Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Community & Society
Published on June 30, 2020
In wake of Trump comments, SF's Asian-Americans fear new wave of racist harassmentPhoto:  Alisdare Hickson/Flickr

“Go home,” the man said. “Go home.”

San Francisco's shelter-in-place order had just begun, and Ed Lew was in the grocery store picking up supplies for himself, as well as a few senior citizens who live in his condo building.

Lew, who is the general service director of the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, was talking to a colleague on the phone in Chinese when the stranger spoke to him. The meaning of the words initially didn't register — until the awful moment when they did. 

The man followed Lew all the way down the aisle and out to the parking lot, repeating the words "go home" the entire time.

"I saw the anger in his eyes," Lew said. 

A few weeks later, the adult son of one of Lew's neighbors accosted him at his apartment complex. “He was drunk, and he said … 'You’re carrying it. You’re spreading it. I know it’s you.'"

Lew walked away, pretending he didn't know what the man was talking about. But “the harm was already done," he said. 

Since March, the organization Stop AAPI Hate has logged more than 1,700 incidents of harassment and assault on Asian and Asian-American people.

And despite a population that's more than one-third Asian, San Francisco was not exempt from the bigotry and xenophobia. As of the end of May, 142 incidents of anti-Asian harassment and assault had been reported in the city.

“We just knew that once [the virus] came to the United States, that Asian-Americans would pay a heavy price for it," said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA).

Choi says there wasn't much of a promotion budget for Stop AAPI Hate, which was co-founded by the CAA, the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON) and the San Francisco State University Asian American Studies Department.

Despite that, the service has received as many as 100 reports of anti-Asian harassment a day — with reports of racist assaults in San Francisco and New York that were double those of the rest of the nation.

Now, as San Francisco tentatively begins to reopen, Asian and Asian-American residents say they fear further retaliation. President Trump's repeated use of a racist epithet for the virus in recent weeks hasn't helped. 

"Words matter," said Choi, noting studies that show a direct correlation between racist language from politicians and in-person attacks.

Guidance for Asian and Asian-American people who've experienced a hate crime. | Image: Courtesy of CAA

“Anti-Asian racism is not new,” Choi said. Whenever there's conflict between an Asian country and the U.S., Asian-Americans end up being the scapegoat, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese-American internment camps.

Even comparatively progressive San Francisco has been part of the blame game. The first case of a bubonic plague epidemic in 1900 was found in the city. Outwardly, officials denied it was a problem — but Chinatown was completely quarantined, and the Chinese were blamed for importing the disease.

Emmy-winning ABC7 News anchor and reporter Dion Lim has made it her mission to bring this ugly history — and its current reverberations — to light. In the wake of the pandemic, she's written op-eds, done a podcast series and hosted a forum on the racism faced by Asians and Asian-Americans in the Bay Area.

“I hear this so often from people who have lived [here] for a long time — that this has been going on for decades, and yet [this is] the first time they’re actually seeing it covered,” she said. 

After growing up as one of the few Asian-Americans in her Michigan hometown and working everywhere from Connecticut to Tampa, Lim moved to the Bay Area with the hope of finding a more diverse community. But to her chagrin, she found that the region is not immune to bigotry.

She felt the call to be "a voice in the community" after an 88-year-old great-grandmother was brutally beaten in Visitation Valley last year, leaving her comatose. When another Asian elder was attacked in a hate crime in Bayview in February, "everything exploded," she said. 

The more Lim reported on anti-Asian racism, the more viewers reached out to share their stories. That's not easy in a community where people are often taught "to be good citizens, to not stir the pot," she said. Many feel ashamed or even isolated by the experience. 

“Oftentimes, these experiences of harassment chip away at a person," explained Bessie Chan-Smitham of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which also maintains an incident tracker. "They feel that they’re the only ones experiencing this."

That was the case for Lew, who said he retreated from friends and neighbors after the dual incidents of harassment. 

"I really got frazzled," he said. "I didn’t think it would happen, but I got frazzled.” 

Even now, that awful encounter at the grocery store has an impact. He's been sticking to the mom-and-pop stores closer to home, avoiding bigger supermarkets where he perceives himself to be in harm's way. 

Though she grew up in San Francisco, local resident Eva Liang also says she's not comfortable going to the store alone anymore. 

“I definitely feel like I do get a lot more stares,” she said. “I don’t feel as safe."

Recently, she was at a big-box store when a man passed her, turning around twice to give her dirty looks. She confronted the man, and when her boyfriend asked if the man had a problem, he said, 'Actually, I do,' before walking away.

In her 22 years living in the city, that was a first, said Liang, whose heritage is Taiwanese and Vietnamese. The unease was compounded in April, when her mother was attacked and robbed in the city. No one intervened, including a security guard standing nearby. 

While Liang doesn't believe the assault was racially motivated, she thinks her mother's background and small stature made her "an easy target."

“I think it’s really important to note that society doesn’t care whether we’re Chinese, Korean, Japanese — to the rest of society, we all look the same," she said. “We’re potential victims."

When she posted about the attack on her mother on social media, Liang received backlash. She said she doesn't want to detract from the racism other communities are also experiencing — but she also wants to be outspoken about what's going on. 

“I feel like every minority needs to be there for each other,” she explained. “I feel we all need to be in solidarity with one another right now.”

For Asian people facing potential harassment, as well as non-Asian allies who want to speak up when they see racist behavior, anti-harassment organization Hollaback is offering free online training sessions.

Two of the sessions are focused on how allies can safely intervene and de-escalate a situation; the third is centered on how Asian people can personally respond to and heal from harassment. 

“The act of getting people to care, getting people willing to step out of their comfort zone and take action, is really the most substantive work that the training does," said Hollaback co-founder Emily May, who brought in Chan-Smitham to help develop the workshops. (The organization is also offering workshops on addressing anti-Black harassment and police violence.)

As case counts continue to rise and communities slowly open back up, CAA and its partners are expecting more incidents of anti-Asian harassment and xenophobia.

“We are preparing for things to get worse as shelter-in-place orders get lifted,” Choi said. “We want to hold our government accountable to ensuring the safety of its residents."

In the meantime, Liang is working to regain her confidence in navigating San Francisco, knowing that potential harassment could be around every corner. 

“It’s very hard to move on, when our own leaders aren’t really condemning this," she said. “Step up, speak up — because that’s very important.”