Personal accounts that claim racist behavior at Swan Oyster Depot are shining a problematic spotlight on this otherwise celebrated San Francisco eatery.
*This article was originally published on August 24, 2021; it has since been removed from its original publisher and moved to Underscore_SF; the content remained unchanged, sans edits made for continuity.
When local designer Tin Dinh treated his then-boyfriend and out-of-town sister, whom he hadn’t seen in over a year since the pandemic began, decided to dine at Swan Oyster Depot— a San Francisco institution famous for its no-frills counter nook that serves raw bar fare — they were all immensely excited to catch up with one another over fresh seafood. The trio waited in line for nearly two hours, eventually snagging a spot atop the long narrow table. What soon transpired after Dinh and company placed their order was, however, far from savory.
In fact, it was downright racist.
“At first, I thought I didn’t hear what I thought I had heard: ‘dim sum, dim sum,’” Dinh tells me over the phone.
In a then-viral Instagram post, Dinh chronicled his alleged racist experience at Swan Oyster Depot in skin-crawling detail, from start to finish. Those situations laid out in that post, as well as in Dinh’s Instagram stories, were appalling.
(For quick synopsis: Dinh writes that he and his sister, after waiting over an hour-and-a-half in the long line outside, were belittled by certain staff members. When they placed an order with one server, another employee, who is described as being one Jimmy Sancimino, approached the party to take their order. The group was then lambasted by Sancimino for apparently not ordering in the correct manner, unbeknownst to them — before Dinh was called a “kid.” Dinh is in his mid-twenties. Later during their service, Dinh and his sister were allegedly called a racial epithet for the confusion and made to feel less than by some on-site staff.)
“I was shocked at what was happening in real-time, but I didn’t know how the restaurant service here worked,” Dinh continued. “I was angry, absolutely. I didn’t want to make a scene and cause an issue for other people dining there. After all, we already waited over an hour to get a seat.”
Everything came to a head when Dinh saw Sancimino walk away and while talking to another server described as being named Erick, “pointed angrily” in their direction and said “dim sum, dim sum.” Dinh’s then-boyfriend is white; Dinh and his sister are Vietnamese. It was slang obviously directed at him and his sister.
‘When you’re confronted with racism like this, you can’t help but understand that you are thought of as below some people, just because you don’t look like them. Language like this is dangerous and leaves scars, whether it was intentionally malicious or not.’
Feeling gaslit and unsure if what he heard was actually uttered, Dinh checked with his sister and then-boyfriend — each of them confirming individually that they heard the same indecency, as well.
Now, let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Dim sum is a delicious, feel-good type of Chinese cuisine that is meant to be enjoyed with friends and family. (I, in fact, once worked at a noodle bar back in Austin, Texas that dabbled in dim sum.) It’s a type of cookery that should be unapologetically enjoyed and celebrated.
But when a person connotes someone’s ethnicity around a specific dish and then proceeds to moniker them by said plate, that’s a racist action. There’s no gray area here; it’s just racist.
When Jimmy Sancimino — one of the Sancimino brothers that co-own Swan Oyster Depot — allegedly called Dinh “dim sum,” he simultaneously undermined his cultural history and cemented his authority above it. Even if the term was used to express something else in service lingo, as Sancimino later defended in the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s still wrong. So fucking wrong.
Ethnic and cultural erasures begin with the use of language, specifically with labelings that separate one cohort of the people from the majority; the use of monikers that denote those community members as less than the dominant social class or ethnicity.
Sancimino, conscious or not, participated in the white male superiority complex that’s continued to morally divide and racially segregate; to dehumanize certain minorities in this country. It’s a dangerous narrative to evoke… one that exists as a common denominator for every genocide in history.
During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen — meaning ‘subhuman’ — describing jews as disease-carrying rodents. The Hutus who initiated the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis ‘cockroaches.’ Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.
Ethnic and cultural erasures begin with the use of language, specifically with labelings that separate one cohort of the people from the majority; and the use of monikers that denote those community members as less than the dominant social class or ethnicity.
This eradication process is historically slow and somewhat soft before it eventually picks up pace and strength — which is why it’s important to address instances like what allegedly happened to Dinh at Swan Oyster Depot, sooner rather than later. But that’s not to underemphasize the sting left by those who are treated in such ways.
“Honestly, I felt like fucking shit after it happened,” Dinh explains to me. “When you’re confronted with racism like this, you can’t help but understand that you are thought of as below some people, just because you don’t look like them. Language like this is dangerous and leaves scars, whether it was intentionally malicious or not.”
After Dinh came out of his alleged racist treatment, the eatery’s Yelp account was frozen, disabling people from leaving their reviews. (It’s unclear if the company, itself, froze the account or if Swan Oyster Depot did it themselves.) Underscore_SF also learned that Swan Oyster Depot’s Instagram account began deleting comments that called the restaurant “racist” and has also disabled IG users from tagging them in posts.
Dinh’s experience is far from alone either, as evident by past Yelp reviews left for Swan Oyster Depot before active users were unable to write reviews of the Anthony Bourdain-visited restaurant. Some reviews date back as far as 2014.
Multiple Yelp users described the restaurant’s treatment of Asian people as overwhelmingly racist; the word “racist,” itself, was put in bold by two users describing their visit to the seafood establishment.
One reviewer recalls a server allegedly saying “Do I look like an interpreter?” after they had asked for clarification on certain menu items; they write that their brother, who dined with them that day, speaks “great English.”
What Dinh and other Asian patrons of Swan Oyster Depot allege shouldn’t be taken lightly or simply glossed over as a bad experience. What’s being described by these diners is outright disdain for Asians — an ethnic population that numbers over at least 307,000 individuals in San Francisco.
These accounts exist in tandem amid growing incidents of racism done to AAPI community members in the Bay Area, fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. If left unheeded without proper accountability being held, episodes like this will only continue in both severity and occurrence; they have the ability to leave people morally, spiritually, and mentally bankrupt after the fact; and these dangerous narratives could well evolve into something more ferocious and pose more of a threat to San Francisco’s Asian communities.
Be anti-racist — in all corners; in all aspects — of your life. Continue speaking truth to bullshit.
Underscore_SF has verified the accuracy of these online and in-person accounts, staff names listed, and accusations described in this article. The explicit use of the described racist language and actions has been deemed “alleged” until explicitly stated differently in court documents or in other legally binding written documentation.
Feature image: Courtesy of Flickr/Williams Lam