Op-ed: The pain and fear of anti-Asian hate crimes hits near home

Shirley and Jimmy Chung, owners of Ms. Chi Cafe in Culver City, California.

Shirley & Jimmy Chung

The pandemic has obviously hit everyone in one way or another. But for my family and me it was especially personal and quite challenging beyond the economic impact.

Since we are an Asian family, the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has heightened our concerns about our safety here in the nation we have called home.

My longtime friend and client Shirley Chung has felt both the economic sting of Covid-19 and the rise in hate crimes against those of Asian heritage that emerged during the pandemic.

Chung, a successful restaurateur and former Bravo Top Chef program winner, and her husband Jimmy own a popular restaurant, Ms. Chi Cafe, in Culver City, California.

In the early months of 2020, when the coronavirus was spreading rapidly, Chung and her husband saw sales drop by more than 50%. They also witnessed vandalism when rumors began to circulate that the coronavirus may have originated from a research laboratory in Wuhan, China.

It certainly didn’t help that some rulers repeatedly referred to the pandemic as “kung flu” and “China virus”. This racist rhetoric was the reason so many people willingly attacked Asians after feeling empowered.

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Suddenly, reports of hate crimes against Asian and Pacific islanders skyrocketed.

My friend Shirley’s restaurant has been repeatedly ravaged with hate graffiti, leading her husband to spend a lot of money on surveillance cameras and other security measures.

In one specific instance, a man stole a large DoorDash grocery order, yelled racist slurs and threatened to harm Jimmy before escaping after a customer called the police.

Of course, perhaps more than any other, the restaurant industry has been devastated by the pandemic.

However, by the end of March 2020, more than half of Chinese restaurants that would otherwise be perfect to thrive in a take-away environment had completely suspended transactions. No other type of restaurant in this group comes close, noted credit card company Womply.

These shutdowns were partly due to the pandemic, of course, but also due to consumer prejudice and inaccuracies regarding the virus. Chinese restaurants have been hit earlier and harder than other establishments.

The Asia-American / Pacific islander communities have felt the economic crisis in other ways as well. Supermarkets and shopping malls in many communities have hired more security guards and taken other measures to protect their customers from hate crimes in their shops and parking lots. And many in these communities were unable to take advantage of the various economic aid programs offered by the federal government.

Peter Ng, CEO of the Los Angeles Chinatown Service Center, said the surge in hate crimes and fears of catching Covid-19 had caused pedestrian traffic to stall in normally busy Chinatown.

He said things had improved a bit lately as officials cracked down on hate crimes and improved access to vaccines. But at least 20% of the community’s restaurants are permanently closed. Their owners, Ng said, “have really had great success. They just gave up.”

Between March 2020 and February 2021, Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 incidents involving anti-Asian American / Pacific islanders nationwide. That number doesn’t even take into account the many unreported attacks or other non-violent racist incidents against Asians.

According to a report from the Los Angeles Police Department, anti-Asian crimes here in Los Angeles (where I live) rose 114% in 2020. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino found this type of hate crime rate rose 169% nationwide, with the most dramatic increases seen in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Organizations like Ng’s are helping community members with anything from reporting hate crimes to helping hundreds of small businesses apply for government assistance to keep them afloat during the pandemic. Anyone who wants to help can contact the organization at CSCla.org.

“Speak if you need help,” said Ng. “Go to your local nonprofit and they will direct you to the right organizations,” whether it be for rent relief, business issues, or help with local or state grant applications.

Above all, Ng says, “Don’t lose hope. I don’t care if you’re Asian, Chinese or Latino, we can point you to the right place.”

For me personally, the aftermath of the pandemic and the rise in hate crimes against Asians and islanders in the Pacific have brought back memories of being bullied as a child.

When I was in elementary school, two students regularly “accidentally” bumped into me and called me “Ching-Chong”. They sang anti-Asian insults to me and said, “Chinese, Japanese, Indian chief.” And would also make oblique eye gestures.

I was focused on break and made fun of almost every day for years because I was shy, calm, and Asian.

For most of elementary school, my teachers told my parents that I was a great student, but that I just didn’t talk a lot.

At the time, I was naive and thought that if I didn’t speak out loud, the bullies would not see me and would just leave me alone.

With anti-Asian hate crimes on the rise, many Asian communities today fear for the safety of their parents, older friends, neighbors and children. They wonder if they will be attacked for going to a grocery store, letting their dog run around the block, or just going to school.

Crimes against Asian seniors have increased at an alarming rate. There is far too much news of Asians being beaten, stabbed, or killed for no other reason than being Asians.

During the pandemic, one of the last routines of normalcy is being able to visit the grocery store and now we encourage our parents to stay home and have the groceries delivered whenever possible. By that point, I have set up a grocery delivery service for my mother, even when she longs to visit the market and shop for herself. She feels trapped and further isolated.

However, the municipalities are taking action. We see groups of all ages and nationalities who stand up in solidarity against hatred. Volunteer groups patrolled mostly Asian senior neighborhoods, and neighbors help other neighbors.

Jacob Azevedo, a Bay Area Hispanic resident, recently posted an offer on Instagram to walk with anyone who felt unsafe in Oakland’s Chinatown area. The job became widespread and in a matter of days had nearly 300 volunteers reaching out to him about the Compassion Project in Oakland.

Turn hate into hope

A rally against anti-Asian hate crimes in New Orleans on April 4, 2021.

Xinhua News Agency | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Increasingly, Asian Americans and their allies are stepping forward to combat hate crime and improve understanding. Anyone can help by helping an AAPI-owned company, fighting hate crimes, and letting community members know they are heard and valued.

A good friend, Jen Louie, founder of Sixth Sense Consulting, turned a racist incident into an opportunity to better understand and accept others. Louie, whose parents immigrated from China, lives with her husband in Fort Bragg, California, where very few other Asian Americans live.

Louie learned from a social media post that a woman had ordered a “Covid cake” from a local bakery for her child’s birthday. It was decorated with a caricature of a “Chinese” in an attempt at humor relating to the coronavirus.

“I had to share my thoughts” about this misguided, racist attempt at humor, Louie told me.

“When I found out the customer who ordered the cake was also an immigrant like me, a mother like me, it hurt even more,” Louie said. “I couldn’t fail to let go of this without expressing the damage this cake can do.”

She reached the mother and the baker through a social media post. Louie said her goal is to educate these people and not to shame or embarrass them.

Louie soon heard from both the customer and the baker, and after several quiet conversations, they said they understood how the intended humor would actually cause pain and expressed regret.

Louie said everyone learned from the experience and found a way to focus on moving the conversation about racism forward.

Louie, who said she would have done the same no matter what group she targeted, believes everyone must do what they can, no matter how small the action, to combat hate and promote understanding for others.

Louie said she was proud to be part of social change.

“Whether my efforts change a handful, just my own budget or part of a movement, I have to do something,” she said.

– By Winnie Sun, Managing Director of Sun Group Wealth Partners

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