk Tuk Box and connecting all of the pieces: Food, Southeast Asia, and social impact. Not only offering the customers the items they desire, but a nostalgic experience that engages, educates, and gives back.
What is your favorite part of owning your business so far? What are the challenges?
Bea: As I navigated my way through the nuances of being a first generation Southeast Asian American in school, I developed a strong connection and passion for knowing what made my community what it was and finding out how it shaped me. I went to school and studied history, but my community’s history was never told. One of my favorite parts of owning my own business is that we can bridge the gap and teach others about our community in a way that other people have not. We have full reign on everything that we want to share! Through Tuk Tuk Box, we are pushing the question of, "Why aren't we at the table?”
Christy: Everything Bea said and more. Questions of identity were always on my mind, and especially the frustration of not having representation anywhere. In the media, in the culinary industry, in the workplace. I’m tired of being the only one. Tuk Tuk Box is here to show us that Southeast Asians are visible, we’re loud, we’re proud, we’re unapologetic and we’ve got damn good food. We’re not going anywhere. We want you to read our stories, or try a snack and say “Hey, this looks like my mom,” or “My grandpa gave me this candy when I was little!” Not only the stories but the food will hopefully evoke emotion.
The challenges, of course with any new venture, is capital. We’re doing this ourselves, without a silver spoon in our mouth and with our own savings, building everything from the ground up. It’s bootstrapping, as our parents and ancestors did. We’re resilient because we have to be.
Tell us about your products or services!
Our monthly Southeast Snacks subscription box always has something sweet, salty, and spicy. You get to choose your funk level - a Lil Funky, Funky Fresh, and Funkylicious. The latter of which may have new or exciting flavors like mung bean, squid, and durian. We donate a minimum of 10% of subscription sales each month to Courageous Kitchen. If you’re not ready to commit, you can also make a one-time purchase of any of our items.
If you are a subscriber, you’ll have a different theme every month. Each box highlights a particular culture and community. You will find someone's story within that community, as well as snacks to go along with the history of that culture. In December, for instance, our theme was “Traditions of the Mekong” where we highlighted a few small businesses and products that aligned with the theme. We want to celebrate and teach others about cultures that they may not be familiar with.
You will also receive a QR code that will lead you to our website where you can read more about our featured story of the month. We have stories with the chefs, food suppliers, and businesses that we’ve partnered with, as well as some fun items like our Southeast Noods box, which was a collaboration with our friends from Laos Supply. It features 6 packs of instant noodles, a Lao-themed mask, chopsticks, and stickers among other things.
What else would you like for people to know about you and/or your business?
Thank you for your supporting our Southeast Asian woman owned business and believing in our mission. We are grateful for the opportunity to connect and uplift our community.
Additionally, we are always looking for people within our Southeast Asian diaspora who are willing to share their stories, volunteer, or collaborate with us.
If you are a part of a food business, we'd love to share your products.
Please follow our journey at tuktukbox.com, Instagram, and TikTok @tuktukbox.
Thank you to Bea, Christy, and your Tuk Tuk Box Team for the work that you do for our API communities. As a podcast team, we stand by your mission to educate others about our unique, collective stories as Southeast Asians.
On Wednesday evening, we attended a storytelling event that our podcast friend, Randy Kim, hosted with his longtime mentor, Ada Cheng. They created a beautiful space where seven community leaders shared their life passions, stories, and challenges through speech, music, poem, and comics.
The Talk Stories show started in 2017 with the mission of featuring different points of views in our communities and uplifting people from all backgrounds. As Ada shared in the opening statement, "Everyone has a story to share. My work is to encourage others to share their stories." We are moved by the vulnerability that each performer brought with them.
This show was made possible by the following collaborators: The National Cambodian Heritage Museum, Chinese American Museum of Chicago, Japanese American Services Committee, and OCA Greater Chicago.
Some of My Takeaways
Etzkorn Wong: The power of music. Music helps us connect with one another and explains what words cannot. Etzkorn shared a calming, dreamy-like song about believing in yourself, even when you are faced with obstacles along the way. He also shared a piece that he wrote in tears after his sister and his sister's boyfriend dodged a car accident a few weeks ago. We felt such honest emotions and passion.
Rohan Anand: The power of bringing people together. It was inspiring to hear how Ronan rallied together funds and community members to have a slot in Chicago's Pride Parade on June of 2019. We loved his analogy of comparing his time in the parade to his own life: "You're marching forward in your life with... [the right] people and energy. If people are in front of you and not moving, they’re standing in your way. They need to stand beside you or up in front of you to lead the way, or they can get back the other way."
Veronica Murashige: The power of questions. Being a 4th generation mixed Asian-American, Veronica explained the questions that she has received since childhood from the frustrating “What are you?" to "Is she [Veronica's mom] your nanny?" to "Are you adopted?" She reminded us of the importance in understanding all parts of who we are and figuring out how we can move forward in our lives with confidence.
Isabel Garcia-Gonzales: The power of microaggressions. Isabel told a series of stories that happened to her over the years, stories of when she experienced racism and sexism. Growing up in her town of Wisconsin, there were only about 9% of the population who were people of color. Every woman, woman of color, and person of color should find their community where they can feel safe to be themselves and to speak their truth. As Isabel said, "In solidarity."
Sina Sam: The power of seeking closure with our past. Sina gave a heartfelt and melodic poem about her hardships being born as a Khmer refugee child in the Khao I Dang camp between Cambodia and Thailand. We can find healing and unity through reflecting on difficult times and being honest about our true feelings. It was powerful when she said, "We [younger Khmer generations] respond in English because we know our broken tongues sting your heart. Your hearts can’t hold anymore."
Taneka Hye Wol Jennings: The power of family. Taneka spoke on how, as a child, she was adopted by a white family and moved from South Korea to New Jersey, US. Her adoptive family did not always understand the obstacles she went through and how to talk about issues with race/identity, but they made the effort to make her feel loved, heard, and accepted. Family is anyone who truly loves and cares about us - who is there for us no matter what.
Grace Chan McKibben: The power of love. Love has no boundaries, as Grace discussed her story as a Chinese woman falling in love with her African-American husband, Tom. Their path to interracial marriage in 1991 was not easy because Grace's family and community were concerned about the racial and cultural differences. With their determination in making things work, Grace and Tom were able to receive support from Grace's parents.
Grace described, "I am forever grateful to my dad for always being supportive of his children and there’s only one way to pay it back – to be unconditionally supportive of my own children even when I may not completely understand them."
Thank you to Ada and Randy for hosting this event and bringing these amazing individuals together in one night. We are truly inspired by their words and talents, and look forward to supporting your future events!
Kandy Robertson, Founder & CEO of 'Emprəs™ Luxury Brand: A Strong Example of and Advocate for Women Empowerment
Location: New Orleans, LA
Services: Cambodian-Owned Luxury Hair Care
We connected with Kandy through Instagram and we were amazed to find out that she is a one-woman show behind her hair-care brand. During this interview, I could right away feel the confidence and strength that she takes with her everywhere she goes, including when she runs her brand and takes on projects to give back! Read about how Kandy has pursued having her own business on top of having a family and what she looks forward to do in the future.
I am Kandy Robertson, the Founder and CEO of ‘Emprəs™ Luxury Brand. On my team, it is just me, myself, and I.
What drove you towards creating a luxury haircare line with the mission of empowering women?
When I created this business, it was on the basis of creating generational wealth for my family. My parents came to the United States with nothing after they fled the Khmer Rouge genocide. It is important for me to be able to pass something onto my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
The idea of ‘Emprəs™ came from when I was trying different hair-care products to find one that my family and I could all use, as my husband and my kids each have different textured hair. I realized that I wanted to create products that could work for different types of hair - wavy, curly, coarse, straight, coily and very coily. My mission is to have women conquer the world while looking and feeling confident about themselves, one hair strand at a time.
The name ‘Emprəs came from years ago when I was doing a podcast called, "#DatingiKandy." My listeners often called me the Empress, the Asian Queen. My Cambodian last name also means royalty which matches the meaning behind ‘Emprəs™.
Tell us about your products or services!
With my brand, I want you to feel luxurious. Our products are made in the United States and are infused with chia seed oil and baobab protein which repairs and protects your hair from damage. All natural, organic, vegan, cruelty free, and gluten free. It is formulated with special protein blends and antioxidants to help nourish your hair to keep it healthy while styling your hair!
My family is my inspiration, so I wanted to make the products safe for children to use. Our products help promote hair growth because the proteins protect your hair from the pollution and damage that we encounter in our day-to-day lives.
What is your favorite part of owning your business so far? What are the challenges?
My favorite part is the process of creating my own products. I usually try it on myself and then invite my family to try them out as well. I am currently testing our newest hair growth serum. If I get the okay from my family, then it is okay for everyone! I use all of the products that I sell on our website.
The challenge is funding my own business. When you don't have any capital, you have to use your own money. This taught me the importance of being a self-motivator. I was a nurse for 15 years and I used the money that I saved during that time to fund my dreams.
I sought information on how to start my own businesses and picked up skills that I could do by myself. I learned how to be my own marketer, designer for my websites and flyers, basically every role that you can think of. You have to be creative as a small business owner. I don't have the money to hire people on my team and I'd rather use my money towards buying and marketing my products.
What else would you like for people to know about you and/or your business?
I want to encourage people to not give up on the things they want to do. Growing up, it was just my parents, brother and I. I am now married with a bigger family with my husband and six children. They are my whole support system. Even though I have a family, I didn't give up on my dreams. Instead, I include them in my dreams which makes the process much more fun and allows me to get more input.
I enjoyed being a nurse and value giving back to my community. On the side, I am a human rights activist. In the future, I plan to make my own scholarship for single mothers to have the means to chase their dreams. There is a stigma that single mothers cannot achieve their dreams because they are ONLY to raise their kids.
I am always a dreamer and have been through a lot in my life that could serve as valuable lessons for others. I am working on writing a book to share my journey so that others can have a blueprint on pursuing your goals against all odds.
We had a great time connecting with Kandy and we are excited to see what she accomplishes in the future! If you are interested to read Kandy's e-book, "Top 10 Must Have Resources: To help and grow your online business," you can click here to purchase for $9.99!
David & Soko, Co-Founders of Camusa Apparel: A Family Business with a Mission to Support their Big Brother in Cambodia
Location: Mesa, AZ
Service: Cambodian-American themed apparel and products
Through Instagram, we connected with David and learned about his family business, Camusa Apparel (pronounced Ca-musa), to support his brother, Shawn, who was deported from the United States to Cambodia in 2018. In this interview, Mellissa and I had the opportunity to talk with David and his sister, Sandea (Soko) about the meaning behind their brand and mission.
Our Roles at Camusa Apparel
Soko: David is the brains of the operation - he is the promoter, designer, and social media manager. I am not so good with social media, so it’s great that he can take that role on. I am always here for him to offer my advice or if he needs to run anything by me! We also have a group chat with our older brother, Shawn, to throw out any new ideas with each other. We're all the same and work well together. No one is above one another. We get our whole family involved, too, like my daughter, who helps us fulfill the orders and package the products.
David: Shawn came up with the name, "Camusa," and shared it with us siblings. Immediately, we knew it was the right name for our business. The meaning behind "Camusa" represents our parents immigrating from Cambodia to America which influenced how we were raised. We are proud to be Cambodian Americans.
The Significance Behind Our Logo
David: We have a family friend whose girlfriend. Anita, creates artworks and portraits. Anita has designed most of our products. Only the Cambodia Skyline design was purchased from a stock gallery, but all other designs have had a personal touch of being hand-drawn by a local artist.
When our family visited Shawn in Cambodia, all of our siblings decided to get a matching tattoo in Phnom Penh. This tattoo is very meaningful to us. After this trip, we thought, "What if we just use this design for our apparel?" Today, you will see this original logo of the lotus flower and Angkor Wat on some of our products.
Our Brother's Story
David & Soko: Coming from Srok Khmer (Country of Cambodia) to Long Beach, CA, Shawn got into trouble during his teen years but turned his life around in 1999 after being released from jail because the system broke him. People who know him are surprised to learn about him ever committing a crime because he is so well respected. Shawn always tries to look at the positives in every situation. For twenty years, he has kept a clean slate and checked in with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) annually to confirm his employment and that he was in good standing with the law.
With ICE detaining refugees increasingly over the years, Shawn had a strange feeling that he might be impacted, so he told David what to do if something were to ever happen to him. We didn’t think anything would happen though. Shawn always did his taxes and supported causes like running for breast cancer awareness and the Pat Tillman Foundation. He didn’t even have a traffic ticket.
Soko: I am a single mom, and I remember a time when I was short on rent. Shawn gave me money and told me not to worry about paying him back. He has always been a big role model to us and a provider for our parents. One day in 2018, Shawn was doing a regular check-in with immigration and they detained him right away. We tried to fight for him to stay.
As I was driving to work, I declined a call from a number with all zeros but then answered the next call. It was Shawn with his probation officer. My mind was spinning when I picked up his car and didn't see or hear from him for the next 2-3 weeks. We could only track him on a website under his case number. Shawn was held at a detention center for 6 months and then relocated to Texas, where he was unfortunately deported to Cambodia with 40 other Cambodian immigrants.
Our parents fought to escape the Khmer Rouge and have a better life in America, only to have their son go back. We are not the only ones experiencing this pain and heartache with this deportation issue that is separating so many families. Our family had hopes of bringing him home by saving up money, writing to lawyers, opening a case, and doing everything that we could possibly do. We were devastated to break the news to our parents.
David: I’m the closest to Shawn. Our time together is a distant memory. His energy is now different from what it used to be. Reserved, cautious, careful, and scared. You do not want to stand out in Srok Khmer, and he doesn't feel Khmer enough being in Cambodia. Since Shawn is homesick, we do our best to FaceTime whenever we have family events. He is getting by and surviving. There are days when he sits alone in his apartment, and we feel his pain. We've seen stories where people have been pardoned for their crimes. However, his crime was committed in Massachusetts, not in Arizona, which makes it a very complicated and costly process to even attempt to bring him back. We've hit all of the dead-ends.
Everything happens for a reason - my brother is a believer in that. Two years ago, when we visited Cambodia, everything came back in full circle when our dad reunited with his sister. During their escape of the Khmer Rouge Regime, they separated from each other with our dad headed toward Thailand while our aunt headed in the opposite direction toward Cambodia. A positive part of this situation is that Shawn has gotten a chance to connect with our family members who we had never met before.
After Shawn got deported, it was our first time traveling together as a family to visit him. He left with only the clothes on his back, so we brought whatever we could with us. Things that you don’t normally think about until your life is ripped away from you. There were many tears when we reunited.
Our Family Business
David & Soko: The ability to bring him back is slim to none. When Shawn got settled in Cambodia, he took classes to teach English. Our family put together ideas and resources to provide him with the money he needed to survive. During this COVID-19 pandemic, schools closed down as he started to make money as a teacher. Since Shawn is our older brother, he is always frugal and does not like asking for help, even when he needs it. The funds from Camusa Apparel are to support his needs right now (e.g. rent, food). Anything helps.
David: Whether people know our mission or not, they are helping our older brother. We strive to make products that people will love and share our Cambodian American culture with the world. You do not have to be Khmer to buy our products! All different races and cultures are welcome.
Our favorite part of our family business has been seeing people across our nation (Washington, California, Texas, Minnesota) - friends, family, and even complete strangers - wear our brand. One challenge is that we also have full-time jobs. I'm a manager and need to balance my time working on this business and taking care of my wife who is pregnant with our 1st child.
Soko: We produce quality products with light and breathable material. We don't skimp on materials by going with what is cheapest. Our biggest goal is to produce items that feel soft and comfortable for our customers.
David: We want to continue building a brand that has a personal touch and is different from other clothing brands. I am active on our Instagram. If you message us, I will message you back; if you follow us, I will follow you back. We give our love back through likes, shares, and comments. If you ask us a question, we'll be transparent. I even responded to someone before on how much we pay for our shirts. I wanted to start a clothing brand a long time ago but never did. Shawn is the main reason behind Camusa Apparel and our family wants to help him however we can.
David: Shout-out to Rep Cambodia Apparel. Before this pandemic, I wore and loved their clothing line. The Rep Cambodia team messaged and congratulated us as soon as we launched our business. It was all love and support from our Khmer community. Also, another shout-out to Hella Chluy (Phanit Duong), who has his own brand now! We used to hangout in New York together.
David & Soko: We want people to know that we would appreciate anyone interested in supporting our mission to purchase our products. It deeply hurts our Ma and Ba when Shawn left. In the Khmer culture, the oldest sibling in the house usually sticks around to help out financially. We were not sure how successful this business would be but the word has got out much faster than what we initially thought. This has truly been a blessing.
This emotional and powerful interview with David & Soko was eye-opening into the issues of deportation and how it is impacting and separating immigrant families. We were inspired to hear more about their mission and get an in-depth look into the creation of their business. We learned about their big brother’s story and hope to invite them altogether as special guests on our podcast in the near future to learn more about their family’s journey. We had an amazing time getting to meet David & Soko; they are incredibly positive, selfless individuals. Please support their business if you felt moved by their words.
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Open to young adults (ages 20s-40s)
$5 admission fee | Virtual (link provided after registration)
Thanks to a generous anonymous donor, this event is free for current students: click here to register if you are a student.
Never again? We know the power of education. Join the Holocaust Center's Ambassadors for Change as we watch the documentary Faces of Genocide and learn from past injustice, confront present intolerance, and imagine a new future.
Faces of Genocide is a unique short documentary film that features interviews with survivors of genocides from the 20th century to now—from the Armenian genocide to the current Rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The film streaming will be followed by an engaging panel discussion with three local survivors of genocide: Bosnian survivor, Vahidin Memic; Cambodian survivor, Sam Y.; and Holocaust survivor, Peter Metzelaar.
Together, we will learn the importance of taking action, not being a bystander, and demanding change.
*This event is intended for young adults (ages 20s-40s)
This program was made possible by the generous support of Arlene B. Ehrlich.
Thank you to our community partners: