Meet brothers Rick and Ky Cao, owners of Ps & Qs men’s boutique in South Philly who created a “Fight The Virus Not The People” shirt project.
• Pandemic prejudice: “Racism has always been around. Stuff like this has been happening for a long time. But for me, personally, it’s been unbearable to see during COVID-19," said Ky Cao.
• City reps: “The job for anybody in Philadelphia is to represent Philadelphia,” said Rick Cao.
The Cao brothers debated about the shirt for hours.
During their 12 years in the Philly streetwear business, the owners of Ps & Qs men’s boutique on South Street never mixed their personal beliefs with their clothing.
“We never jumped into politics or religion,” said Ky Cao. “We didn’t want to influence people but as Asian Americans we felt it was important to step in at this time and speak about this matter.”
The racism Rick and Ky Cao experienced in the wake of the coronavirus compelled them to create a “Fight The Virus Not The People” shirt project. The message struck a nerve and the shirts sold out, with 25% of the proceeds going to the Philadelphia Suns, a nonprofit youth and sports group in Chinatown.
“At the end of the day, we do sell clothes, we are not a political machine," said Rick Cao. “But we had to speak up. We have a small voice, but we can say, ‘This is wrong.’"
Rick Cao, 39, was born in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, where his parents and two older siblings fled from Vietnam after the war. His dad, who is half Chinese, was forced to leave as the result of anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam at the time, he said.
As the family of five slept together in a twin bed, Cao’s dad decided to try to make a new life for them in Philadelphia.
“He could have gone to Paris, London, anywhere in the world, and he chose Philadelphia because Philadelphia was where it all started in the United States," Rick Cao said.
Ky Cao, 38, is youngest of the Cao family and the first born in America.
As kids, the brothers watched their parents work long, hard hours picking blueberries, waiting tables, and eventually, running their own Chinese takeout in West Philly.
The siblings attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Rick went on to study acting at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City and Ky majored in marketing and international business at Drexel University.
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In 2008, they opened their first streetwear store, Abakus Takeout, in Chinatown. Designed to look like a Chinese takeout restaurant, the store had fake ducks hanging next to sneakers in the front window and T-shirts stuffed into takeout containers.
In 2012, as the brothers got older and the unique brands they carried at the store started appearing in retail chains, they decided to open Ps & Qs on South Street (which they describe as timeless streetwear with a Philly vibe) and close down Abakus Takeout.
“I love South Street because it’s filled with a lot of independent shops. You go in and you’ll probably talk to the owner,” Ky Cao said. “It’s also super random. You can get a cheesesteak and a cheap tattoo.”
The brothers also have other businesses in Philly. Rick Cao opened up Le Viet restaurant in South Philly with their older brother and Ky Cao runs Central Nails salon in Rittenhouse with their sister.
It was at the nail salon where racists first reared their ugly heads in the wake of the coronavirus, the brothers said.
“We started to notice a lot of our employees were getting harassed before the lockdown,” Ky Cao said. “People were saying ‘Oh, they have the coronavirus!’ or they’d pretend to speak Chinese.”
As a result, they closed the nail shop a week before the stay-at-home order went into effect, for the safety of their workers.
“The virus enhanced some of the stereotypes and xenophobia against Asian Americans,” Rick Cao said.
As the brothers heard reports about assaults against Asian Americans in Philadelphia and across the nation, they decided to create their “Fight The Virus Not the People” shirt and give a portion of the proceeds to the Philadelphia Suns, a group which helped Ky Cao learn about Asian culture in his youth.
“We felt like it was the right thing to do, to use our platform to help spread this message,” Ky Cao said.
As with many small-business owners, the Caos have struggled during the stay-at-home orders, especially since they were always a storefront operation first. While their store was not damaged in the looting across the city last weekend, they’ve taken everything out as a precaution.
On Saturday, Ky Cao participated in protests in Philadelphia to demand justice for the killing of George Floyd.
“It was peaceful. It was collective. It was such a beautiful protest," he said. “But afterwards it turned to something else."
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The Cao brothers aren’t sure when they’ll be able to reopen, but when they do they’ve pledged to commit the first rack in their store to only Philly brands, because now, more than ever, they believe in the value of supporting local businesses — and people.
“For us to be strong we need our community to be strong, too, that’s why we want to carry more Philly brands,” Ky Cao said. “We’re trying to build in Philly, but at the same time, we need to be building with Philly.”