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The owner of a Hong Kong-style restaurant in Richmond Hill, Ont., says she has been thrust into the middle of the continuing fight over the semi-autonomous territory after her eatery was vandalized with spray paint.

Wyman Chan, who owns the Pepper Wok, says she has received online death threats following complaints about a sign she posted on the front door of the restaurant asking customers to wear a mask to “prevent an unidentified virus pneumonia in Wuhan,” referring to the Chinese city where the pandemic started.

Ms. Chan said she noticed on Dec. 7 a large number of negative reviews about her eatery had been posted online by people who are originally from mainland China. Those making the posts said they were offended by the restaurant’s poster and complained about being discriminated against by the eatery’s staff.

Pepper Wok soon drew backlash on Chinese-language websites in Canada. On the website, besides the anger and frustration towards the sign, some users have encouraged each other to leave negative reviews about the restaurant to ruin its reputation and to make fake orders. Some described the restaurant as a supporter of Hong Kong independence. There were also online conversations suggesting reporting the store and the incident to the Chinese embassy.

It prompted Yelp to issue an alert on Pepper Wok’s page warning that some people were posting views about the news. Yelp temporarily disabled posts about Pepper Wok.

Ms. Chan, a Canadian resident originally from Hong Kong, said she believes the attacks on her and her restaurant are more about her support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Inside her store, many customers left cards and stickers demonstrating support for the protests.

“The complaint about the word Wuhan is probably just an excuse for these people to attack the restaurant,” Ms. Chan said Tuesday through a translator.

York Regional Police issued a statement Tuesday appealing for witnesses after the store was vandalized. Police confirmed the restaurant had posted a sign referencing the pandemic, though the sign has since been removed. The force said hate crimes in any form are not tolerated.

“Those who victimize individuals based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or mental or physical disability will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” the police stated.

To counter the harassment, Ms. Chan reached out members in Canada’s Hong Kong community. Since then, many Canadians with ties to the city have been supporting her business by ordering food and leaving positive comments.

Consequently, most recent Google reviews about the eatery have been extremely polarized. Many patrons left one-star reviews, criticizing the food and service, while the rest gave five stars, praising and strongly recommending the eatery.

Gloria Fung, a pro-Hong Kong activist who has been supporting Ms. Chan, said police have told them the wording of the poster didn’t constitute violation of any human-rights law but advised its removal.

The police didn’t respond to a request for further comment on the matter.

Ms. Fung said the harassment Ms. Chan has received reflects the escalated “intimidation and harassment campaign orchestrated by the pro-Beijing camp to silence Canadians showing sympathy towards the democracy movement in Hong Kong.”

But Ian Wei, who is originally from Wuhan, China, and now resides in the Greater Toronto Area, said the restaurant’s reference linking the coronavirus to Wuhan is deeply hurtful. Mr. Wei is demanding an apology from the Pepper Wok.

“We believe if people were … sick and in [a] bad situation, they should not be treated [with] regional/racial discrimination. Nobody should be encouraged to do such inhuman behaviour, especially in Canada,” he wrote in an e-mail.

North York resident Stewart Xu said he previously taped a letter to the door of the restaurant before the vandalism occurred, alleging customers who spoke Mandarin were treated differently than Cantonese speakers. He acknowledged he has not dined at the eatery, but said he was unhappy after reading in reviews of the restaurant that immigrants from mainland China had complained of discrimination.

He said the restaurant is intentionally connecting this incident with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Both Mr. Wei and Mr. Xu said they strongly disagree with any form of vandalism.

Ms. Fung said the wording of the sign is not meant to be a racial slur targeting mainland Chinese people. However, she added that to silence dissident voices, the Chinese Communist Party tries to equate criticism of the party with an attack on the Chinese people.

Ms. Chan said she and her staff made no discriminatory remarks to any customer because of their origins. She said she is “gravely concerned” about the security of herself, her staff and her family.

She said this kind of “well-organized, unlawful and violent remarks as well as behaviour” should not have happened in Canada.

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