Asian small business owner accuses Trinity Bellwoods Flea Market organizer of bullying and covert racism

Local artist and entrepreneur says Flea organizer doubled down on spelling mistake, attributing it to the 'obscurity' of her Vietnamese name
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On March 21, local artist and entrepreneur Aimi Tran posted a video on her Instagram page detailing the hostile interactions she had with the organizer of the Trinity Bellwoods Flea Market. Tran claimed that the organizer eventually banned her from future events and even threatened Tran’s prospects as an art vendor in Toronto.

The flea market in question has suspended operations until further notice, blogTO reported. The Great Hall, the venue in which the market operates, told the Toronto Star that it will terminate relationships with the organizer in wake of the bullying allegations.

In the video that had amassed nearly 90 thousand views, Tran said that one of the flea staff members misspelled her name in the promotional material. The organizer, however, refused to correct it and attributed the error to the “obscurity” of her Vietnamese name, Mi. She also provided screenshots of the text message and email correspondences she had with the organizer.

“I was silenced and kicked out of a local market because this person couldn’t fix one little typo that had one extra letter,” Tran said in the Instagram video. “And [blamed] me for my Vietnamese name.”

Tran is the illustrator and calligraphist behind inkbymi, an independent paper stationery brand she founded in August 2019, where she sells greeting cards featuring whimsical drawings and puns.

On two occasions, she said, the organizer had Americanized the spelling of Tran’s business name and altered it to “inkbyami.” Both times, Tran contacted the organizer directly and asked them to correct what she believed was a typo or an autocorrection. The first occasion, the organizer ignored her request and on the second, “Their decision was to revoke me from the market,” Tran said.

When she asked the organizer to amend it, they took her request as a personal affront and subsequently forbid her from the market indefinitely, Tran recalled in the video. Over the phone, the organizer said that they were “not responsible” for any autocorrections for her “unusual and obscure” name. This act of covert racism — racial discrimination that is subtle in nature and denies BIPOC folks access to resources or societal privileges — has enraged members of the East Asian community.

‘This is my Vietnamese name, and I’m not trying to be picky, I just want it to be spelled correctly so it can be accessible to prospective customers’,” Tran told the organizer over the phone.

Aimi Tran’s message to flea organizer, Felicia Laplume, after first instance of misspelling in September 2019, followed by Tran’s second request for spelling correction in December 2019.(PHOTO: Courtesy of Aimi Tran on Instagram)
 
Laplume’s response to Tran’s message. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Aimi Tran on Instagram)
 

While Tran herself did not disclose the name of the offending market in the video exposé, according to CityNews, independent merchants who had similar encounters with the organizer identified her as Felicia Laplume.

In the video, Tran recalled Laplume speaking to her with such hostility on the phone that she broke down in tears.

“I was crying in silence,” Tran said. “It hurt to hear something like that over the phone from a stranger I had never met before.”

Following the phone conversation, Laplume messaged Tran again, promising that their exchange would hamper her success as an entrepreneurial artisan in the city.

“This will absolutely, 100 percent, affect your opportunities as a small business owner in anything related to my market and local markets and events moving forward,” Laplume wrote.

Tran said the organizer blocked her shortly thereafter.

The artist said she had toiled for weeks in preparation for her vendor opportunity – cutting cards, packing her products, energized by the excitement of her market debut. “And she just took it away from me,” Tran said about being ejected from the event.

“I was heartbroken,” she said. “I bawled my eyes out. I had no idea what I did wrong. I felt like a failure.”

As her business was still in its infancy – then just four months old – Tran said that she was crestfallen after her interaction with Laplume and even considered quitting the endeavor altogether.

The exchange occurred in September 2019, something that “still bothers me to this day,” Tran said in the 14-minute video. She revealed that she was reluctant to come forward about the incident but the recent discourse on anti-Asian hate had emboldened her to share her “experience as a female, Asian small business owner.”

“If I had a more normal or more generic spelling name, would not have happened? Would I have been treated differently?” she said in the video.

#StopAsianHate, one of Tran’s stickers on inkbymi, which plants a tree for every ten orders (PHOTO: Courtesy of inkbymi on Etsy)
 

Laplume, however, has denied what she called “baseless allegations” levelled by Tran and told CityNews that the flea is willing to defend itself, adding that the Trinity Bellwoods Flea is “seriously committed to diversity and inclusion”.

“We confirm, for the record that Ms. Tran’s allegations are patently false and have no basis in fact,” Laplume wrote to CityNews. “We deeply regret that this individual has resorted to attacking a beloved local market that is known for its unwavering support of small business and the community.”

According to the Star, Laplume facilitates three other markets along with the Trinity Bellwoods Flea, including Eco Lifestyle Market, Team Toronto Etsy Sellers Market, and the Bloor West Flea Market. All four are held at The Great Hall at Queen Street W and Dovercourt Road.

“Behaviour like this is inexcusable and has no place in our venue or community,” Mark Foster, The Great Hall’s director told the Star.

The Trinity Bellwoods Flea is held at historic The Great Hall, built in 1889 (PHOTO: Courtesy of Torific)
 

In the Instagram video, Tran alleged that Laplume is cognizant of what she is doing, fully aware of the power and authority she enjoys in her position.

Other artisans have corroborated Tran’s claims by sharing similar bullying experiences. Those who spoke to the Star said that budding vendors who have received threats from Laplume do not speak out, out of fear for the social capital and influence she wields on the local market scene.

Jack Shinton and their partner, Sica Saccone used to volunteer for Laplume at the Trinity Bellwoods Flea in exchange for vendor space for their shared business, Nurtured Sew Naturally, which offers natural laundry detergent, wool dryer balls, among other eco-conscious laundry products.

Shinton, who is trans, told the Star that they have experienced transphobic comments from Laplume, including misgendering and addressing them by their deadname despite repeated requests for Laplume to stop doing so.

“I looked more and more trans every time she saw me and she wasn’t dealing with that very well,” Shinton said.

As a result of the apparent gaslighting by Laplume, Tran revealed that she blamed herself that she was at fault. “I thought that I deserved this. I convinced myself that what I did was actually wrong.”

On March 26, five days after she posted the initial video, Tran thanked her sympathizers in an Instagram post, expressing gratitude for the outpour of community support as well as fellow artisans who validated her experience with Laplume.

“The amount of support I’ve received has been unreal and I genuinely have no words to describe how grateful I am for all of you,” she wrote.

“Thank you to every single person who gave me a thought, like, comment, share, and lovely messages. I never would’ve expected that little me could do such a thing. But I’m proud that I did.”

Wiki Production Code: A0752

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