It began with Kelly Yang’s three children, who started fielding questions about whether they had COVID-19 because they’re Chinese. Coronavirus tag ensued, and her son was somehow always “it.”
Then Yang, an author who moved to the U.S. from China at age 6, taught a free online writing class for teens. One student called her a Chinese virus in the middle of the session.
But the most upsetting incident occurred last spring, at a grassy park near her former East Bay home. A woman charged toward her, angry that Yang’s labradoodle wasn’t on a leash. “There are signs everywhere. Can you read?” the woman said, and used a racial slur.
Yang froze and apologized. The woman, who wasn’t wearing a mask, moved within 6 feet of Yang’s family. Her companion told Yang to go back to where she came from. Yang took out her phone to start filming them, and the couple walked away. She was left shaking. Her son burst into tears.
“It’s an in-your-face blatant reminder, ‘No, we don’t accept you, you’re an outsider no matter what you’ve done,’” Yang said. “That’s the thing that’s really hurtful.”
After posting about the encounter on social media, Yang experienced a flood of support, but also saw hurtful comments: People told her discrimination against Asian Americans doesn’t exist, that she made it all up. It took months for her to return to that park. Almost a year later, she still thinks about the incident.
“Even if it’s not violent, it wipes away hours, days, weeks of your life that you’re spending devoted to this useless task of trying to figure out why this happened to you,” she said.
Her confrontations with anti-Asian racism occurred in a time and a place that were supposed to be beyond such things. But a string of recent attacks targeting people of Asian descent in the Bay Area have put a simmering problem in stark relief, prompting more than 10,000 people, for instance, to sign an online petition calling on San Francisco Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Chesa Boudin to step down for failing to stop violence against Asians.
The problem and the outcry aren’t new.
“Whenever there has been a public health crisis or an economic downturn, Asians and other communities have been the scapegoat,” explained Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco. “And it really speaks to the status that we have as being forever foreigners, perpetual foreigners and perpetual potential threats.”
Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting project from Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, recorded more than 2,800 reports of coronavirus-related discrimination in the U.S. from March through December 2020; about 700 took place in the Bay Area. Since the start of 2021, at least 32 Asians have been assaulted or robbed in the Bay Area, according to news reports. Choi says Asians are often targeted around Lunar New Year because thieves believe they might be carrying cash for the lucky envelopes many people exchange at that time. But for many, the spate of violence felt connected to the racist behavior that arose before.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, the FBI warned of a surge of anti-Asian violence. Disturbing videos went viral. Asian Americans like Yang tried to ring the alarm. They say they weren’t heard.
“This is a level I haven’t seen in my lifetime,” Choi said. “This isn’t going to go away.”
History of Asian scapegoating
While local Asian Americans can list several reasons why anti-Asian racism exists today, they all quickly point to former President Donald Trump’s use of the term “the Chinese flu.” To avoid answering difficult questions about the government’s lack of preparation for the pandemic, Trump instead employed a scapegoat — a common racist strategy, said Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.
“Racialized scapegoating of people is a simplistic way to point blame at a complex problem,” she said. “When you place blame, in this case on China, what it does is it distracts Americans from confronting some very real structural inequalities, as well as the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic on a national level.”
Asian scapegoating in the U.S. goes back at least to the mid-1800s, when Chinese migrant workers first arrived en masse to build the first transcontinental railroad. But once the economy started to decline, leaders blamed Chinese people for falling wages. That animosity fueled the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first American law aimed at preventing all members of a specific ethnic group from immigrating.
Officials have specifically scapegoated Asian people for diseases for the past 150 years. In 1875, San Francisco officials accused Chinese Americans of causing smallpox outbreaks, ordering every house in Chinatown to be fumigated. In the early 1900s, U.S. colonial officers went to the Philippines and suggested Filipinos were incubators of leprosy. When Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. in the early 1900s, they endured extra medical examinations because government officials believed they were carriers of the bubonic plague. Around the same time, officials in San Francisco blamed Chinese people for the plague and quarantined Chinatown — making it the only neighborhood where residents couldn’t come and go like everyone else.
More recently, Chinatowns and Asian businesses across the country struggled economically when people were scared of contracting severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
“This kind of stigma of associating people with disease has tragic consequences,” Choy said.
Well before the pandemic, anti-Asian discrimination was pervasive and rooted in harmful stereotypes, activists say. They point to the model-minority myth that paints Asian Americans as quiet and hardworking, a dismissive stereotype that has been debunked. There’s also the harmful notion that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, people who aren’t quite American enough, even if their families have been here for generations.
“Perpetual foreigner is such a dangerous stereotype because it erases history,” Choi said. “It erases emotional ties. It erases economic, political, medical contributions that Asian Americans have made over the decades.”
‘We decided to help ourselves’
Wylie Wong, a writer in San Jose, heard a racist comment blaming Chinese people for the coronavirus while shopping for rotisserie chicken.
Filipino nurse Kyle Navarro said a man spat in his direction and yelled a racial slur when he was locking up his bike outside a San Francisco post office.
And Judy Lee, who works for the city of San Francisco, recalled asking for a price check at her local grocery store and hearing from an employee: “No more returns for you next time, Chinese lady.” Lee didn’t fully process the remark at first. But as she left, she said, another employee told her to “exit the other door” and used a racist slur.
The words sank in when Lee got home. Her unsettled thoughts went to her parents, who don’t speak English as a first language, and other Asian elders. “I worry for them,” she said. “I don’t want them to get attacked ever or be in the same situation.”
For some, these incidents are shocking, especially in the reputedly progressive Bay Area. More than a third of people living in San Francisco, Alameda and Santa Clara counties identify as Asian. The region is famous for its liberal ideals. But activists say people who maintain progressive values might still harbor conflicting feelings, which reveal themselves during times of crisis and fear.
“Our lives have been upended by the coronavirus, and now there’s the added element of having to worry about our personal safety,” Wong said. “I just felt like we were more enlightened here, but of course that’s not the case.”
Navarro said the only person who came to his aid after the incident outside the post office was a Filipino woman. Speaking Tagalog, she asked him how he was.
“Navigating life as a queer person, I always have some baseline level of fear … but even more so now,” he said, adding that he always carries a phone charger with him now in case he needs to record an incident.
San Francisco activist Max Leung is not surprised to see the flood of anti-Asian sentiment in his hometown. The son of Chinese immigrants, he’s felt targeted since he was a kid.
“I’ve heard racial slurs, I’ve been picked on, I’ve been bullied, I’ve been physically assaulted, I’ve been robbed on more than one occasion,” he said.
He remembers playing basketball in the Sunset at age 11. A group of neighborhood kids surrounded him, called him racial slurs and a fight broke out. One pulled out a knife and stabbed Leung.
He’s long been concerned that criminals target Chinese seniors because they might not speak English, have a reputation for carrying cash and are less likely to go to the police. It’s why he wanted to start a Chinatown neighborhood patrol group a few years ago. At the time, no one he approached was interested.
The coronavirus changed that. The Crimes Against Asians Facebook group, where 33,000 people post and share stories from around the world, started seeing new incidents with frightening frequency. That’s where Leung found a patrol partner. They took to the streets of Chinatown and the group took on a life of its own. Leung realized it needed a name — SF Peace Collective — and protocols and a vetting system to weed out reactionary vigilantes.
“We decided to help ourselves because nobody else was going to,” he said.
Some members split off to form a separate patrol group, United Peace Collaborative. Now United Peace Collaborative is a formal nonprofit that regularly assists elders in emergencies, identifies thieves and cleans graffiti.
“Historically, Asians are very silent, especially Chinese,” said Leanna Louie, who founded the group after feeling upset that bystanders too often do nothing. “We can’t stay silent anymore.”
While local Asian Americans are alarmed by the resurgence of anti-Asian violence, they’re also cautiously optimistic about what’s ahead. The attention that comes with Lunar New Year has receded. Trump is no longer in office. In January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order condemning anti-Asian racism — a largely symbolic move but a far cry from Trump’s language.
Locally, people are coming together with grassroots efforts like Compassion in Oakland, which is organizing volunteer escorts for elders in Oakland Chinatown. More than 40 Asian organizations recently joined forces to recommend San Francisco and Oakland officials invest in culturally specific resources like support services for victims of trauma and healing programs for Asian and Black communities that are often pitted against each other.
“Those are the things that are going to get us through this difficult time,” said Choi, of S.F.’s Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Just like we have in all times of crisis, we will come together and rise to this challenge.”
Tracking hostility’s rise
Stop AAPI Hate has been documenting instances of discrimination against Asian Americans since March 2020. The data given to The Chronicle is drawn from reports filed through the end of last year.
Leanna Louie (right), co-founder of United Peace Collaborative, listens to Chinatown Kite Shop owner Albert Chang (left), as he tells her about his store being vandalized in San Francisco. (Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)