For two years now, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country have endured racist verbal, physical and sometimes deadly attacks fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.
With the start of the Lunar New Year, many are looking forward to carrying out family traditions and joining in community celebrations throughout February. These include family dinners and giving children red envelopes filled with money. New York, Chicago and San Francisco are among the cities with parades planned later this month in their respective Chinatowns.
The Year of the Tiger — a Chinese zodiac symbol that represents strength and courage — also is the perfect time to convince Asian elders who have lived in fear because of widespread anti-Asian sentiment to join in the festivities.
“We really just want to share our culture, and basically be able to celebrate this joyous event with everyone,” said William Gee, a longtime organizer of San Francisco's annual Chinese New Year Parade & Festival. “Just the presence alone in numbers, it might actually deter anything — any malicious or nefarious activity that might be planned.”
While most Lunar New Year revelry was sidelined last year because of COVID-19, many outdoor events are returning with organizers encouraging masking for the public but mandating them for staff. The various parades will feature floats, marching bands, lion dances — and even “Star Wars” cosplayers in San Francisco.
“I hope anyone that is actually in fear of stepping outdoors because of everything that’s been happening can find assurance and a bit of solace, in terms of coming to an event where you’re going to be surrounded by like people,” Gee said.
Several cities that are holding parades and festivals held rallies recently marking the one-year anniversary of the deadly attack on Vicha Ratanapakdee. The 84-year-old Thai American was assaulted while walking in his San Francisco neighborhood.
His death was one of the first reported in what has been a series of fatal incidents targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The grim anniversary came just a couple of weeks after the death of Michelle Alyssa Go in New York City’s Times Square. The 40-year-old died after a mentally unstable man shoved her in front of a subway.
Amanda Nguyen, an activist whose January 2021 Instagram video highlighting attacks on elderly Asians gained wide attention, said the continuous hostility is all the more reason to openly celebrate Asian cultures. Having fun with family and friends isn’t dismissing tragedy but rather “the most radical form of rebellion.”
“I know that it’s a difficult time, but Lunar New Year is a joyous celebration that’s deeply rooted in community,” Nguyen said. “I want people to know that you can grieve. You can collectively grieve, heal, and also make space to be you, to have joy.”
Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, which has been tracking incidents nationwide based on victims self-reporting, said nervous elders in Chinatowns are stuck in "de facto segregation.” For two years, they've limited themselves to certain streets or neighborhoods.
“So to honor our elders, we really need to help address that sense of isolation, by making them again feel included, safe and secure,” Jeung said. “You do that by ... taking them out, escorting them around, bringing them shopping, inviting them to the meals and then working for broader safety in the community.”
Earlier this month, the San Francisco Police Department reported that anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 jumped 567% from 2020. Preliminary data collected by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism indicates Los Angeles and New York also saw record highs of anti-Asian hate incidents. Georgia saw the most fatalities after the March 2021 Atlanta-area spa business shootings that left six Asian women dead.
Initial figures from individual police agencies indicate anti-Asian hate crime overall in the U.S. increased 339% in 2021, compared to a 124% rise in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Many people attribute the trend to former President Donald Trump talking about the coronavirus, which first appeared in China, in racial terms.
“The data is just so horrific that to see it confirmed in other sources, it doesn’t surprise us and validates what we know,” Jeung said.
Nguyen thinks incorporating more Asian American and Pacific Islander history in K-12 education can help change the climate in the future. She has been organizing petitions in various states.
“That’s when people are learning about everything. I think that a lot of hate, the xenophobia, that professional foreigner stereotype, even ‘yellow fever,’ the way that AAPIs are characterized — that stems from ignorance,” Nguyen said, using the acronym for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “Let’s celebrate the people who have broken barriers.”
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng announced this week proposed legislation to make Lunar New Year a federal holiday. Its passage would show Asian Americans their government values the holiday, the New York Democrat said in a statement.
Bing Tang, of Monterey Park, California, says he doesn't dwell too much on anti-Asian hate because nothing would come of it. Tang, who was shopping in Los Angeles' Chinatown last week for tiger decorations for a family dinner of steamed chicken, fish and lobster, said fortunately neither he nor anyone close to him has experienced any harassment or attacks.
“There's good people, bad people all around the country,” Tang said. “I just go out normally and just have a positive attitude. What can we do? We only can control ourselves and be nice to other people.”
___ Associated Press photographer Damian Dovarganes in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP