Before the local and statewide stay-at-home mandates were announced in March, the rise of anti-Asian sentiment was already apparent, even in Pasadena.
But, said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), “I never imagined it would get this bad.”
In early February, Asian Americans were riding high on a wave of Hollywood optimism. The momentum of 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” was followed by the success of last year’s “The Farewell” and quadruple-Oscar win by the South Korean “Parasite” production team at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
But before even a week had passed since the historic Oscar wins, LAUSD had cause for concern: A 16-year-old boy was physically attacked by fellow classmates in the San Fernando Valley because he was Asian American.
A3PCON, a coalition of more than 40 community-based organizations that serve and represent the 1.5 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders living in Los Angeles County, hosted a news conference addressing the situation.
Pasadena resident Tzi Ma, who plays the father of the lead character in Disney’s “Mulan,” was at the world premiere of Disney’s live-action “Mulan” the weekend of the Oscars, but by late March the splashy gala became one of the many COVID-19 cancellations. Instead, Ma had to settle for the low-key opening of Alan Yang’s “Tigertail” on Netflix, plus some political activism.
Ma’s celebrity status didn’t insulate him from growing anti-Asian sentiment. Strolling toward the elevators in the underground parking of the Arroyo Parkway Whole Foods, Ma noticed a stranger driving a car slowing. “I thought he was being courteous and was going to stop for me to cross,” he recalled. “That didn’t happen. He continued to roll along slowly and I noticed that he was rolling down the window. He stopped right in front of me. The car was perpendicular to me and he looked me straight in the eye. He said, ‘You should be quarantined,’ and took off.”
Having grown up in New York, Ma considers himself street smart.
“I’m very alert when I’m outside, but that was my one time when I let my guard down. I’m in Pasadena. I was at home. I’m at my neighborhood grocery store. I just went cold. My world got turned upside down all of a sudden.”
As a result, instead of promoting “Mulan,” Ma made waves online by speaking out about this incident and joined the IW Group campaign, Wash the Hate (wasthehate.com).
“Mulan” gave Democratic Pasadena Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office an unexpected unpleasant surprise. The Mulan poster at a bus stop on Colorado Boulevard, just around the corner from Chu’s office, was defaced, spray painted with a white mask across the face of the film’s namesake character and the word “toxic.”
According to Kulkarni, Pasadena resident Tanny Jiraprapasuke was verbally attacked by another commuter who ranted on about Chinese people while on the Gold Line. Initially, Jiraprapasuke, who was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, didn’t understand the man was directing his comments to her because, after all, she isn’t Chinese; she’s Thai American.
Things escalated nationwide, leading Chu, chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, to make a statement three weeks ago. She’s appeared on MSNBC since then to talk about “at least 1,000 hate crime incidents being reported against Asian Americans once the pandemic arrived in the US. Originally Chu drew her information from three websites, but now there are three more. Attempts are being made to consolidate information, but what is clear is that anti-Asian sentiments have risen.
Kulkarni said, “We’re in a 1939-1940 scenario. We can see across the horizon that we might be in a situation not unlike Japanese Americans faced.”
Japanese Americans and other Asians were part of what was called “The Yellow Peril” prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When the US eventually entered World War II, the Santa Anita Park racetrack served as a detention center for Japanese American internees. Internees were forced to sell many things, including some of the camellias that make up the camellia forest in Descanso Gardens.
During those times, some Chinese and Korean Americans indicated their ethnicity by wearing signs or flags. In our modern era, a few entrepreneurial souls have already brought this to the age of slogan T-shirts, using companies like Redbubble to sell designs that declare the wearer is not Chinese. It hasn’t helped that the White House has gone against the advice of medical organizations and called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Chu said she is disappointed with how the White House has handled the situation.
Kulkarni, whose organization is one of the resources that Chu relies upon, noted that her organization has teamed up with the Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and the San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department for the launch of the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center. Reports can be made in Vietnamese, Khmer, Hindi, English and Chinese (traditional and simplified). Their weekly reports are not in real time, but the trend has been that AAPI women are harassed at twice the rate of men. What Kulkarni finds most disturbing is that despite the shelter-in-place policies, these incidents continue to occur — at grocery stores ,pharmacies and big box retailers outlets.
Both Kulkarni and Chu felt that everyone can be involved in making public spaces safer. Chu suggested the IHollaback.org brochure “Show Up: Your Guide to Bystander Intervention,” which cites five possible strategies: to distract, to delegate, to delay and ask if the person who was harassed is OK, to directly address the person if it is safe, and to document. Hollaback! is a global organization focusing on ending harassment through developing different strategies and opening up public conversations. Both Kulkarni and Chu feel it is extremely important to make a record of each incident — record and report.
Under normal circumstances, Chu would be “very very deep into organizing for what was supposed to be a vast array of activities” for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. All those events have been canceled. Instead, Chu is coordinating calls with Asian Pacific Islander groups addressing these hate crime issues.
Said Kulkarni: “We should be as concerned about the spread of racism as the spread of the disease.” She wants Asian Americans to be ready as a community, “and take this very, very seriously.”