It was just another spring day in New York City. Hardly had Viveca Chow Hung-ka, a Hong Kong-born and raised Broadway musical actress, stepped onto the subway platform when she heard someone calling: “Chinese girl, Chinese girl, hey! Chinese girl.” She stepped into the crowd, seeking safety in numbers, but her tormentor, a woman brandishing a cane as if it were a weapon, followed her.
“She could have pushed me in front of the train or hurt me with her cane,” Chow recalls thinking. “I analysed my situation: do I confront her, or do I make peace and get out of this alive?” Not even two months later, Chow and her boyfriend Matthew Poon experienced a similar confrontation in the subway when a hooded man stared at them with open hostility for six minutes. “I grabbed my pepper spray so fast and held it,” Chow says. When she discussed the incidents with her parents in Hong Kong, she says, “their immediate reaction was asking me to put on make-up to hide my Asian face, because I’d be safer if I were white”. Chow was shocked. “There was so much shame in that sentence, where we couldn’t even be who we were because we might get killed for our skin colour,” she says. “These people could punch or kick me. They could have a gun. That is what is so scary about America.”
This wasn’t the New York that Chow, now 26, encountered when she first visited ten years ago to pursue her dreams of singing and dancing as a student at Collaborative Arts Project 21, the musical theatre training conservatory. “New York had that one tiny opportunity that Hong Kong didn’t have,” she says. “When I arrived in Times Square, I was blown away by the magical lights and the honking of the cabs. New York felt super-empowering.” In 2017, Chow got her big break when she booked a role as a swing, or understudy, covering nine roles in Miss Saigon, the long-running musical that made Filipina actress Lea Salonga a household name in America in the 1990s.
Chow is a part of the growing global cultural impact of Asia and Asian people seen in the past few decades. Across industries, from business to sport to entertainment, people of Asian descent are being celebrated for their achievements and identities. Zoom, the program which has enabled businesses the world over to continue running smoothly in the midst of the pandemic, was founded by Chinese American engineer and businessman Eric Yuan. All eyes are already on Chinese American Eileen Gu, the 17-year-old two-time Youth Olympic Games gold medallist, and that attention will only grow when she represents China in the 2022 Winter Olympics. In film, Parasite, the 2019 South Korean black comedy thriller, won best picture at the Oscars. This year, Chloé Zhao, the Beijing-born director of Nomadland, became the first woman of colour to win best director at the Oscars. Marvel’s new superhero series Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, set for release next month, will feature a nearly all-Asian cast, including Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu. In music, South Korea’s Blackpink made history in 2019 by becoming the first female K-pop group to play at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, one of the largest music festivals in the US.
However, just when it seems the world is finally embracing diversity in progressive circles, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is simultaneously facing the most serious wave of racial hate in recent memory. In March last year, when it became apparent that Covid-19 infections were spreading far beyond China, where the first cases were reported, and impacting the US and UK, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes also began to skyrocket, exposing an undercurrent of racism towards Asians that had been underestimated in comparison to other stigmatised minorities. Asians, regardless of their nationality or whether they had any travel history or probable cause of infection, were targeted as carriers of the virus and subjected to appalling verbal and physical assault.
“Unfortunately, it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s a matter of life and death,” says Michelle Lee, who as editor-in-chief of Allure magazine from 2015 to 2021 championed diversity on her covers. Last July, an 89-year-old woman in Brooklyn was attacked by two boys who slapped her and allegedly set her on fire. In March, Robert Aaron Long, a white man, shot dead eight people, including six Asian women, at massage parlours around Atlanta. Also in March, a 65-year-old Filipina immigrant was walking down the street in Times Square when a man kicked her in the stomach and screamed, “You don’t belong here.” In April, a father was attacked as the pushchair that carried his one-year-old child rolled away outside a supermarket in San Francisco.
Non-profit organisation Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks incidents of violence, discrimination and harassment against Asians in the US, published a report this May noting more than 6,600 incidents of physical assault, verbal abuse, civil rights violation and online harassment were reported within the year following last March. In the UK, advocacy group End the Virus of Racism reported a 300 per cent rise in hate crimes against people of East Asian heritage since the start of the pandemic. Such unprecedented acts of racism towards Asians in the 21st century raise the question: what exactly led to this backlash amid progress? And why are more people not talking about it in Asia?
Sophia Li, a Chinese American journalist based in New York, lays the blame at the feet of former US president Donald Trump, who would refer to China negatively during official speeches as the pandemic spread. “When Trump first called coronavirus the ‘China virus’ in March of 2020, Stop AAPI Hate recorded 650 incidents of discrimination in just one week,” Li says. “Words perpetuate collective thinking, which perpetuates violence. Someone just doesn’t immediately go out and attack an elderly Asian person in the street.”
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
ON THE CASE
Over the past decade, entrepreneur Wesley Ng has grown Casetify from a part-time passion project to one of the world’s largest tech accessories companies. Now, he is launching a new investment fund to build a global empire
American artist Mickalene Thomas, who has changed the way we look at Black bodies, is presenting her life’s work in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong this autumn
The Kids are Alright
Entrepreneurs Shiva Shabani and Calvin Yu discuss channelling your inner child and their eyewear brand, Sons + Daughters
Olivia Dawn Mok
The DJ, producer and musician blends classical training and modern technology to create her sound
A Whole New World
Ocean Park has resurrected its aquatic outpost for a new generation
Best in S-Class
The new Mercedes-Benz S-Class combines form and function in a luxurious saloon
Hong Kong’s first Palme d’Or Short Film winner Tang Yi says her victory is the result of being true to herself
Creative director and CEO Nicolas Bos brings Van Cleef & Arpels’ take on flora and fauna out of the workshop and into Hong Kong
Raise a Glass
Celebrated French sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel worked with Dior Men designer Kim Jones on a unique costume for his induction into Paris’s prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts
What Dreams are Made of
Why La Prairie’s new Skin Caviar Nighttime Oil is the perfect addition to your bedtime ritual
CIA Creates Working Group on China as Threats Keep Rising
China is an especially difficult challenge for the U.S. intelligence community.
CHINA TIGHTENS POLITICAL CONTROL OF INTERNET GIANTS
The crackdown reflects Xi Jinping’s emphasis on reviving the party’s “original mission” of leading economic and social development.
MASTERING the UNIVERSE
Nuclear fusion has been a fantasy for decades. But recent breakthroughs signal the holy grail of clean energy could finally be close to reality. Who’ll get there first?
SURGING NATURAL GAS PRICES: THREAT TO CONSUMERS THIS WINTER?
Brace for a rude surprise on your winter heating bills.
Buzkashi: Afghanistan's Traditional Sport
The history of Buzkashi dates back to ancient times, and the name of this sport means killing goats, which is taken from the hunting of mountain goats by horse heroes.
Too Big. May Still Fail
As developer Evergrande faces a debt crunch, China tries to depend less on real estate
CHINA SETS UP PLATFORM TO POLICE GAMING FIRM VIOLATIONS
Chinese regulators have set up a platform that allows the public to report on gaming companies they believe are violating restrictions on online game times for children.
NUCLEAR SUBMARINE DEAL WILL RESHAPE INDO-PACIFIC RELATIONS
The U.S., Britain and Australia have announced they’re forming a new security alliance that will help equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. The alliance will see a reshaping of relations in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Here’s what it might mean for various players:
China's Alibaba Promises $15.5B For Development Initiatives
E-commerce giant Alibaba Group said it will spend $15.5 billion to support President Xi Jinping’s campaign to spread China’s prosperity more evenly, adding to pledges by tech companies that are under pressure to pay for the ruling Communist Party’s political initiatives.
U.S. COVERING UP CHINA COVID LEAK
DESPITE tons of evidence the COVID-19 virus originated in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, an intelligence report ordered by President Joe Biden has determined its source is “inconclusive,” leading foreign relations experts and scientists to suspect a cover-up!