VANCOUVER — Six of the eight victims of the Atlanta Spa Shootings were women of Asian descent, their lives lost to a 21-year-old white man who has been charged with all eight counts of murder. In response, people of Asian descent from across the continent have rallied to condemn and eliminate anti-Asian racism, which has risen exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.
So far, police have refused to confirm that the Atlanta Spa Shootings were an anti-Asian attack, despite some reports that they were motivated by animosity towards Asian people, women, and sex workers. The shooting occurred after nearly 3,800 hate incidents were targeted at Asian Americans this year alone, and those numbers have climbed in Canada as well. That’s true despite the historical lack of race-based data collection in the country.
Predominantly Chinese communities like Chinatown in Vancouver have been hit harder than their surrounding neighborhoods, with vandalism, vacancy, and hate crimes plaguing the people who live there. A man punched a young Asian woman in the face on Vancouver streets last May, and in the same city that same month, a white person was punched in the face by someone who thought they were Asian. Last June, a historic building in Victoria’s Chinatown was defaced with hateful graffiti, just like the lions at the gates of Chinatown in Vancouver, and these incidents have been happening all across North America.
The intersecting challenges of the pandemic —language and mobility barriers, economic strain, the housing crisis, the drug poisoning epidemic, and the burden of white supremacy— made it particularly hard for Chinatown residents to get by, but community leaders say they’re proud of the ways Chinese folks in Vancouver came together. They have done life-changing work getting food, information, and vaccination registration to seniors, and sustaining Chinese arts and culture as a mental health initiative, for example.
Larry Chin and Sarah Ling from the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC were walking around the corner last May 19 when they saw the white, marble lions at the gates of Vancouver’s Chinatown defaced with racist comments in red paint. The city cleaned it up quickly, but it happened again 10 days later, this time with black marker.
The community took quick action in response. An anonymous group of people put up a flower vigil and shared photos on social media.
A group of dancers, performers, and artists gathered together —while still respecting physical distancing guidelines— in an act of solidarity. Chinatown Wonders started to showcase the work of creators with a connection to the area, and the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown started Supper Club to keep restaurants busy with online orders. Local businesses and nonprofits partnered to provide food and supply packages for seniors living alone. Makers Artists United launched a fundraiser for Chinatown businesses and frontline groups.
“It kept the restaurants open. It helped with the residents who are in SROs, low-income housing. It really triggered and activated all these things to sustain the community. It was really beautiful to hear and see,” Chin told Latino Rebels. “The community became tighter. It became more supportive, and they found new ways to help each other through this pandemic, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Ling noted that many Chinese-Canadian families have a long history in Canada, although most non-Asian people assume they recently immigrated. She has received condescending comments about how well she speaks English, or invasive questions about her heritage, among other racist microaggressions.
“The labeling of the China virus and the way the media has used terminology has been quite harmful,” Ling said.
“A lot of this stems from the fear people have, and I believe fear creates a lot of irrationality. People want to categorize. They want to put things in a box so they don’t have to deal with it. Logically, this has nothing to do with race, but it becomes a racial conversation,” Chin added.
Community is the light at the end of the tunnel for Chin, Ling, and countless others, one of whom is Kimberley Wong.
As the co-chair of Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group, a race and equity program manager at Hua Foundation, and a queer Asian youth themselves, Wong said Chinatown has been a space of cultural reclamation. Yet she acknowledged that it’s also hard to stay housed in Chinatown, and even harder to run a business with so few tourists visiting.
The Chinatown Concern Group, Carnegie Community Centre, Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, and Youth Collaborative for Chinatown are a few of the organizations she says have been working hard to support people in need.
“We are facing a lot of blatant racism right now. Mental health for a lot of people is very, very low. It’s making spaces outdoors filled with tension and stress and anxiety where otherwise they would be spaces of relaxation, and they are for a lot of people especially with the increased screen time,” Wong said.
At a point, they started feeling so unsafe that she started avoiding going outside altogether, which took a huge toll on Wong’s wellness. That’s why money needs to keep going into mental health support, resource distribution, and cultural programming, she says.
“Hopefully the infrastructure we’ve built to fill the gaps for folks who are already hurting will stay, and I hope that a lot of the funding will stay,” Wong said. “A lot of the people who organized around this were only able to because there was emergency funding available for the grocery program and things like translation to translate necessary documents for the vaccine rollout. I hope people will learn from this and do better next time because when the next crisis hits, we have to be ready.”
One example of a cultural celebration that helped uplift and bring together Chinese people in Vancouver’s Chinatown was the Lunar New Year Celebration.
Michael S. Tan, Co-Chair Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group, helped organize the Ox-picious Lunar New Year Celebration with Chinatown today and Hua Foundation. There was a lion dance ceremony, kung fu demonstrations, singing, and Cantonese lessons for community members to enjoy, providing a rare opportunity to connect during the pandemic.
“We decided, you know what? If no one’s going to do it, we need to do something,” Tan said. “Gentrification and displacement, loss of character for the neighborhood—the pandemic really exacerbated these issues, but we’ve seen the community coming together even more right here and through more online events.”
His favorite thing about Chinatown is the community, which he says is “always willing to rise to the challenge.”
“My heart is uplifted when so many people care so deeply about the neighborhood. It’s a fabric,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
Aly Laube is an event producer, journalist, and musician living on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. She is a radio host on CitR and CIVL, the associate director of Cushy Entertainment, and the front woman of the local band Primp. In her spare time, she watches horror movies and panics about the ever-looming threat of climate change. As a queer mixed-race woman with a glaring inability to keep her mouth shut, Aly is very often in the throes of either rage or passion. In general, you can catch Aly doing too much all the time. She’s reachable at email@example.com.