Opinion - Personal Finance

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

Winnie Sun, managing director of Sun Group Wealth Partners
Key Points
  • Between March 2020 and February 2021, almost 3,800 anti-Asian-American/Pacific Islander incidents were reported nationally by the Stop AAPI Hate organization.
  • Negative propaganda about the origins of the coronavirus has fueled a rise is attacks.
  • Communities are taking action. Groups of all ages and nationalities are standing up in solidarity against hate.
Shirley Chung and Jimmy Lee, owners of Ms Chi Café in Culver City, California.
Shirley Chung & Jimmy Lee

The pandemic has obviously impacted everyone in some way or another. But, for my family and me, it's been especially personal and quite challenging beyond the economic effects.

As we're an Asian family, the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has heightened our concerns about our safety here in the nation we have called our 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 has occurred during the pandemic.

Chung, a successful restaurateur and a former winning contestant on Bravo's "Top Chef" program, and her husband, Jimmy Lee, own a popular restaurant, Ms Chi Café, in Culver City, California.

In the first few months of 2020, as the coronavirus started rapidly spreading, Chung and her husband saw revenue drop by more than 50%. They also experienced vandalism when rumors circulated that suggested the coronavirus may have originated in a research laboratory in Wuhan, China.

It certainly didn't help that some people in power repeatedly referred to the pandemic as "Kung flu" and the "China virus." This racist rhetoric was why so many people readily attacked Asians after feeling empowered.

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Suddenly, reports of hate crimes against those of Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds skyrocketed. 

My friend Shirley's restaurant was repeatedly vandalized with hate graffiti, prompting her husband to spend a great deal of money on security cameras and taking other security measures.

In one particular case, a man stole a large DoorDash food order, yelled racial slurs and threatened to harm Jimmy before fleeing after a customer called the police.

To be sure, the restaurant industry, perhaps more than any other, has been devastated by the pandemic.

However, by the end of March 2020, more than half of Chinese restaurants, which might otherwise be perfectly suited to thrive in a "takeout only" environment, stopped transacting entirely. No other type of restaurant in this group even comes close, the credit card processing company Womply found.

Those shutdowns were due in part to the pandemic, of course, but also because of consumer prejudice and inaccuracies about the virus. Chinese restaurants were hit earlier and harder than other kinds of establishments.

Senate overwhelmingly passes anti-Asian hate crimes bill
Senate overwhelmingly passes anti-Asian hate crimes bill

Asian-American/Pacific Islander communities have felt the economic pinch in other ways, too. Supermarkets and strip malls in many communities have resorted to hiring more security guards and taking other steps to protect their customers from hate crimes in their stores and parking lots. And many in these communities have been unable to avail themselves of the various economic aid programs offered by the federal government.

Peter Ng, CEO of the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles, said the rise in hate crimes, along with  fears of catching Covid-19, caused foot traffic in the usually bustling Chinatown to come to a standstill.

He said things have improved somewhat recently with officials cracking down on hate crimes and improved access to vaccines. But at least 20% of the community's restaurants closed permanently. Their owners, Ng said, "really took a big hit. They just gave up."

Between March 2020 and February 2021, almost 3,800 anti-Asian-American/Pacific Islander incidents were reported nationally by the Stop AAPI Hate organization. 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) jumped 114% in 2020. The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found these type of hate crimes rose by 169% nationwide, with the most dramatic increases in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Organizations such as Ng's are helping community members with everything from reporting hate crimes to assisting hundreds of small businesses in applying for government assistance to keep them afloat during the pandemic. Anyone who may want to help can contact the organization at CSCla.org.

"Speak up if you need help," Ng said. "Go to your local nonprofit and they will refer you to the proper organizations," whether it's for rent relief, business questions or help applying for local or federal financial aid.

Above all, Ng says, "Do not lose hope. I don't care if you're Asian, Chinese, Latino, we can refer you to the right place."

For me personally, the fallout from the pandemic and the rise in hate crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders has brought back memories of being bullied as a child.

When I was in elementary school, two students would regularly "accidentally" bump into me, calling me "ching-chong." They would chant anti-Asian slurs at me saying: "Chinese, Japanese, Indian Chief." And would also make slant eye gestures.

I was targeted at recess and made fun of just about every day for years because I was shy, quiet and Asian.

Asian-Americans have had to deal with increasing hate in the past year, says advocate
Asian-Americans have had to deal with increasing hate in the past year, says advocate

For most of elementary school, my teachers would tell my parents that I was a great student, but that I just didn't talk much.

At that time, I was naïve and thought if I didn't speak up, the bullies wouldn't see me and just leave me alone.

Today, with anti-Asian hate crimes on the rise, many in Asian communities fear for the safety of their parents, elderly friends, neighbors and children. They wonder whether they will be attacked if they go to a supermarket, walk their dog around the block or even just go to school.

Crimes against Asian senior citizens have risen by an alarming rate. There are far too many news reports of Asians being beaten, stabbed or killed — and for no reason other than for being Asian.

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

However, communities are taking action. We are seeing groups of all ages and all nationalities stand up in solidarity against hate. Volunteer groups started patrolling in predominantly Asian senior neighborhoods, and neighbors are helping other neighbors. 

A Bay Area resident of Hispanic descent, Jacob Azevedo, recently posted an offer on Instagram to walk with anyone who felt unsafe in Oakland's Chinatown area. The post was shared widely and within days included almost 300 volunteers who had reached out to him on the project they called Compassion in Oakland.

Turning 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 crimes and improve understanding. Everyone can help by supporting an AAPI-owned business, standing up against 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 for better understanding and acceptance of others. Louie, whose parents immigrated from China, lives with her husband in Fort Bragg, California, home to very few other Asian Americans.

Louie learned from a social media post that a woman ordered a "Covid-cake" for her child's birthday from a local bakery. It was decorated with a caricature of a "Chinaman," with an attempt at humor in relation to the coronavirus.

"I had to share my thoughts" about this misplaced, racist attempt at humor, Louie told me.

"When I found out that the customer who ordered the cake was also an immigrant woman like me, a mother like me, it hurt even more," Louie said. "I could not fail let this go without expressing the damage this cake can do."

More than 2,500 hate crimes reported against Asian-Americans in 2020
More than 2,500 hate crimes reported against Asian-Americans in 2020

She reached out to the mom and the baker through a social media posting. Louie said her goal was to educate and not to shame or embarrass these people.

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

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

Louie, who said she would have done the same thing no matter what group had been targeted, believes everyone needs to do whatever they can, no matter how small the action, to combat hate and foster understanding of others.

Louie said she takes pride in being a part of social change.

"Whether my efforts will change a handful, only my own household or part of a movement, I need to do something," she said.

 — By Winnie Sun, managing director of Sun Group Wealth Partners