New York Times: A Tense Lunar New Year for the Bay Area After Attacks on Asian-Americans

Max Leung, second from right, handing out information on how to report a hate crime to a group of men playing cards in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood on Thursday.

The videos are graphic and shocking.

In January, a local television station showed footage of a young man sprinting toward, then violently shoving to the ground, a man identified as Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, who had been out for a morning walk in the Anza Vista neighborhood of San Francisco. He later died.

Another video shows a 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood being pushed facedown into the sidewalk cement from behind in an apparently unprovoked attack.

The attacks quickly reinvigorated simmering outrage, fear and hurt over a wave of anti-Asian violence and harassment that community leaders say was spurred earlier in the pandemic by the rhetoric of former President Donald J. Trump, who insisted on calling the coronavirus “the China virus” or the “Kung Flu.”

Carl Chan, the president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, has tallied more than 20 assaults over the past two weeks in Oakland’s Chinatown alone. Many of them were not reported, Mr. Chan said, partly because it can take hours for the police to arrive at the scene.

“Our seniors are afraid to walk their own streets,” Mr. Chan said.

The violence comes as the Chinese community on Friday marks the Lunar New Year, a muted celebration after a crushing year for the banquet halls, restaurants and businesses that would normally be pulsing with holiday cheer.

The pandemic has hit San Francisco’s Chinatown, America’s oldest and largest, particularly hard. The lack of tourists; the spate of violent attacks and robberies; and pandemic-related racism against Asian-Americans have combined to exacerbate the economic pain felt in Chinatown.

A measure of the tense and subdued Chinese New Year celebrations this year was a scene from a park in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Thursday afternoon. Will Lex Ham, a New York-based actor, was helping lead a neighborhood safety patrol, handing out whistles to residents as well as a Chinese-language pamphlet titled, “How to Report a Hate Crime.”

Shoppers looking at Year of the Ox decorations for Lunar New Year in San Francisco on Thursday.
Shoppers looking at Year of the Ox decorations for Lunar New Year in San Francisco on Thursday.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In early February, not long after leaders in Oakland’s Chinatown, along with Mayor Libby Schaaf, held a news conference pleading for help after a series of recent attacks targeting Asian-American seniors, the actor Daniel Dae Kim retweeted the video of the attack on the 91-year-old man, saying that such crimes “have been ignored and even excused.” He and the actor Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

California’s Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus issued a statement condemning “a surge in hate crimes targeting innocent Asian and Pacific Islander Americans,” describing it as “a national emergency.”

But while researchers have said that inflammatory statements from leaders can exacerbate racist behavior, experts say it is difficult to quantify hate.

Incidents of racism can take many forms — like being coughed on or spat upon, or being denied a rideshare. Tallying such incidents requires that victims tell the authorities or another organization what happened, which can be difficult when they may feel ashamed or distrustful of those authorities.

One statistic that has been widely cited, identifying a 1,900 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, appears to come from the New York Police Department, which said that in 2019, only one anti-Asian incident was reported, compared with 20 in the first half of 2020, according to The Queens Chronicle.

Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative formed last March aimed at tracking and responding to incidents of violence and discrimination against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, received more than 2,800 reports of racism and discrimination targeting Asian-Americans between March 19 and Dec. 31.

Of those, a vast majority, about 71 percent, were incidents of verbal harassment. Physical assaults made up 8.7 percent.

Russell Jeung, the chair of the Asian-American Studies Department at San Francisco State University and one of the leaders of Stop AAPI Hate, said that, according to the organization’s data, people 60 and older were disproportionately targeted with physical violence, as were women.

Dr. Jeung said that it was not clear whether the recent attacks in the Bay Area were racially motivated, but that it was likely that older people walking alone through their neighborhoods to shop may appear vulnerable. And particularly around holidays, they may be carrying cash.

“We tend to see small upticks in crime during the Lunar New Year because people are out shopping,” Dr. Jeung said.

In another widely reported incident this month, a 64-year-old woman of Vietnamese descent had just left a bank with more than $1,000 in cash for the holiday when her purse was snatched.

What is clear, Dr. Jeung said, is that Asian-American communities are in pain. And even with new recognition from President Biden — who last month signed a memorandum directing federal agencies to explore ways of combating racism and xenophobia against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States — there is more work to be done.

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San Francisco is not the only area of the country seeing a rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans. New York City saw a large surge in hate crimes directed at Asians in 2020 and most of the increase was directly related to the pandemic, the police said.

There were at least 28 hate crimes against Asians reported to the New York police, and all but four involved an assumption that the victim had the coronavirus, the police said. The crimes included assault, vandalism, theft and harassment.

In August, the steep rise in bias crimes against Asian people prompted the New York Police Department to form a special task force to investigate them. “It was a huge uptick, so much so that people were starting to talk about it, and we needed to address the situation,” said Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo, the task force’s director.

But in 2021, some community organizers and advocacy groups, including Stop AAPI Hate, have said Asian-Americans must look beyond calling for increased police presence in neighborhoods to achieve that justice.

“We recognize that policing has led to the criminalization of communities of color, and mass incarceration,” Dr. Jeung said. “Why perpetuate a system that doesn’t work?”

The people arrested in both the Chinatown incident in Oakland and the fatal assault on Mr. Ratanapakdee are Black, which community organizers said has brought to the fore some anti-Black racism, particularly as outrage about the attacks has spread on social media.

Lai Wa Wu, policy and alliance director for the San Francisco-based Chinese Progressive Association, said that while the influence of the former president was a new factor, the tensions among communities of color were not new, and neither were the systemic inequities that perpetuate them.

There are no shortcuts to deep, sustainable healing, Ms. Wu said. Progress requires investing in neighborhoods; increasing access to education, housing and food; and having “difficult, honest conversations.”

Nevertheless, she said, “It’s been really heartening in some sense, to see the level of solidarity and the amount of support, not only from our own communities in the city and across the Bay, but from Black and brown communities.”

Younger activists have harnessed social media to raise awareness and circulate calls to action, including fund-raising drives and volunteer initiatives.

Eda Yu, 25, a writer and journalist who is half Chinese and half Indonesian, and her partner, Myles Thompson, a Black designer, saw news of the attacks and recognized the strong emotions they raised. The couple, she said, “wanted to come together and create a project that was rooted in solidarity.”

They made an Instagram slide show they hoped would serve as a piece of protest art and a resource for those who want to help.

The first image, Ms. Yu said, was meant to look like a poster.

“Please! Protect our elders,” it reads. “Support our Chinatowns. Support our communities.”

The rest includes a timeline of incidents and a list of community organizations working in Asian communities in the Bay Area. They listed each organization’s website and created a GoFundMe to donate to all the organizations at once; they would split up the money and one of their employers said they would match contributions. The initial goal was to raise $5,000. In two days, they raised $50,000.

“It was crazy,” Ms. Yu said.

The couple is working with the director of API Equality — Northern California to distribute the funds fairly and transparently.

Esther Kim, 22, said that when she first heard that some $10,000 worth of cash, tablets and computers had been stolen from her family’s small Korean restaurant, the Crew, in San Francisco’s Sunset district, it felt as if it could have been the last in a long line of devastating blows.

Go Myoung Suk and Jong Su Kim, outside of their restaurant, The Crew, in San Francisco.
Go Myoung Suk and Jong Su Kim, outside of their restaurant, The Crew, in San Francisco.Credit…via Esther Kim

On top of the financial loss to the restaurant, which her family treated like a second home, irreplaceable documents — Ms. Kim’s diploma, her mother’s handwritten journals, immigration paperwork, receipts — were also gone.

Her mother, a cancer survivor, had continued to cook and serve takeout though she was at risk of getting sick from the virus. Ms. Kim said her parents were not native English speakers, so navigating the applications for pandemic relief and other government programs was challenging.

The break-in came amid what she said had been a spate of similar burglaries or robberies in the neighborhood. “In the Sunset, there’s a lot of Chinese grandparents that run family restaurants that take cash only,” she said.

Ms. Kim said that her friends persuaded her to start a GoFundMe for the restaurant, and that her family had been amazed by and thankful for the outpouring of support.

While she is troubled by the apparent rise in crimes against Asian-Americans, she said her family saw the burglary as an extension of wider suffering in the pandemic.

“We don’t see the burglary as a form of Asian-American violence — no one got hurt, everything was replaceable,” Ms. Kim said. “But we’re in the crossfire.”

Thomas Fuller contributed reporting from San Francisco, and Alexandra Petri and Troy Closson from New York.

Jill Cowan is the California Today correspondent, keeping tabs on the most important things happening in her home state every day. @jillcowan

Reporters: Thomas Fuller, Alexandra Petri and Troy Closson, Jill Cowan, Feb. 12, 2021