Amid anti-Asian violence, Philly community groups offer a weekend of free self-defense classes
“We wanted to empower and build confidence in our community,” said Melissa Lee, one of the coordinators with Philly Fighting Asian Hate.
In the warm sun, more than two dozen students lined up in the city’s Rail Park, just north of Chinatown, for self-defense lessons Saturday. Instructors from the Philadelphia Wing Chun Kung Fu School lined up facing them.
For nearly an hour, the students got basic instruction in ways to thwart attackers as part of a weekend of protection lessons arranged by Philly Fighting Asian Hate in response to the sharp rise in anti-Asian violence since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The free sessions — six over two days — were designed with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in mind as part of AAPI Heritage Month, organizers said, but are open to anyone.
“We wanted to empower and build confidence in our community,” said Melissa Lee, one of the coordinators of the self-defense classes.
» READ MORE: In Philly, anti-Asian hate is not new
Lee, 31, said she got the idea after the March 16 attacks on three Atlanta-area spas, where a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. The killings came on the first anniversary of former President Donald Trump’s first “China virus” tweet and amid a national surge in hate crimes against Asians.
In 2020, police in America’s 16 largest cities recorded 122 hate crimes against Asians, up 149% from 2019, The Inquirer reported earlier this month, citing data from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Nationally, about 3,800 incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate from March 2020 through February 2021, The Inquirer reported, adding the total in Philadelphia had tripled between 2019 and 2020, from eight to 28.
This year, on March 21, two 17-year-old Indonesian girls were pushed, slapped, and punched on the City Hall subway platform by five youths. In Chinatown, two assaults in three days in April were reported, including a 27-year-old woman who was hospitalized after being struck in the face.
All of it has been unnerving to the city’s 126,000 Asian residents.
As of Saturday morning, 150 people had signed up for the weekend of self-defense training, said Lee, founder and CEO of the Green Program, an organization that provides educational travel experiences to work on sustainable development abroad.
The program was organized by community groups including the Philadelphia Wing Chun Kung Fu School, The National Association of Asian American Professionals Philadelphia, The Green Program, Friends for Good, The Rail Park, and Penji.
The beginning lessons included simple ways a person can use their hand to sharply bend back an attacker’s arm, releasing the grip.
“If someone tried to grab your arm, you can push back with your palm, against their arm,” Grandmaster Art Eng told a small group of students. “You want to be sure to use your palms, and not your fingers, because your fingers can bend back.”
The classes also stressed that fighting back is not the only option: Pushing away from an attacker’s grasp could allow a person to escape. “There is no shame in running away,” Eng said.
Later the group got instructions on how to resist an attacker who tries to choke them. Students were told to bring their arms up sharply outside the attacker’s arms, squeezing them together, then to take three steps forward, with a raised knee aimed at the groin area, before kicking the attacker in the chest.
After the first 50-minute class, Jenny Du, who works in digital marketing, said, “The tips seemed practical. I feel as though I would be able to use them.”
Linda Wei, who lives in Philadelphia, attended the first Saturday session with her mother, Jean Wei, who lives in Ohio and is visiting.
“Although you never want to need to use this, I think it’s nice to have these tools,” Linda Wei said.
Her mother, who had stopped taking her regular evening walks back home out of fear, said she gained more confidence Saturday. “I think maybe now I will start walking again,” Jean Wei said.
Tiffany Nguyen, an optometrist and another coordinator of the event, whose family is Vietnamese American, said she has been yelled at on the street in Philadelphia to “go back to your country,” when the United States is where she was born.
She said the self-defense lessons are a way to fight back against feeling helpless about attacks, both verbal and physical. It was also about increasing awareness and bringing people together, she said.
“We wanted to do something to build up our community,” Nguyen said.