In Philly, anti-Asian hate is not new
“We have history of Asian American lives not being respected as fully human,” said university professor Scott Kurashige.
This story includes accounts of violence that may disturb some readers.
Lisa Lim Vergara was 6 when her father was attacked in front of her on a South Philadelphia street in 1990, beaten over the head with a piece of lumber by a man who called him a racial slur.
He died hours later.
Today she’s a pharmacist in Florida, where her Cambodian family returned after the murder, and the mother of a 3-year-old daughter. At 37 she’s already lived as long as her dad.
“I miss him and what could have been,” she said of her father, Heng Lim, who doted on his only child. “I have this hole in my heart and life that will never be filled.”
Today many Americans are awakening to the ugly reality of “anti-Asian hate” as they’re confronted by horrifying security-camera images of assaults from New York to California. But violence against Asian Americans is not a sudden phenomenon, born of a once-in-a-century pandemic. In Philadelphia, it’s a cycle that goes back decades, one that’s left men, women, and children traumatized, hospitalized, and dead, and attended by a second cycle, of forgetting, in which many see each eruption of violence and harassment as shocking and new.
“It’s not just because of COVID. It happens every single day,” said Wei Chen, 29, who was assaulted as a South Philadelphia High School senior and now is civic-engagement coordinator at Asian Americans United, the advocacy group. “COVID is just a reason to discriminate.”
AAU and other organizations have led protests into the streets and across the internet, condemning not only physical battery by strangers but what’s called state-driven, “official violence” that’s left schools underfunded, neighborhoods degraded, and struggling people pitted against one another for scarce resources.
Fighting hate, activists say, demands more than safety in the streets. It requires institutions and government officials to examine their own roles in spreading it: The same Biden administration that cheered this month’s Senate bill to combat anti-Asian violence also carried out the ICE deportation of 33 Vietnamese refugees in March.
“There’s an awakening,” said Philadelphia human-rights organizer Ed Nakawatase, who was born in an Arizona internment camp, his parents among the 120,000 Japanese Americans summarily imprisoned during World War II. “The notion that Asian Americans will be meek and mild is biting the dust.”
Yet solutions to the violence are hard to identify, and tougher still to implement.
A big one: Better funding for education, and major changes in curriculums, to create broader understanding of the Asian American experience. The forces that shaped more than a century of racism — from the “driving out” of Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, through the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam, to China’s ascension to world power — often are ignored in classrooms.
Another one: Programs to teach bystanders how to safely intervene if they see someone being abused, so that anyone can step up for someone else. Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the civil rights group in Washington, has started offering online training.
“This is the time to act,” said Andy Toy, development and communications director for SEAMAAC, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition in South Philadelphia. “If there’s any time for something to get fixed, it’s when bad things happen.”
They’re happening now. In 2019, police in America’s 16 largest cities recorded 49 hate crimes against Asians, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. In 2020, that jumped to 122 — a 149% increase, even as overall hate crimes dropped 7%.
Nationally about 3,800 incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate from March 2020 through February 2021 — almost 90 a week, but still a fraction of what the organization believes is the true number. The official figure tripled in Philadelphia between 2019 and 2020, from eight to 28, putting the city’s 126,000 Asian residents on edge.
Community groups like Laos in the House now warn seniors not to go out alone and to always carry pepper spray or a whistle, as people have been spit on, slapped, punched, and harangued by shouts of “Go back to China!”
“Never in my lifetime could I imagine the level of vitriol against us. Asian Pacific Americans are suffering,” said John Chin, executive director of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., who spoke at the “AAPIs Talk” forum convened this month by Mayor Jim Kenney and the Mayor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.
For more than an hour people poured out their fears, frustrations, and disbelief, and Kenney and other city officials promised to do all they could to stop the persecution.
It comes as the Asian American population surges, doubling to 23 million between 2000 and 2019. Asians are projected to surpass Latinos and become the nation’s largest immigrant group by the middle of the century, the Pew Research Center reported.
Hatred was stoked by former President Donald Trump — the fatal shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta came on the one-year anniversary of his first “China virus” tweet.
But the origins go back more than a century to when immigrants from southern China arrived in California in the mid-1800s, seeking gold-rush fortunes on Gam Saan, the Gold Mountain. There the stereotype of Asians as a perpetual alien presence took root.
The depression of the 1870s made jobs scarce and immigrants a target for robbery and murder, abetted by a California government that rewrote its constitution to declare Chinese “dangerous to the well-being of the state.”
Chinese houses and businesses were burned across the western United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act made federal hate official — still the only major legislation to block immigration by a specific nationality.
American wars against Japan and in Korea and Vietnam cemented for many that Asians were the enemy. And the 1982 killing of Chinese American Vincent Chin — beaten with a baseball bat by two Detroit autoworkers who blamed Japan for the industry’s woes — showed violence carried little penalty or logic. The men never served a day in jail.
“We have a history of Asian American lives not being respected as fully human,” said Scott Kurashige, chair of comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University, and whose mother was imprisoned at war camps in Idaho and Texas. “There’s a sense to be white is to be normal, and your rights should be respected, and the police should protect you. … But what some see as normal is a racial privilege that’s been denied to others.”
In Cambodia, Heng Lim was going to be a doctor, in medical school when the Khmer Rouge took power after the fall of U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1975. The Cambodian genocide killed a million people and helped drive an estimated three million to flee Southeast Asia.
Lim made his way to a refugee camp in Thailand and, after two years, to the United States. Here he met his future wife, who after four years of enslavement had escaped through a mine field to Thailand. She arrived in Chicago in 1981, owning only the clothes on her back.
They married in 1982, and their only child was born a year later.
In Florida, Lim became a mechanic to support his family. His daughter laughed and ran when he chased her with greasy hands. He bought her Happy Meals at McDonald’s, watched The Flintstones on TV, and shared his favorite flavor of ice cream, black cherry.
The family was saving money to buy a home, and he promised his daughter he would build her a treehouse.
On the night of June 16, 1990, Lim, his wife, and child were visiting family in Philadelphia, passengers in a Chevrolet minivan on Tasker Street, driven by his brother-in-law and trailed by aunts, uncles, and cousins in a Nissan, according to news reports and an in-depth study conducted at the time by SEAMAAC.
When the van stopped at a stop sign at Ninth Street, a pedestrian, Timothy Meitzler, 21, yelled at the van driver, “What are you looking at, motherf—?” There was an exchange of words. Then a scuffle.
The van drove on, getting stuck in traffic near 10th. Meitzler ran up with a stick — a tree support, common on city sidewalks — and smashed the Nissan’s windshield. Lim’s father-in-law got out and Meitzler struck him with the lumber. When Lim went to help the older man, Meitzler smashed him across the head.
Lim was unconscious before he hit the ground, the medical examiner determined. He died on Father’s Day.
Two years earlier, on Oct. 7, 1988, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Seung-Ki Leung, 25, was walking through Clark Park after a touch-football game when three teenagers knocked him to the ground.
“They picked the person up,” a witness later testified, “and by the time he was halfway standing up, he was hit with something.”
The teens who battered the Hong Kong native with a tree branch took the $11 in his wallet. He died three weeks later of head injuries.
What the Asian community knows as the “McCreesh Playground incident” occurred Aug. 3, 1991. This time it was a white youth who died, David Reilly, 18. He was stabbed as he tried to restrain two friends who threatened a group of Vietnamese Americans — six were later convicted of murder — calling them racial slurs at the Southwest Philadelphia park.
“The racist and dehumanizing way of looking at Asians,” said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of FACTS charter school in Chinatown, “is the same reason people think it’s OK to throw a pregnant woman into a van.”
Zhen Xing Jiang was 13 weeks pregnant with twins when she appeared at the Philadelphia ICE office for what she thought would be a routine check-in on Feb. 7, 2006. Instead, as her husband and two young sons waited in the lobby, Jiang, 32, was seized, hustled into a van, and driven to New York’s JFK Airport for immediate deportation.
She pleaded for medical help. When she was eventually taken to a hospital, doctors found she had miscarried.
The “Justice for Mrs. Jiang” campaign brought scrutiny to the case and generated headlines as far as Beijing but did not end the violence in Philadelphia.
Three years later on Dec. 3, 2009, about 30 Asian students at South Philadelphia High School were attacked during a daylong series of assaults, sending at least seven to hospitals and sparking an eight-day boycott of classes. The School District insisted for months that the assaults were not racially motivated, simply violence that could have happened anywhere, then agreed to landmark state and federal settlements that required broad changes in how it handles complaints.
“The attack, the boycott — it’s part of my identity,” said Trang Dang, 26, who was among those taken to the hospital that day.
Now, as a VietLead leader, she sees violence against Asians is a result of racism toward people of color — bias embedded in government, education, and the justice system. She pushes for understanding “in a way we’re not focused on Person A and Person B, but, ‘What conditions allowed this to happen?’”
Those circumstances, she said, include government agencies and policies that harm Asian communities.
“This is structural,” said veteran educator and activist Debbie Wei. “And we’re talking about specific institutions” — schools, police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement — “that within them have elements of white supremacy that impact all people of color.”
Philadelphia’s Chinatown has been under assault since the 1970s, when the government knocked down homes to build the Vine Expressway. The destruction stopped only when members of the “Save Chinatown” movement lay in front of the bulldozers.
The Gallery mall, Market East train station, and Convention Center claimed more land, and in 2000 Mayor John Street sought to build the new Phillies ballpark in Chinatown. No one in city government, activists note, has ever suggested building a sports stadium in a wealthy neighborhood.
“It’s all connected,” said Alix Webb, executive director of AAU. “All of that is the same.”
This year, on March 21, two 17-year-old Indonesian girls were targeted by five youths who pushed, slapped, and punched them on the City Hall subway platform. Chinatown saw two assaults in three days in April, including a 27-year-old woman who was hospitalized after being struck in the face.
“If we don’t do anything, things will get worse,” said Chen, who served on the city Human Relations Commission. “If we do, we have hope for change.”
For Vergara, the worst has already happened.
The man who killed her dad served nine years and four months in prison for third-degree murder — then went back to his life. Her family has never been the same.
She thinks of how her father would adore her daughter, and imagines the grandfather he would have been, even as she struggles to recall the sound of his voice.
The fresh tide of Asian violence makes her wonder if there’s been any progress in 30 years. It’s clear “it’s not enough to just be kind anymore. If you don’t speak up or actively prevent racism, you are contributing.”
At 6, she didn’t understand death, didn’t understand why her father wasn’t coming back. Two years passed before she learned the details of his killing by digging through an aunt’s collection of newspaper articles.
Vergara remembers that some of the newspaper information was wrong. One story about the attack summed up her father’s life in a couple of paragraphs. It made her feel insignificant.
She dreamed of him once — the night he lay maimed in the hospital — and never again. And she’s never been back to Philadelphia.