“I don’t feel safe in my own home,” says Wang, 65, a Chinese retiree who has lived in north London since the 90s. In April 2020, as the UK’s coronavirus death toll rose to over 2,300, Wang found himself on the receiving end of racist attacks. A 16-year-old boy on his estate shouted “fucking virus, fucking Chinese” at him, verbally abusing him on multiple occasions.
One day, the teenager violently shoved the elderly man to the floor and laughed. The fall resulted in a broken arm that needed urgent bone fracture repair surgery and has left Wang permanently disabled. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s impacted both my physical and mental conditions. I still see the teenager and his mother around and I’m scared he will attack me again,” Wang tells VICE. “I’m so disappointed with the police’s handling of this when I first reported it.
“I gave my statements to the police; there were witnesses, but they haven’t done anything and only asked if there was CCTV. There’s been no investigation, no attempt to collect evidence whatsoever and they closed the case a long time ago without me knowing.”
Wang’s attack is no isolated incident in the news. On Tuesday, eight people – most of them women of Asian descent – were killed in mass shootings at massage parlours in and around Atlanta, Georgia. The deaths have come amid a wave of Asian-American hate crimes that began with the COVID-19 outbreak.
In the UK, there has also been a similarly concerning increase in violence against the East and South East Asian (ESEA) community. A month prior to Wang’s assault, a student in Birmingham was assaulted by three men who broke his jaw while subjecting him to racist taunts. In March of this year, Dr. Peng Wang, a lecturer at the University of Southampton, was out jogging when four men in a car shouted abuse like “Chinese virus” and “get out of my country” at him. When he retaliated by shouting back, he was attacked and required medical treatment for facial and elbow injuries.
In one of the most shocking examples of assault, 23-year-old Singaporean-Chinese student Jonathan Mok was punched and kicked in the face on Oxford Street, London by a group of boys who said, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” Mok’s injuries were so bad that he required facial surgery, and a photo of his bruised and swollen face subsequently went viral on social media.
Many have accused Donald Trump for fuelling xenophobia and racism by aggressively blaming China for the pandemic, with the then-US president routinely using phrases like “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and “kung flu”. But in the UK, politicians have also made anti-Chinese jokes, including referring to Chinese people as “those evil bastards” and “oh, you know how they look” during a discussion of China’s human rights record, according to Labour MP Sarah Owen.
In October 2020, Parliament held its first-ever debate to discuss the racism experienced by the ESEA community in the UK. Not a single Conservative MP or government minister turned up.
“Putting party politics aside, it’s heartbreaking that we just seem to not matter to them,” Owen, the first female MP of mixed Malaysian Chinese descent, tells VICE. “Boris Johnson talks about the contribution to society that East and South East Asians make, but they couldn't turn up to say ‘we're on your side’. We should be actively calling out racism because it is wrong, no matter who it's aimed at.”
During the first wave of the COVID outbreak, the Financial Times reported that the Metropolitan Police recorded 166 verbal, online and physical attacks in February and March 2020. Officers even recorded the ethnic appearance of victims as “Oriental”, an outdated term that is now widely considered offensive.
The real figures are thought to be much higher. According to an inequalities report from the advocacy group, End the Virus of Racism, there has been a 300 percent increase in COVID-related hate crimes towards ESEA people since the start of the pandemic. By April 2020, there were 261 hate crimes in London, according to Freedom of Information data obtained by the Guardian. The numbers rose every time lockdown eased; by May, 323 incidents were recorded. In June, there were 395 cases in London alone.
Despite the spike in cases, public support for the ESEA community is nowhere near as high as it is in the US. After a wave of attacks against elderly Asian-American people in spring, the #StopAAPIhate movement was launched with huge support from Asian-American celebrities like Olivia Munn, Awkwafina, Daniel Dae Kim and John Cho, public figures and politicians and widespread coverage in US media.
The ESEA community in the UK is relatively more scattered than their American counterparts, which only adds to the disconnect. In the US, Asians – which commonly includes both ESEA and South Asian people – make up the biggest ethnic group in cities like Honolulu and Cupertino, California. In the UK, ESEA people are more spread out; even the largest Chinese community in Manchester only numbers around 13,500 people. The 96,600-strong South East Asian diaspora mainly reside in inner and outer London. This only makes it harder to create a sense of community and, in turn, advocate for its needs.
“This ties into the model minority myth,” explains Kim Richards, a spokesperson for End the Virus of Racism. “It’s this idea that East and South East Asians are the perfect minority because they assimilate into the culture and they assimilate into English society. They don’t want to cause a fuss and that’s reflected in the fact that nobody wants to talk about us or write articles about us.
“There is an imbalance in power and having white-led government and media that don't see this as a problem and dictating to East and South East Asians that ‘no, this isn't racism’ – that’s a big part of the problem as well.”
Understandably, nonprofit organisation besea.n is now campaigning for the government and media to stop the lazy overuse of images of ESEA people to illustrate COVID-19 stories, which perpetuates the idea that we are coronavirus carriers. “Images of East and South East Asians are used as default,” Richards explains, “regardless of whether it’s related or not and it depicts us incorrectly.”
Even before the pandemic, the UK had a long and ignoble history of racism towards ESEA people. Many have said that prejudice is simply “ignored”, and the lack of mainstream representation has normalised everyday prejudice that has been downplayed to an unbelievable level.
Despite Chinese people alone being the fourth largest minority-ethnic group, according to the most recent 2011 UK census, people of ESEA heritage are rarely seen in many public spheres, including politics, sports and the media. The lack of visibility means that we are a blank canvas to project any and all bias on to – and then COVID came along and did just that.
This prejudice has had a huge impact on businesses in Chinatowns across the UK. Local ESEA-owned businesses began seeing a decline in business by 50 percent even before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the UK. Restaurants are hanging on by a thread or have closed for good. In February, Chinatown bakery Kova Patisserie was vandalised with black paint and someone scrawled “bat and dettol soup” on Pleasant Lady, a jian biang stall in Chinatown.
“Mr. Wang’s injury could have easily been avoided,” explains Jabez Lam, the centre manager at Hackney Chinese Community Services, a charity founded by East London residents in 1985 to support the welfare of the local ESEA community.
Met Police confirmed that Wang’s case had been closed without his knowledge due to lack of evidence. Lam got the case reopened in December. “If the police had listened to these reports, conducted a more vigorous investigation or made enquiries with the neighbours, then the perpetrator could have been identified earlier.
“All these fall short of police standards in investigation and procedures in handling hate crimes. It has been two months since the case was reopened, yet nothing has been done on the case. We’re determined to seek justice.”
The Met told VICE that enquiries were ongoing in Wang’s case and that it “takes all allegations of hate crime very seriously and will always seek to investigate to bring offenders to justice”.
It also gave this statement on the rise in reported hate crime: “We’ve set up a Chinese and South East Asian community forum to raise awareness of hate crime, encourage reporting and instill confidence in police. We have also set up a dedicated Chinese and South East Asian Staff Association (SSA), who we regularly work with for support on how to deal sensitively with and address this specific type of hate crime.” It added that it was liaising with local authorities to work with community groups to tackle the impact of hate crime in London and beyond.
But many immigrant communities are reluctant to report hate crime, and the ESEA community is no different. For the older generation, silence is seen as a form of protection. There’s a fear of retribution from the perpetrators, language barriers to contend with and other cultural reasons, too. Our elders may be protecting us in ways that keep us from protecting them – an act performed out of love, but one that results in a miscarriage of justice.
“I'm going to be blunt,” Owen tells VICE. “I think that people who attack incredibly vulnerable older people, no matter what ethnicity are fucking cowards – it’s disgraceful. They do it because there's not going to be any retaliation because the person is older and there’s less likelihood of somebody reporting.
“I understand that we’re living in a really heightened time of anxiety. People are scared and it would be great if we could address people's fears so that we don't see this happening again. Instead, we’re seeing a blame game to misdirect people away from the government's own failure.”
Sharon So’s father owns a Chinese takeaway in Hitchin that’s been around for over 20 years. In March 2020, her father was spat at by a teenager with his group of friends. The teen demanded to know if her father had coronavirus, all while filming him on a phone.
Because the So family lives in a small community, word eventually got back to the father of the teenager responsible. “The dad came to our takeaway and dragged his son with him, apologised profusely and shouted at his son in front of us,” So explains. “Only after this incident, did the police identify who the attacker was – when we already knew who it was – and asked if we’d like to press charges. My dad accepted the apology – he isn’t the type of person who holds grudges and has probably forgotten about the incident.”
The police respected his decision not to pursue the case, but the incident speaks to a wider reluctance to report hate crimes or pursue further charges. “The police and the supportive agencies in place really need to understand how much of a cultural barrier it is for East and South East Asians to have actually reached out and complained in the first place,” Labour MP Owen explains.
“Only to then get rebuffed or to not be taken seriously will add another barrier in future, which will stop reporting and suppress reporting where the problem will continue. This is an area that we must get right.”
These incidents of harassment, assault and criminal damage over the past year are the jagged tip of an iceberg that exposes the quotidian horror and reality of being ESEA in this country.
A Ipsos MORI poll from February 2020 found that one in seven people in the UK intentionally avoid people of Chinese origin or appearance. In the latest YouGov poll, almost three-quarters of people of East and South East Asian descent have experienced COVID-related verbal abuse and physical assaults in the past year, myself included.
This comes as no surprise to those of us who have faced racism for our whole lives, but what happened to me isn’t unique. Far more shocking is the recent case involving a Chinese student who wishes only to be identified by his surname, Ma.
In March 2020, he was waiting with friends in Liverpool for a taxi when he was attacked by three men and told, “Chink, you got coronavirus – get out of the country”. Despite this, Merseyside Police never considered a racially aggravated element to the attack.
When Ma fought back, attempting to protect himself and his friends, he ended up charged with public order offences and prosecuted by the CPS. His case went all the way to court before a judge acquitted him for using reasonable force to defend himself.
“The fact that over 70 community organisations signed a joint letter of concerns to the Crown Protection Service (CPS) demonstrates a strong sense of injustice amongst ESEA community organisations,” says Lam of Hackney Chinese Community Services, one of the letter’s signatories. “While we are pleased with the outcome of Ma’s case, such a case should not have even happened in court in the first place.”
The three men responsible for the attack were charged with affray and a public order offence. One was found not guilty and the case against a second was discontinued, with only the third man pleading guilty and sentenced to eight weeks in prison.
These days, Ma says, he wants to put the ugly incident behind him. He declined to be interviewed, telling VICE on email: “I won't object for my case to be used as a case study for others and I’m grateful to everybody who has done so much for me.”
Both Merseyside Police and the CPS acknowledged that charging and prosecuting Ma was a mistake and Merseyside Police have personally apologised to Ma and his friends.
Detective Superintendent Dave McCaughrean of the Protecting Vulnerable People Unit told VICE: “Whilst I am confident that officers at the scene acted properly in detaining the men they had seen involved in an altercation, this incident was not recorded correctly as a hate crime and as a result the protocols in place at Merseyside Police to help and support victims of hate crime were not engaged.
“This was due to human error and was unfortunately not rectified during the criminal justice process.”
A CPS spokesperson said in a statement: “We accept that we should have treated Mr. Ma as a victim of hate crime and we have learned lessons as a result. We are further developing our understanding of the issues facing the Chinese, East and South East Asian communities during the pandemic and to ensure that we consistently provide the quality of services that all communities should expect.”
In the aftermath of these attacks, talks have gone behind the scenes with ESEA organisations to combat COVID-related hate crime. Thanks to a recent Campaign Against Second Victimisation (CASVIC) meeting, Merseyside Police has been reviewing its handling of Ma’s case to draw lessons on what went wrong to share with the Police National Hate Crime Forum, where other police forces can learn from its mistakes.
Ma’s run-in with the blunt edge of the law speaks to the institutional barriers that prevent many from seeking justice – itself a symptom of deep-rooted racism in Britain. Just take a look at the vitriol in the comments on a recent Lunar New Year Facebook video from Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the messages of joy outshone by prejudice directed towards a community unjustly tainted by a virus that discriminates against no one and no nation. Attacks on the street, daily microaggressions and social media trolling are all forms of racism against ESEA people that help to sow division and uphold white supremacy.
“There needs to be a wider responsibility by the government, educational bodies and the media on how they portray the ESEA community,” says Richards of End the Virus of Racism. “People have lost their livelihood, they've lost their work, lost money, lost homes or they’ve had to radically change their life. They need to direct all of that towards someone, but that doesn't make it right to take it out on us.”
In light of all this, rather than retreat, some are seeking to do the right thing. In January, US president Joe Biden signed an executive order with new Justice Department guidance on how to specifically report anti-Asian hate incidents. In the UK, Besea.n, a grassroots movement set up by six ESEA women, aims to break negative stereotypes and change the lack of positive Asian representation in the media.
Online movements such as Dear Asian Youth London, Racism Unmasked Edinburgh and Asian Leadership Collective are creating support networks to amplify voices and raise awareness about racism. In the coming months, there are planned unity marches organised by Asian Unity Over Fear UK and Asian activist hip hop crew Pho Queue Crew in response to the COVID-related hate crimes.
“Last year, we sent an open letter to the Home Secretary Priti Patel that was signed by over a hundred high profile figures, including Baroness Warsi, comedian Phil Wang and writer Benjamin Zephaniah,” Richards says. “That’s the kind of advocacy we want to keep doing – continue speaking with government bodies, putting the pressure on them to bring in policies that will help tackle East and South East Asian racism.
“There’s a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere.”
There is now, finally, acknowledgment that racism against the ESEA community exists and is getting worse. It is incredibly frustrating, disturbing and sad that it took a pandemic to get here. Many of us were brought up in the same system that taught us to keep our heads down and disqualify our individual and collective trauma, but it feels like the little things have finally started to add up; the self-silencing and the hurt feelings buried deep slowly uncovering themselves.
It feels like an outpouring.