Cover From left: Min Jin Lee, Sophia Li, Michelle Lee, Georgina Pazcoguin, Phillip Lim, Angie Mar, Laura Jung, Prabal Gurung, Bing Chen (Photo: Winnie Au, Styling: Dora Fung)

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?

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.

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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.

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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, partly 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.”

One thing the rise of attacks on Asians in the West has revealed is that the end of Trump’s presidency did not result in the end of anti-Asian racism, but rather showed just how pervasive it has always been. New York restaurateur Angie Mar and her family know this first-hand. Mar’s grandparents emigrated from China in the early 1900s to the US to pursue the American dream, but as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one example of a long history of xenophobic legislation against Asians in America, “you couldn’t own a business if it wasn’t a restaurant or laundromat”, she says.

Their daughter, and Mar’s aunt, Ruby Chow, would eventually open a Chinese restaurant in Seattle, where Bruce Lee once worked as a dishwasher and Sidney Poitier and Frank Sinatra were regulars. Now a celebrated chef herself who opened her new restaurant, Les Trois Chevaux, in July, Mar is disheartened to face similar racism to past generations of her family. “I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told that it’s my fault that this whole thing has happened, that I spread the virus,” Mar says. “Every time I would get off a TV interview during the pandemic, when I was speaking not about racism but the restaurant industry, within ten minutes, there would be calls to my restaurant telling me to go back to China. They would discourage people in the neighbourhood from going into my business because of the colour of my skin.” Mar’s former restaurant, The Beatrice Inn, a 100-year-old underground New York chophouse owned by Mar since 2016, closed its doors last November after a failed lease negotiation, making it another casualty of the pandemic.

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Min Jin Lee, the celebrated Korean American author of the 2017 novel Pachinko, a finalist for the National Book Award in the US, believes there is a direct tie between the rise of Asian power around the world and the persecution of Asians overseas. “There has been a long history of ‘yellow peril’,” she says. “The root causes of Asian hate are varied and complex: racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, colonialism, imperialism, wars in Asia, the economic and social threat of the rise of Asian power.”

Li, the journalist, who now co-hosts the online social commentary show All of the Above, was born in Minnesota. She spent two years of her childhood with her grandparents in Shandong, China before returning to the US. From a young age, she knew the reality of bigotry. “If you’re Asian and you grew up in the West, you experienced these daily microaggressions that you just ended up assuming were the norm. When I was younger, everyone would say, ‘Go back to China’ or ask me questions like ‘Do you eat dogs?’.”

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Pre-2015, the definition of beauty across the industry in media, entertainment, advertising was tall, white, thin—rinse and repeat. We wanted to wash away the glossy veneer. Things needed to change
Michelle Lee

In January 2021, Li was in Chengdu, 1,000km west of Wuhan, for work when the outbreak led to lockdowns in China, and protective measures such as face masks. Li wore two masks, gloves and glasses for extra protection on her 14-hour flight back to Detroit; while waiting for her connecting flight to New York, she was gawked at. Last spring, as xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiments grew, she started being called names while biking around Manhattan. She believes, as her childhood experiences first highlighted, that such intolerance is partly due to gaps in the American education system. “The Asian American identity needs to be part of the education system. It needs to be accepted as the norm for everyone from when you’re going to school as a child,” she says. “That’s the same for Black history and Indigenous communities as well. It’s the white nationalist systems in place in the US that perpetuate this violence.”

Laura Jung, a Korean influencer based in New York, says she, too, has been a victim of harassment when she speaks out on the issue. “I get really offensive DMs sent to me whenever I post outspokenly on racism in America,” she says. She adds that with the spread of the coronavirus, Asians have been blamed for disrupting society and “regular” life. But, she says, there is also a current of fear running through those who hold racist beliefs: “The idea that Asians can be this super-powerful, awesome, influential group of people poses a threat to Western dominance.”

Here in Asia, forms of racism exist as well. In places like Hong Kong, where more than 90 per cent of the population is Chinese, Asian hate doesn’t seem to be a threat. But Jianhua Xu, the head of the sociology department at the University of Macau, says racism is closer than we think. He wrote in The Asian Journal of Criminology that when the outbreak in Wuhan spread to other parts of China, mainland Chinese were “regarded as threats and being discriminated against”. “In cyberspace, mainlanders were depicted as rude, uncivilised outsiders who should be held responsible for the problems caused by the outbreak,” he wrote.

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South China Morning Post also reported in March 2020 that nearly 100 restaurants in Hong Kong refused to serve customers from mainland China. One of them displayed the words “Those who pay no attention to personal hygiene and speak Mandarin (except people from Taiwan), please leave”. Deliveroo and Foodpanda users in Hong Kong also reportedly made racist requests for their purchases not to be delivered by South Asian drivers. According to the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission, such behaviour, though undesirable, isn’t illegal under the Race Discrimination Ordinance.

“Hong Kong is not that international, even if we call it an international city,” says Bernard Chan, the chairperson of the executive committee of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, which represents more than 410 non-governmental social service agencies in Hong Kong. “Partly it was that whole 150 years of British rule. We look up to westerners. Even for me, growing up, we always tended to think the ruling class was gweilo [a Cantonese term for a white foreigner].”

Or take Malaysia as another example where, despite its multicultural population, there is an undercurrent of discrimination against darker-skinned people, and residents of Indian and African heritage face particular difficulties when looking to rent a property. In 2013 for instance, residents of a condominium complex in the Subang Jaya district voted against renting units to people from Africa and circulated a memo which explained that they cause “a lot of nuisance and problems in the community”. And rental listings regularly include disclaimers stating they are letting to “Chinese only”.

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While the situation is far from ideal, awareness of the global issue’s impact in Asia is on the up. Veronica Chou, the founder of womenswear label Everybody & Everyone, believes that people in Asia can do their part to raise awareness, and some entrepreneurs and philanthropists are beginning to take action. In early June, Chou hosted a dinner in Hong Kong to introduce the Apex for Youth charity, which provides free mentorship, mental support and educational programmes to underserved Asian and immigrant youth in New York City, to Hong Kong’s elite, including her aunt Diana Chou, founder of Dragon General Aviation Group, and Emily Lam-Ho, CEO and founder of Empact28, an investment company that funds women entrepreneurs. Veronica Chou says, despite the general impression that they are generally financially secure, “if you look at the data, it’s the Asian Americans who are some of the lowest-income groups [in New York] and receive the least support from the government.” Or consider the example set by Joseph Tsai, Asian Canadian billionaire businessman and co-founder of Alibaba. In June, he launched the Brooklyn EXCELerate Loan Fund, which provides loans to minority-owned businesses in that New York borough as they get back on their feet after Covid-19. This was on top of his being a board member of the Asian American Foundation, which has been channelling funding to anti-hate programmes, education and research since May this year.

Mar, who lives in New York, appeals to those living in Asia to join the cause. “There’s so much crossover between companies and leaders in Asia as well as here. For example, there are plenty of companies in Asia that do marketing in New York. Controlling the narrative, putting their marketing dollar where it counts, and selecting somebody who is of our community really does make a difference,” she says.

Anti-Asian racism is a deep-rooted, global problem, but there are those who are shifting the narrative and supporting survivors. Lee, the former Allure editor, who in June was named global vice president of editorial and publishing for Netflix, has been a prominent voice in recent campaigns in response to acts of racism, along with other fashion industry figures like Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung. After the Atlanta massacre, several prominent Asian voices—Lim; Musa Tariq, the chief marketing officer of GoFundMe; Bing Chen, the president of Gold House, a non-profit collective of Asian founders, creative talents and leaders; Robecta Ma, marketing strategist of Apple; and Vinh Nguyen-Long, a creative advocacy leader—banded together to set up the AAPI Community Fund on GoFundMe, a campaign to support the grassroot organisations, businesses and victims affected directly by hate crimes worldwide. “The majority of victims are from low-income groups, and they often don’t have healthcare plans. They would get attacked, and then get a US$30,000 bill from the hospital,” Chen says.

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It’s time for us to speak up about the different Asian experiences. None of us deserve to be living in fear or looked down upon because of our race
Phillip Lim

Lim says, “We felt a responsibility to establish a centralised platform to donate, raise money and create a place where vital information could be accessed by anyone who wanted to combat the attacks on our community.” As of mid-July, 50,000 donors had contributed US$6.7 million to the initiative, with millions more donated directly to victims. British Chinese actress Gemma Chan launched a UK version and actor Liu introduced the platform in Canada.

Those behind such movements also want to normalise Asian stories in western settings. In 2018, Chen set up Gold House with Lee, Gurung and Lim, and 300 other successful A-list AAPIs. By connecting executives across industries to finance new ventures while reshaping AAPI portrayals, the team promotes positive depictions onscreen, in board rooms and in the media. Gold House has become the first call for anything Asian in Hollywood, and set up an initiative in 2017 to buy out cinemas for screenings of films with a predominantly Asian cast, such as the 2019 Oscars best picture winner Parasite and the 2019 drama The Farewell, to ensure a successful opening weekend box office.

These non-English-language films brought Korean class struggles and Chinese family dynamics to the mainstream cinema. “We are completely reshaping Hollywood so that we’re not seen as weak, vulnerable or all ‘crazy rich’,” says Chen. “Gold House isn’t only about how you tell stories at a Walt Disney studio, but how you tell them in a way that is socio-culturally indelible, while also being profitable.”

During her time at Allure, Lee played an equally significant role in shifting the narrative of inclusivity in the fashion and media industries. Allure’s July 2017 cover, featuring model Halima Aden in a hijab with the headline “This Is American Beauty Now”, was a bold cultural statement against Trump’s Muslim travel ban. “Pre-2015, the definition of beauty, not just at Allure but pretty much across the industry in media, entertainment, advertising, was tall, white, thin—rinse and repeat. Occasionally, you’d see a non-white, but light-skinned, celebrity or model on a magazine cover but maybe once or twice a year,” she says.

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Anglophone Asians have struggled to represent ourselves and our respective communities of origin with accuracy. I want to honour and recognise the long history of our struggle
Min Jin Lee

Allure’s April 2017 issue featured three models of colour for its Beauty of Diversity theme and included a story about 41 women of colour, who talked about racism, colourism and diversity. “The story was raw and emotional and sometimes ugly. These were quotes and stories that you didn’t typically see in women’s publishing,” Lee recalls. “But we wanted to wash away the glossy veneer and make people face the truth—that things needed to change. That doesn’t happen by accident. That only happens when you have someone in a position of decision-making authority who’s thinking about the long-term effects of those decisions.”

This May, President Joe Biden signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act to expedite the review of hate crimes related to the pandemic and authorise grants for crime reduction work by state and local governments. It also enables more accessible reporting of hate crimes at the local and state levels by boosting public outreach and ensuring reporting resources are available online in multiple languages. In the same month, Kamala Harris, the first South Asian American vice-president and a daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, made a speech at the inaugural Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Unity Summit about turning the pain from racially motivated attacks into political power. Li, the journalist, is pleased to see the change of mindsets in motion. “Growing up, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was never celebrated,” she says. “But because of everything that’s happening, there have been so many panels, talks and initiatives by every industry, not just from Asian communities. How we view Asian Americans as a society is shifting, we saw how Black Lives Matter broke barriers with unlearning and relearning. The Asian American community is also getting another chance at reclaiming our identity, an identity that isn't tailored to fit the lens of the West but one that encapsulates the full Asian American experience.”

Whether this will give Asian Americans an edge to end the centuries-long uphill battle is unknown to both the activists and the “activated”, as Lim calls himself. Mar in New York wants her nieces and nephews to walk down the street without fear. Chow on the Broadway stage wants to empower people with her art and voice without being judged by her skin colour. Li wants all voices and stories heard, and she’s working towards that through her reporting. Chen wants to raise the floor for all so that we finally have a world where we are strong because of—not in spite of—our differences. Chou in Hong Kong wants more representation and cross-geographical collaborations in the world. These dreamers, in loud voices, are asking the same question: if not now, then when are we rising up to fight racism?

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  • StylingDora Fung
  • HairMika Shimoda at Art Department, Izumi Sato
  • Make-UpMika Shimoda at Art Department using Mac Cosmetics and Izumi Sato
  • Stylist's AssistantBeifen Xu