A United Front
Tatler Malaysia|August 2021
At a moment when the world is finally celebrating racial diversity, violence against Asians during the pandemic has nullified all progress in one fell swoop. Where did we go wrong?
Zabrina Lo. Portraits

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 analyzed 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, New York City’s 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 forthcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. In film, Parasite, the 2019 South Korean black comedy thriller, won the best picture at the Oscars. This year, Chloé Zhao, the Beijing-born director of Nomadland, became the first woman of color to win the 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 stigmatized 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, including appearances by Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, South Korean singer Jay B, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka and Somali model Halima Aden. 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.

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 Ends 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.”

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