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XCJ Founders' Statement

Looking Inwards: Navigating the AAPI Landscape

Hi there 👋🏻 Jen & Caleb here — we’re two of the founders behind Xiao Chi Jie (小吃街). We know we haven’t been the best with introducing ourselves. Growing up as 2nd generation Chinese Americans, we were always taught to lead with our actions, which is why we’ve been mainly behind the scenes, heads down focused on our product and customer experience. Talking about ourselves, choosing to be in a spotlight, and making a statement doesn’t feel the most natural to either of us. However, as we introspect we have realized that we care greatly about empowering our community to show up in any way they feel comfortable. We hope that XCJ’s story can help others who are going through their own journey of exploring self identity and perhaps spark something to go pursue any future they dream of..


We’ve been taking some time to pause and reflect on what it really means to be an Asian American owned and led business. We thought it appropriate to show all of you who we are, how we got here, and our hopes of leaving a legacy about Chinese food. So for the first time since XCJ opened its doors in 2018, we want to lead with our identities first, as two Chinese American entrepreneurs who are in love with our family heritage, our food, and each other. We hope sharing our stories will encourage other Asian Americans to show up as they are.


Here Goes!


This is us! These photos were taken on our wedding day. We first met on the ski slopes, where Jen technically made the first move. We slogged through 4 years of bi-coastal long distance, and here we are full circle back on the ski slopes, married. We found connection through our love of winter sports, nerdy jokes, and good/bad decision making, like starting a business together while dating... read on for more about each of us!


Jen Liao - Founder



Hi everyone! Jen Liao here, I’m one of the founders of XCJ alongside my husband Caleb (but boyfriend back when this all started…).


As a child, I moved around a lot. I was born in Dallas and spent time living in Palo Alto, Rhode Island, Boston, and Seattle — all before I even started the 3rd grade. My mom worked full-time as a research scientist; and my father was a Chinese medical student who came to the states through a scholarship to pursue a PhD and a post-doctorate.


My hybrid nature of being Chinese American has been apparent to me my entire life. I remember being bullied for being Chinese as a child, asking my mom, “I thought I was American — why is everyone saying I’m Chinese and not American?” My first lunchbox moment happened in the 3rd grade. Like so many other immigrant Asian American children, I desperately wanted to assimilate into the sea of white bread and floppy cheese pizzas. I felt the only way to do so was to publicly renounce the “weird” lunch my mom had cooked for me by throwing it into the cafeteria trash bin. When I returned home that day, I remember telling my mom that my homemade lunch tasted great that day so I devoured it all. In response, she looked into my empty lunch box and examined my unused metal spoon — this was the same day I learned I was horrible at telling lies, and also the last day my mom cooked me lunch.


As I grew older, I learned to appreciate the rich history of my Chinese heritage and embrace the duality of being Chinese American. Contrary to the stereotypes of Asian parents preventing their children from exploring the arts, my parents encouraged me to do what I love ( long as my academics were in tip-top shape). I grew up immersed in extracurricular activities like ice-skating, piano, and ballet; one of my favorites was Chinese traditional dance. Through my dance troupe I began to comprehend the true vastness and diversity of Chinese culture; we practiced variations of dances from many ethnic minorities, such as Dai. The energy and rapport I felt with being part of that community has stuck with me, even after I left to study on the East coast -- I even penned a college paper about how Chinese dance had shaped what I wanted for myself. 


Looking back, it was probably unsurprising to my parents that I would eventually carve out my own path in an industry unfamiliar to them. I had always been a bit of a stubborn, independent type, and once I had settled on XCJ as the next step in both my entrepreneurial and self-reflection journey, they knew I would be unwavering in my decision. Although many had warned me that starting a business in the food industry, especially restaurants, is volatile (and later on Caleb’s family would share with me more of their own first-hand experience), the minute that XCJ’s chef, Brian, had come back from Shanghai with his first batch of sheng jian bao prototypes I knew I was 100% in -- and my family knew there would be no stopping me. Since the beginning, they have been our most avid fans and also our toughest taste testers.


Caleb Wang - Founder



Hey everybody — this is Caleb Wang! I co-founded XCJ with Jen 3 years ago and it’s the second best decision I’ve ever made (the first being, my proposal to Jen.)


For me, XCJ has been an avenue to explore a different side of myself outside my career in finance. Food is, and has always been, my love language and the anchor to almost all my important memories. (A particular favorite is negotiating with my grandpa to order extra sheng jian bao for me at our favorite Shanghai shop during his morning stroll.) Even throughout my childhood, food was the industry that supported my family in their transition from China to the States. My father, an artist and landscaper back in China, worked at Panda Express to make ends meet, before attempting to start a French bakery (this quickly failed, but left me with fuzzy memories of sleeping in a cupboard while my mother baked pastries at 5am before her full-time job). In my teens, my family managed a small group of Mrs. Fields franchises and I spent my summers wafting in the scent of chocolate chip cookies.

Despite the deep presence of food in my life, I knew to pursue a path in finance before I even entered college. To my family, assimilation and stability were paramount. Teaching my brother and I to learn more about our (fascinating) family roots took a back seat to ensuring that we focused on education and securing a good job. It wasn’t until my late 20s, when I began to feel more secure in my career, I began asking some questions about who I was and of my family’s lineage in Shanghai. I knew that my family had been involved in art and culture, but I had no idea just how rich this backstory truly was. 

I learned my grandma (Jin Qifen) was a cinematographer in China, best known for her work on Hibiscus Town (芙蓉镇), a screen adaption of a novel about young woman living through the Cultural Revolution. Her film won China’s Golden Rooster Award & the Hundred Flowers Award in 1987.

1986 original film poster
    of Hibiscus Town

My great-grandfather was a landscape artist, a disciple under three of the four landscape grandmasters: Zhang Daqian, Huang Binhong and Zheng Wuchang. He dedicated his life to painting and through the hardships he faced, developed a distinctively moody, weighty character to his work. (There is a Netflix-worthy story about his paintings being repeatedly destroyed over decades, including a scene where he barricaded himself in a bathroom and drowned all his paintings to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands, that I’ll save for a different day.)


Scroll depicting dark mountains by,
Chinese landscape artist 
Wang Kangle (1907 - 2006)


My great-grandfather’s perspective towards preserving culture was then embedded in my father who has spent the majority of his life collecting and preserving a niche of art: seals. He’s spent years tracking down the provenance of seals, writing down their stories, and publishing them in books to canonize their legacy. Although no one cared about my father’s collection for over thirty years while he toiled away in the U.S., his important archival of seals has finally been recognized and he has since moved back to China to continue his work.


Two books written on Qibaishi’s seal collection

Knowing all this, I began to think about ways I wanted to contribute to the preservation and celebration of Chinese culture -- which naturally brought me back to food. Selfishly, joining Jen in bringing XCJ to life was a way for me to spend large swaths of my time “researching” (aka eating) the best-in-class versions of my favorite dishes. But it was also a way for me to add value with my non-food background: finding realistic ways to replicate the crisp, cast-iron-browned bottoms of the perfect sheng jian bao, for example, included tracking down specialty cast-iron pans from Shanghai and building kitchen protocols to maximize the number of fresh batches of SJB per day. Puzzling over precisely how to drop just-made xiao long bao into liquid nitrogen so it would be frozen at its peak freshness; or reducing the storage time of frozen dumplings at our warehouses so customers didn’t receive any that are more than a week old have also been similarly rewarding challenges.


XCJ has been the first project that I have worked on where there has been a strong mission behind everything we do. Even with the ups and downs and running a small business (and during COVID, no less), I continue to be motivated by the dedication of everyone around me. I suppose you could say it’s in my genes to be doing this work -- if I’ve learned anything from my ancestors, it is that no craft can be honed without perseverance. Even when others don’t notice the details, or perhaps don’t see the importance of the work, to still keep at it because every step in the process matters.


The Reason Why We Started XCJ



For both of us, launching XCJ was our way of connecting with our family’s history and serves as a reminder that the Chinese identity is constantly evolving. It is on us and our communities to create new, multidimensional representations of what it means to be our own brand of Asian American and create a cuisine that deserves a place in the American food ecosystem. We hope that XCJ’s story can also help others who are going through their own journey of exploring self identity.


What started out as just a small food project has turned into both a personal and professional journey we never could’ve imagined. From learning the minutiae of daily frozen logistics, to making sure each customer has a delightful experience while scaling, to reading all customer emails and incorporating feedback into our product releases, there’s been just as many failures as there have been successes.


But as our fellow food entrepreneurs understand, XCJ is where our hearts are; just like our parents and grandparents who have persevered through so much hardship and disappointment, we know we have to fight for what we love. This little piece of Chinese America is our way of showing our friends, family, and the vast Asian American diaspora that there is a definitive place for us here in the States.


Fred August 10 2021

Jen & Caleb – thank you so much for sharing your stories. I too am a 2nd-generation Chinese that grew up in the Bay Area and I really resonate with the stories that you shared about growing up in the US and striving to assimilate, but still wanting to hold on to elements of my Chinese heritage (especially Chinese food!). It was especially a challenge for our generation where being different was not at all celebrated; it feels like our society has made such progress on that issue over the last few decades, and I hope that future immigrant families can hold on more tightly to their cultural backgrounds as I wish I had. It’s important to share these stories as it’s such an important part of the American fabric and I’m glad you’re giving voice to that aspect.

Our three children have become connoisseurs of Chinese food as a small part of embracing their Chinese heritage more fully and freely than I ever did, and we love your dumplings! Despite having a plethora of different Chinese restaurants, we just don’t feel like Chinese food has kept up with the progress you see in so many cuisines, and so we are so happy to see such wonderful Chinese food being produced by new restaurant entrepreneurs like yourselves. Keep up the great work and wishing you great success in your business!

Carol G. August 7 2021

Thank you so very much for this narrative – beautifully written and I love your love! I am not Chinese but because of my work in cancer prevention and early detection I have spent an aggregate of several years in China over many trips, mostly of weeks or more in rural or urban field stations across the country, and (besides paying attention to the important tasks at hand!) paying particular attention to the diverse and marvelous foods across provinces and local areas. Which brings me to thanking you for your lovely dumplings and sauces. I haven’t been back to China in some years now, but your food is so genuine and reminds me of what became my second home.

Mark Fei August 7 2021

Hi Jen & Caleb, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about your stories and gaining more insight into the inspiration and history, as it were, behind XCJ. Just last night my wife and I enjoyed yet another delicious batch of your delicious dumplings from our freezer, and hope to continue to do so for a long time to come. We’ll be happy with Xiaolongbao forever, but also look forward to whatever other creative wonders you may develop in your kitchens! 😀

Marlyn Chu August 7 2021

Love it! Thanks so much for sharing your stories. I’ve always loved your dumplings but seeing the people behind the delicious food makes me want to support you even more. I love how many 2nd gen+ are involved in the Seattle food scene and flipping it on its head. Owning a restaurant isn’t just for immigrants making their way- it’s also for the kids who are at the intersection of their asian heritage and american culture/upbringing. All those influences just make traditional food better. Representation matters! You’re an inspiration to us all.

Jo Brosius August 7 2021

Your stories have made me want my dumplings even more, because now it’s like having a meal prepared by friends. I wish you every success! I can’t wait to receive my first order.

Rodger Kessler August 7 2021

Hello from Vermont. I am so pleased to have discovered you folks. The soup dumplings are superb, but more importantly, I am please to support an Asian American. Family in these times. I hope to meet you when I soon move to. Northern Washington.

M.A. Rothman August 7 2021

我希望你的生意好运。 你的小笼包太棒了,谢谢你创造了一个鸡肉版本。 我迫不及待想试试。

Susie August 6 2021

Hello! I am a couple generations removed from Jen, but reading about your bullying experience in grade school, I was taken back in time. I, too, was bullied and teased about my ethnicity while growing up. My mom wanted us to “be American” (and we were half American), so she made American lunches for us and she chose not to teach us Mandarin. I love that you both have embraced your heritage and are living a life you love! I look forward to ordering your wonderful looking dumplings in the future!

Kitren Glozer August 6 2021

Thanks to both you and Jen for sharing your stories, passion for your cultures (Chinese and Asian American) and your food. I can’t wait to try it for myself as a life-long lover of Chinese (American) food, especially dim sum. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I could never get enough!

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