Fear and Loathing in Chinatown

Insight from prominent Asian-Americans on the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and what can be done

| 17 May 2021 | 07:59

“Well there’s a white boy and his ching chong girlfriend.”

On a hot afternoon in February, my boyfriend and I were at a plant store in Soho when we heard this, Texan drawl and all, from behind us. We turned to find a middle-aged white man issuing a half-sneer, edging alarmingly close to us, waiting for a response.

“I ain’t no ching chong,” I replied in my best American accent. “I’m Native American.”

Those words immediately disarmed him. He looked down, apologized and went on his way. Rather than risk our safety and lash out at him, seeing my boyfriend’s fists curl up I chose the high road provided by my half-Indian, half-Chinese heritage and heterogenous look. America has always been to me a place of laid back, easy openness, a welcome respite from the in-your-face racism I faced in my home country, Malaysia, and Australia, where I completed my undergraduate degree and worked. But in that moment, that quintessence began to crumble and the discriminatory impact of COVID-19 became evident.

“We have a second virus,” said Wellington Z. Chen at a live Zoom panel discussion organized by Roosevelt House at the Public Policy Institute of Hunter College on May 12. The first Asian-American to serve as a commissioner on the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals, Chen is now executive director of the Chinatown Partnership. Having witnessed an eight-inch knife go into into a young Asian man’s back two months ago, Chen believes that this is history repeating itself.

“Anti-Asian hate has been in the United States for 150 years, for as long as Asians have been in the United States,” asserted discussion moderator Vivian Louie, Director of the Asian American Studies Program & Center at Hunter College. Chris Kwok, adjunct Professor of Asian-American Studies at Hunter, concurred, citing an 1854 California Supreme Court case that ruled the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder committed by a white man was inadmissible.

“The larger import of that was Chinese people have no protection of the law,” Kwok expounded. “They are invisible. They are not counted. And I think [this] legacy is still with us today.”

Yuh-Line Niou, the first Asian-American State Assembly Member representing the 65th district in Lower Manhattan, believes the cyclical effect of stereotypes applied to Asian-Americans fuels this invisibility. “There’s the model minority myth, [which makes it] easy to say “you have enough, you’re doing great, so we don’t have to help you with anything”,” she explained. “With the perpetual foreigner syndrome it’s “well, you’re not one of us so you shouldn’t get anything,””

Niou said then-President Donald Trump’s racializing of the COVID-19 pandemic — like his “Chinese virus” tweet — was the catalyst that set off anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S.. “It was easy for people to digest and regurgitate,” stated Niou, referring to how stereotypes keep the door for racist rhetoric wide open. “It was like hunting season was open on Asian-Americans.”

Plowing the Road Ahead

“This is the beginning of a new era of civic engagement for Asian-Americans,” reflected Kwok on how the Asian community in the U.S. can take action. “At the federal level we recommended that the White House initiative focus on anti-Asian violence, and President Biden has done so.”

Both Kwok and Niou also emphasized the importance of linguistic and cultural competency in dealing with Asian-Americans who don’t speak English fluently. This can take the form of data desegregation and more recourse given to Attorneys General at the state level and police at the city level to focus on the issue. Kwok noted that the NYPD has recently made many strides toward language sensitivity.

Niou says another required policy change is more representation in state legislature. “We have less than about 2% of the state’s representation, when we have more than 13% of the population,” she detailed. And the proof is in the pudding — Niou pointed out that since she was elected, “We passed a budget that included $10 million dollars for our Asian-American organizations to have some funding on the state level. Before I was elected there was zero funding.”

A United Front

“We need non-Asians to step up,” Chen solemnly declared. “What I call 694. All Asians combined are only 6% of this country. We need the other 94 percent’s support in order to survive.” Chen said seeing people from every ethnicity gather at the Columbus Park mass rally in mid-March gave him a sense of gratification, a feeling of “common humanity, our common bond.”

Kwok in turn remarked that he has seen more African Americans in Chinatown in the past two weeks than ever before. Just showing up, in solidarity, is a quiet way to show support for the Chinese community.

After watching the panel discussion, I met my boyfriend for dinner and thought about Chen’s newly launched campaign called Have You Eaten Yet? to bring business back to hundreds of eateries that have shut down in Chinatown. The name of the campaign stems from a Chinese sentiment: when Chinese people meet each other, they don’t say how are you — the greeting is always have you eaten, a way of asking someone if they are okay and if they have food and security.

I turned to my boyfriend and asked, in Hokkien, the Chinese dialect spoken by my dad’s family: “Ciak pa boi?”, which literally translates to have you eaten until you are full. He chortled and delighted in the idea of learning this little nuance of Asian culture that is so endearing.

“Let’s head to Chinatown and have some Malaysian food,” he replied. Tolerance — no, acceptance — is such a wonderful thing.